With ferries no longer running from the UK to Boulogne the town tends to be overlooked by visitors arriving at Calais. But it is only half an hour down the coast and well worth a visit as Liz Gill discovers
Sometimes a single moment is worth a hundred pages in a history book. That’s how I felt when I stood at the top of Cap Blanc Nez and stared across the English Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover.
For although I might have known the fact – that from Cap Gris Nez, France’s most northerly cliff just over to our left, the distance is only 21 miles – it took an actual visit to appreciate just how incredibly close that is. The cliffs seemed within spitting distance; suddenly Churchill’s famous line about fighting the Nazi war machine ‘on the beaches’ seemed even more powerfully defiant.
The history of the Côte d’Opale, so-called because of its lovely and ever changing light, is inextricably linked with ours. At Cap Blanc Nez there is a huge granite monument to the Dover Patrol of WW I and there are countless bunkers and other fortifications from both World Wars scattered along the coast.
Further back in time, Boulogne-sur-Mer, where we are headed, was conquered by Henry VIII in 1544 and held for five years until regained by Henry II of France. The old town is still remarkably intact with narrow cobbled streets and a pleasant central square the Place Godefroy de Bouillon which changes the gardens in its centre every year – this summer the theme was the fables of La Fontaine.
Other attractive buildings from different periods include the 18th century Town Hall, the former Convent of the Annonciades which now houses the library and a 9th century Bible, the neo-classical Palace of Justice with its inset statues of Napoleon and Charlemagne, a castle which has been a barracks and a prison and is now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site belfry.
Originating in the 12th century the belfry is not just the oldest building in town but one of the most symbolically important. Previously all bells had been church ones; these ‘civic’ bells rang for a variety of purposes, including council meetings, fire fighting, time keeping and curfews – men had to leave the inns and cafes and return home at 9.45pm – and represented a certain degree of public liberty.
The other important building is the Basilica of Notre Dame, particularly its 11th century crypt, the longest in France. Forgotten for hundreds of years the crypt was discovered again during the rebuilding of the church in the 19th century; the first church, which saw the ill-fated marriage of Edward II of England and Isabella of France, had been destroyed in the French Revolution. Reopened three years ago after a major restoration project, the crypt now showcases its frescoes and some beautiful pieces of sacred art.
The walls of the old town with their four gates and 17 towers are complete and compact for an easy walk with good views over the port – Boulogne is France’s biggest fishing port and Europe’s largest seafood processing centre – and the rest of the town. Particularly striking are the four massive brutalist blocks on the front, considered cutting edge when they were built in the 50s and still sought after expensive apartments.
Beyond them is a much more beautiful building the French National Sea Centre, Nausicaá, particularly its new section which is shaped like a manta ray and which houses the largest tank in Europe with 10,000 m3 of water, the equivalent of four Olympic pools. The opening earlier this year doubled the size of the original aquarium and put it among the world’s top five.
It now has two sections the older Mankind and Shores and the new Journey on the High Seas which celebrates the mystery, the glory and the potential of the oceans which cover half the surface of our planet – and their vulnerability. The aim is to increase eco-awareness without being preachy.
Altogether Nausicaá is home to 58,000 creatures from 1,600 species including 12 species of shark. An immersive 18m long tunnel where they and huge rays swim around you and a magnificent glass wall 20m wide and 5m high lets visitors appreciate their sheer size as well as their beauty. Smaller scale but more colourful are tropical fish, coral reefs and graceful jellyfish as well as penguins and sealions. There is a touch tank and feeding times and a film which recreates a clash between a sperm whale and a giant squid, never actually witnessed by human eyes but convincingly imagined here. Plans to introduce behind-the-scenes tours will provide further insights into this other world.
We stayed opposite the aquarium in the appropriately nautically named hotel Matelote – or fisherman’s wife – which has been in the family for generations and which now has a Michelin star. We dine on fabulous food beneath the portrait of a locally famous ancestor – a woman with a beard who, instead of being embarrassed or ashamed about her facial hair, admirably wore it as a badge of courage and a trademark for her business selling mussels.
Before dinner I’ve walked along the promenade to look out across the beach whose wide expanse of hard sand prompted the invention of sand yachting and dozens of these are now drawn up in lines beside the sea wall. Gazing down on them is the statue of General José de San Martin who liberated not just his own country Argentina from Spanish rule but also Peru and Chile. His unlikely connection with Boulogne is that he spent his last years here and the house where he died in 1850 is now a museum and Argentinian soil. There is a reciprocal bit of Boulogne in Buenos Aires.
We have wine with our dinner but this is beer drinking country too – we are near to Belgium after all – and on our way down from Calais we’ve visited the Deux Caps brewery where owner Christophe Noyon guides us through the process from hop harvest to bottle and we try out his blonde, white light and roasted barley Noire de Slack beers.
On our way back to Calais we stop off at the cemetery in Wimereux which along with Boulogne was an important hospital centre in WWI. Among the 2847 Commonwealth graves is that of Lt. Col. John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps who wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. It was his image of the poppies blowing between the rows of crosses that led to the adoption of the flower as a symbol of remembrance. With the centenary of Armistice Day only a few weeks away it seemed a fitting visit and yet another reminder of how this land is intertwined with ours.