Boulogne sur mer: great day out in the north of France
France has many amazing cities, towns, pretty little villages in the countryside and many of them are visited by the hordes of visitors which come to the country every year. In the north of the country in the region of Hauts-de-France is the fishing town of Boulogne-sur-mer. This sleepy town on La Manche (or to us British known as the English Channel) does have visitors coming here, mostly people from Netherlands and Belgium who travel on the nearby autoroute with their campervans and look for somewhere to relax for a few hours and Boulogne makes this a great pit stop. However in the last few decades, a lot of British people do not stop here compared to the dizzy heights of cross-channel tourism where a lot of people would day trip here, take a look at the markets, sample the food and walk the cobble streets of the old town. It was time to check out why the town needs to be on anyone’ itinerary if just passing by the town for a few hours, a day trip over from England or on a road trip around Northern France.
As mentioned, loads of Brits would flock here during the 1960’s and 1970’s, well in fact until the late 1990’s (when air travel became cheaper and package holidays with tour companies became the norm and off we would go to Spain or Greece leaving northern France a place not to visit unless a visit to the local supermarket or duty free shopping for a day trip was necessary as the goods were cheaper on mainland Europe back then). There would be ferries crossing the English Channel from here to Folkestone or Dover (Dovres) but these days, no ferries go to England. In fact the harbour looks very quiet, only fishing boats can be seen. For ferries these days, Brits would have to drive down from Calais or Dunkirk (Dunkerque). This is probably another reason why a decline in tourism from the United Kingdom. Another factor is that tourists would need a car. Coming over as a foot passenger on the ferry can be struggle as there is no port bus at the ferry terminal at Calais (but visitors can bring a bike). Then there would have been a long walk into the centre of Calais from the ferry port due to some roads blocked off due to the crisis there with migrants and then the local trains don’t run as often between the towns. So, traveling can be a pain in the ass to get to Boulogne.
However, if owning a car, then the doom and gloom is lifted and the town is definitely worth a visit. Parking up on the outskirts of the old city (also known as ‘Haute Ville – High Town’ or ‘Ville Fortifiée – Fortified Town’), this area is a few minutes walk up the hillside from all the car parks (or about fifteen – twenty minutes from the seafront). A little hint: my favourite car parking spot is the secure underground car park called St Louis which is cheap as well and can be found on Rue Saint-Louis.
From the car park and walking up the hill, the first sights to see in this town is Square Auguste Mariette Pacha, a nice little garden area which as an Egyptian mini-pyramid as well as two sphinxes looking directly across from the western gates of the old city walls. Not quite sure what the connection is with Egypt and Boulogne-sur-mer, however it looks pretty in this park.
Walking underneath the gate – Pont des Dunes – and turning right up a small staircase, this took me to the top of the walls to which I could walk all the way around, taking in views of the buildings in the new part of the town down below, the skyline of the old town and in parts, the sea. There is huge walking path in places but it’s best to walk this on a dry day as the ground is gravel and mud.
From the Pont des Dunes and walking eastwards along the cobbled street known as Place de la Résistance, this took me to the Belfry which has stood here since the 12th century and is one of fifty-six belfry towers dotted around Northern France and Belgium which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
At the end of the street is the main square of the old town where the town hall is located. In the heart of the square is the Jardin Ephémère on Place Godefroy de Bouillon where the locals take a seat on the bench, look at the pretty flowers and watch the world go by. Around the square there are cafes and restaurants which are also an ideal location to do one of France’s number one passtime, people watch.
From the square heading north along on Rue de Lille there are many restaurants to choose from and I decided to eat in ‘Le Swan’ where we found the price for a set menu (three-course meal) a fantastic deal and the food to be very tasty and feeling. The fish was fresh from the sea and the meat cooked how it should be. The excellent customer service and the decor was even more pleasing and we left feeling very satisfied.
On the Rue de Lille is also a fantastic opportunity to capture one of Boulogne’s most photographed scene, the cobbled street with the shops and the beautiful Notre-Dame cathedral in the background which is located at the end of the street.
The cathedral is located on top of the hill where the old town is situated and can be seen from all over town. The dome reminded us of the dome on top of St Paul’s cathedral back home in London. The full title of this cathedral is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne, however this basilica is not actually an cathedral but a church. The locals call it a cathedral and to be honest, a lot of tourist’s called it a cathedral and it has somehow stuck. The church has stood here since 1875 and took nearly fifty years to build.
However the history of this church is amazing, like there has been a church stood here since the days of the Roman Empire. Later on in the 12th century, a new church was built on the site of the old church and lots of changes happened over the year. Now, what interested me was that in the year 1308, the church was the location of a royal wedding! Yes, a royal wedding, between King Edward II of England and Isabella of France (one reason for this was to dampened down tensions between the two countries). After more research, Isabella gave birth to a son back in England (Edward III of course) and then was blamed for the murder of her husband (long story)!. Then she died in Hertford Castle which is located in the small historical town of Hertford in Hertfordshire (north of London) which is very close to my hometown of Stevenage. I never knew this and found this really interesting to learn.
The current church as previously mentioned started to get built in the early 19th century, however whilst workmen were digging the foundations, they discovered a crypt which had been lain unknown for many centuries. After the ‘clear’ out, the historians found out that the Romanesque columns are from the 11th century, the crypt itself is 128 meters long and is the longest crypt in the country. There is also many rooms inside this crypt which also includes the foundations of a Roman temple (yes, Roman!) and cannonballs from the siege of 1544 (where historians think this is when the crypt got buried).
After the fascination of walking around the church and discovering the crypt, I walked around the corner to the castle which has a fantastic wide moat going around it and the brickwork on the facade is immense. The courtyard is circular and probably could be a great venue to host a tennis tournament (if the nets were raised), however imagination aside, the castle hosts a museum on the history of the town. Just taking a walk around the courtyard and the castle walls did it for us. It has charm, it has beauty and blends in very well with the surrounding buildings.
Away from the old city, Boulogne-sur-mer seafront and ‘new town’ has plenty of restaurants and shops to look at and on some days, roads are shut off for a street market. Walking along the seafront is a great idea (but only when the sun is out, the rain and wind of the sea can be awful at times) and the beach north of the town is wide, sandy and golden and is a great place to go to when the sun is out. Also in the beach and harbour area is the NAUSICAA sea life aquarium which is also of the region’s tourist attractions.
Outdoor activities is also highly popular on this part of the Cote d’Opale (The Opale Coast) and cycling seems to be the number one sport. The number one ride to do is through the national park just north of the town and follow the coastal road or other cycle tracks through the pretty villages to Calais. Running is second around here and the nearby countryside is a great place to train on a Sunday morning if doing a long run.
Boulogne-sur-mer is a great place to stop off for a day trip (or even a weekend break if exploring more of the local area) and would highly recommend visiting this beautiful city overlooking the city. It has history, culture, great food and the locals are welcoming. I really hope you have enjoyed my reasons for visiting the town and would love to hear your views? Has anyone else been here? What would you recommend?