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Boulogne-sur-Mer – a town with a history

history boulogne sur mer

“If it were but 300 miles further off… how the English would rave about it”

It was Charles Dickens who said this and he was referring to Boulogne, a town on the Opal Coast and home of the biggest fresh fish port in France.

It is well known that Dickens was a fan of France, he once signed a letter “Charles Dickens, Français naturalisé, et Citoyen de Paris” and spent much time in France – travelling all over but he said that Boulogne was his “favourite watering hole” in France.  He lived in Boulogne for three years (1847-1850) with his family and his time here is commemorated with a street that bears the name “Rue Charles Dickens” as well as an active branch of the Dickens Fellowship Organisation.

“It is the most elegant, the most colourful and the best I know… its promenade on ramparts which surround the upper town is charming. Walks outside are delicious. This is the best mix of city and countryside, with the sea air moreover, I know!”

Of course things have changed since Dickens day and there is now a thriving metropolis at this coastal town and yet there are parts that Dickens would surely still recognise. People continue to promenade on the ramparts and enjoy the views over the town, entering and departing via the magnificent old Porte des Dunes arched entrance to the old town. The dome of the beautiful Basilica de Notre Dame still dominates the skyline and inside this magnificent cathedral you will still find the miraculous hand of Notre Dame which has drawn pilgrims for centuries. The old town retains an air of faded elegance, many of the houses there would have been the houses that Dickens passed on his walks and but for a lick of paint to the doors and shutters are largely unchanged from the outside.

history boulogne sur mer


The Rue de Lille which leads from the old town square is lined with restaurants, cafes and beautiful shops like the old Pharmacie de Notre Dame whose sign reads Homoeopathie, Phytotherapie, Fondee en 1847.  The shop is front unchanged since then – perhaps Dickens himself shopped there.  There are lots of artist’s supply shops, galleries, interior design and other specialist shops in the town old town including a shop that sells violet scented ink – just the sort of thing that may have appealed to a man of the senses such as Charles Dickens or Beau Brummel, the famous British dandy who lived in nearby Calais. At 52 Rue de Lille (to the left of the Cathedral) you will find the Vole Hole, a tiny pub in the town’s oldest building – no one seems to be able to date it exactly but most agree it goes back to the 12th Century.

The Chateau musée is tucked away off the ramparts and houses an eclectic collection of artefacts from around the world. Surrounded by a moat and walk way, there is a beautiful cobbled terrace where visitors sit and enjoy the wonderful architecture and where in the summer months free concerts are laid on.

In Dickens’ day the route to Boulogne rivalled that of Dover to Calais for the cross channel trade and it was hugely popular with British visitors. In fact it still is – there is plenty to do and see – check out our top ten sights of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Christmas in Boulogne-sur-mer
Boulogne’s biggest attraction – Nausicaa, the most amazing aquarium in Europe and the sealions training session!
More on the Opal Coast

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