Boulogne-sur-Mer sits prominently on the Cote d’Opale, a short drive from Calais. It is the department’s second biggest city and the largest fishing port of France. For many decades it was rather underestimated as a visitor stopping off point. Until fairly recently, Boulogne was home to a busy ferry terminal supporting much commercial activity and surrounding road systems were filled with traffic. Nowadays the city is quieter and is invitingly Gallic. It’s back to the good life now that its mercantile raw activity has been scaled down.
The old town is ornate and polished set atop a hill and protected by substantial medieval ramparts. Public access is provided by four entry gates along the surrounding lower streets. Within this walled area there is much to see. The most distinguished feature is Notre Dame Cathedral with its vast and dominating dome, a local landmark. This ecclesiastical masterpiece is next to the Chateau Comtal, protected by a drawbridge. Stroll along the cobbled ramparts and you’ll see the towering Belfry, classic French architecture and a fascinating view over the more contemporary urban area, spreading out towards the fishing port.
The Notre Dame Cathedral was founded at the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th century. The port of Boulogne was the starting point for the invasion of England in 1066. Entry to the Cathedral is free and well worth it for the incredible decorated dome, the miraculous hand of Mary and the deco. The Cathedral is also famous for a spectacular crypt. There is a small charge to visit but it’s definitely worth it. This space has recently been completely and expensively refurbished. It is the largest crypt in France and extends to more than a hundred meters. The walls of the crypt support many frescos, art features and sculptures which been delicately preserved and are marvellous to see (photos and more about it here).
The Chateau Comtal was built during the medieval period but its foundations date back to Roman times. It is now home to a museum displaying many artefacts that include an Egyptian art collection. It’s a little dated but good for a rainy day visit.
The UNESCO listed Belfry is a prominent feature and dates back to the 12th century. The tower contains a museum of Celtic remains dating from the Roman occupation of the City and cannon balls fired on the city by Henry VIII. Guided tours are provided in both English and French languages. There are 183 steps going right to the top form where there are stunning views over the city. Below the ramparts is a large kitchen garden that anyone can access for free! It is maintained and cultivated by the local authorities.
Boulogne-sur-Mer makes for a great stopping off point for visitors from the UK who arrive in Calais. The old town presents an inviting, secure and Gallic flavour evolved over many centuries. It is a self contained version of French permanence representing a long and varied history. The restaurants and bistros serve French and regionally familiar dishes to suit all tastes. The atmosphere in the town is friendly and welcoming and life is vigorous and enthusiastic. The town centre is vibrant; Place Dalton, alongside the dominating Church of St. Nicholas which contains many 15th.century sculptures is home to a large and thriving market on Saturday mornings.
There is a blend of British and American influence here. Ownership of the City varied between English and French royalty on a number of occasions during the 100 Years war (1337-1453). A sense of American culture was imposed during towards the end of WWII. Menus in the local bistros and restaurants continue to reflect shared tastes such as Welsh Rabbit from Britain and American style sandwiches.
It’s here that Napoleon assembled his ‘Grande Armée’ in Boulogne for his invasion plans of Britain in 1805. His mission was cancelled but there is a large column in Boulogne dedicated to great general and Emperor, marking the spot as the location for the presentation of the first Legion d’Honneur medal.
There are several Great War connections. The hospital at the east of the city was used to treat French, British and Commonwealth soldiers during WWI, those who did not survive were buried in the Cimetiere de l’est close by. The fallen of WW1 are buried separately in a remote, long strip marked by head stones. Much of the intense fighting in 1916 took part in the Somme basin, just a little south of Boulogne.
Boulogne is about thirty minutes drive from central Calais. Transport is easy by train (from Calais) or coach. If you travel by car, take the D940 coast road once you leave the ferry. The gently rolling countryside and coastal road offers splendid views of real France, right on the doorstep of England.
More about Boulogne-sur-Mer
Casa San Martin, the home of Argentinian hero General San Martin
Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the best in Europe
The beautiful scenic route of the Opal Coast
Boulogne Tourist Office