Between the towns of Calais and Dunkirk on the northern coast of France lies a hidden gem – the town of Gravelines and its outlying seaside resorts called Grand Fort Philippe and Petit Fort Philippe.
Not as famous as its neighbours and certainly not as busy with tourists but full of charm, history, great shops, bars and restaurants – it makes for a wonderful day trip or weekend destination.
At just 20 minutes’ drive from the ferry port of Calais and a little less from the ferry port of Dunkirk you’ll find plenty to see and do here and a welcome wherever you go. For those on a day trip to Calais or Dunkirk – this makes for an excellent detour from the more obvious port towns.
We met Hélène, our guide from the Gravelines tourist office and roamed the streets of Gravelines learning about the history and all of the fabulous places that you can visit here.
We started at the Porte des Boules – the ancient gateway to Gravelines and the location of the ticket office to hire a boat!
Gravelines is unique in that is the only town in France that you can sail all the way round. Louis IV’s engineer Vauban designed the unique “star” shaped citadel of Gravelines to protect it from its enemies, adding to the existing older walls to enhance the fortifications. Today you can take a guided boat tour round this impressive walled town (English speaking guides are available) or hire an electric, pedal or row boat and discover the circuit for yourself with its nature reserves and fabulous views.
Along the walled ramparts, many of the original guard houses remain and they are today used for exhibitions forming a route called the Chemins des Arts which makes for a pleasant walk round the town.
The English Channel flows into the town of Gravelines via a canal and forms the River Aa and the view out to the Channel is stunning. At either side of the river where it flows into the English Channel are the seaside resorts of Grand Fort Philippe and Petit Fort Philippe, where on a Sunday morning, a market is held. Enjoy walking or cycling along the side of the Canal from Gravelines town to Petit Fort Philippe, purchase some fabulous fresh French fare and have a picnic on the golden sandy beach which seems to stretch for miles. In peak summer months you can catch the little ferry from one Fort Philippe to another.
Dining out in Gravelines and the Fort resorts is a joy; there is a fantastic array of restaurants from gourmet to brasserie style. We were absolutely spoiled for choice. For amazing fresh fish food we’d recommend Le Turbot where Chef Alain Coquelle gives a warm welcome and makes his signature Coquille Saint Jacques luttée – scallops prepared in the shell with herbs and finely chopped leeks and mushrooms and cooked for 8 minutes sealed with pastry. Le Turbot offers a really great value a la carte or set menus starting at just €16 in a friendly and cosy atmosphere.
The Queen Mary Pub in the main square of Gravelines is a really friendly bar with a good choice of beers, coffee and great value brasserie style dishes starting at just €8.00 and Joselyn and Vincent behind the bar love to meet English visitors who are surprised by the very English name of their bar!
In Petit Fort Philippe L’Arlequin serves up great fare – we loved the amuse bouche and found it hard to choose from all the great fish dishes on offer. At €25.00 for a three course meal with a carafe of wine included – it was very good value. Tip: there are many more restaurants in Petit Fort Philippe than across the water in Grand Fort Philippe; the marina with its little boats is very pretty.
In Gravelines town – don’t miss La Cave Gourmande, a speciality food and wine shop where owner Laurent Duros is happy to give advice on what wine to have with a meal or make up a beautiful gift box. We guarantee you will be amazed at the artisan foods on offer here from a liqueur of “tarte au tatin”, sweets, jams, cakes, teas and lots more, this shop is filled with fabulous French goodies you’ll want to take home with you.
We visited the print museum which is housed in ancient Vauban designed guard house. We were stunned to find a unique collection of prints dating from the 15th Century right up to current times and including Picasso, Goya and Legér.
We enjoyed Petit Fort Philippe’s Musée Maison de la Mer with its boat models and fishing artefacts reflecting the importance of fishing to the town. A short walk away is the town’s Life boat rescue museum housed in the old rescue centre with its boat and artefacts. Kids of all ages will love climbing about in the boat and the views from the deck are fabulous!
Our Top Tips – pick up a map and guide from the Tourist office, there is a surprising amount to discover and it will help you to find your way round. You can hire a bike from there too. It is a pleasant walk to the Fort seaside resorts from the town along the canal path and takes about 20 minutes but you can drive there in just 5 minutes.
You’ll find lots of details of what to do (including all those on our best things list on the Gravelines Tourist Information website
Best things to do in Gravelines:
Print museum – if you’re a print fan, you’ll love this place.
Musée Maison de la Mer and Life Boat Rescue – small but interesting
Boat ride and fishing trip – an exciting trip round the coast
Climb the lighthouse – 116 steps and great views over the English Channel
Check out the Tourville Boat Project – enthusiasts are building a replica 17th Century 84 canon sail ship!
Son et Lumière show on the ramparts of Gravelines annually end August