Just 46 miles from the UK mainland is the town of Dunkirk – in French it is Dunkerque and it means Church on the Dunes.
Dunkirk suffers a little from its unattractive ferry port but don’t let that fool you – the town, about 12km from the port is emerging as a dynamic and vibrant destination for day trips and weekends in France.
As a seaside destination, Dunkirk offers 15km of superb beaches and dunes. The seaside resort of Malo Les Bains was built in the 18th Century and offers 7km of pavement and a pleasant 40km path along the coast to neighbouring Belgium for keen walkers.
You’ll find a huge range of restaurants offering gourmet, traditional and regional fare with outdoor seating areas and indoors a warm welcome. “Comme Vous Voulez” with its lovely view over the sea and great terraced area is very popular with the locals and chef Pierre Neuville offers a great menu at a good price (try the crab soup – it’s delicious).
There is a great shopping area too with more than 400 shops including fantastic regional food shops like that of Yves Bouclet in the centre – a fromagerie with hundreds of cheeses to choose from and which opens from 5.00 a.m. in the morning for keen customers! You’ll find Monsieur Bouclet at Cremerie La Ferme, 22 rue Poincare right in the centre. Try the local cow’s milk cheese Bergues, it’s distinctive flavour comes from being washed in saltwater and the local Esquelberque beer – it is scrumptious!
History and Culture in Dunkirk
Most people think of Dunkirk in terms of its past history with emphasis on the 1940 evacuation of British Expeditionary Forces – Operation Dynamo, and the Battle of Dunkirk. It is true to say that the town of Dunkirk suffered greatly during World War II and there are reminders of those times still including the town’s museum where you’ll find an impressive collection of weapons, equipment, photographs and other memorabilia largely dedicated to the Dunkirk Evacuation.
Culture vultures and history buffs will also enjoy the Musée Portuaire, housed in a 19th Century tobacco warehouse – dedicated to Dunkirk’s sea faring history and its boats. You can climb aboard the museum’s floating exhibits including The Duchesse Anne, the largest visitable sailing ship in France and the Sandettie an ex working lighthouse ship that would help steer boats safely through the dangerous sandbanks off the Dunkirk coastline.
There is also the Musée des Beaux Arts with its collection of paintings and an eclectic array of natural history artefacts and the LAAC (Lieu d’Art et Action Contemporaine) with art and installations from international artists.
If you have a car, it’s well worth a 20 minute journey to the forest of Eperlecques. Le Blockhaus museum is housed in a building that once stored Hitler’s V1 and V2 rockets. Ten minutes further on and you’ll come to La Coupole in St Omer, once one of the most secretive buildings in Europe. It was here that Adolf Hitler’s scientists built the V2 rockets that were intended to knock Britain out of the war. Today it is a remembrance centre and home to the best 3D planetarium in Europe.
What to do and see in Dunkirk
There is far more to Dunkirk than its past and in 2013 the town was awarded the French Regional Capital of Culture status which will see a series of celebrations providing an insight into the culture of the town and a packed programme of artistic, fun, cultural and gastronomic delights. (See the Dunkirk Tourist office website for details, below).
Start at the Tourist office which is located in the 13th Century Belfry – a UNESCO heritage monument. You can climb to the top via a lift and some narrow winding steps and get an extraordinary view over the town, English Channel and surrounding countryside. Look out for the chimes that peel out every 15 minutes from the 48 bells in this Gothic tower (see the bells above).
You won’t be able to avoid Jean Bart when you’re in Dunkirk – the town’s sea faring son was a real life hero. A privateer who became a captain for Louis XIV and was ennobled by the Sun King for “acquiring” more than 100 vessels filed with grain at a time when France was suffering a period of famine.
His statue is in the town square, his face is on the town hall stained glass windows, streets are named after him, and the Belfry rings our a song that recalls him – every 15 minutes and he is feted at Dunkirk’s famous annual carnival. There’s even a cake named after him – the Patisserie Vandewalle makes Jean Bart’s Finger cakes and has been producing them for over a hundred years – the perfect souvenir to take home with you.
Restaurants are numerous in Dunkirk and as you’d expect from a seaside town fish is big on the menu. Highly recommended is L’atelier de Steff 3, place Jeanne d’Arc; chef Stefane Pruvot trained and worked in Paris where his happy clients included Donald Sutherland and Bette Midler.
Where is Dunkirk
Get there via DFDS Ferries direct to Dunkirk Ferry Port
Dunkirk Tourist Office website – visit the tourist office and collect a City Pass which includes free or discounted entry to more than 20 attractions.