Etaples is a little fishing village that sits on the edge of the Estuary of the River Canche which leads out into the North Sea. A lively but rather modest town it is joined to the much swankier and posh town of Le Touquet Paris-Plage by a pink granite bridge.
What to do in Etaples
Visitors come to Etaples for its fish and fish markets, delightful restaurants, the train station which goes direct to Paris, Lille and Calais (there is no station in Le Touquet), its charming little museums with a nautical theme and for its fun and quirky annual festivals such as the Herring Festival in November. They also go for for the Friday morning market which is one of the biggest in the region, lively, colourful and friendly.
Located about 40 minutes from Calais it’s easy to get to and for a day trip it makes for a lovely introduction to French markets. There are several charming bars and brasseries to sit and watch the world go by and to enjoy a spot of local cuisine after you’re finished shopping. If you have time, there are no less than three museums to visit and the town is pleasant for a short wander with some pretty fishermen’s houses and a few traces of history that give it a slightly faded air of long ago grandeur.
The Musée de la Marine is located in what was the old fish market built in 1874. Its collections and exhibitions reflect the importance of the fishing port of Etaples in the early 20th century when a hundred inshore vessels would have berthed there. Nowadays they are mostly at the nearby port of Boulogne, France’s biggest fresh fish port. Musée Quentovic is located in two 17th century mansion houses on the main square of the town and focuses on the archeology of the region, maritime history of the area and the history of Etaples during WWI, the Tommies who were stationed here during the war called the town “Eat Apples”. The Mareis Museum takes you through the history of fishing up to the present day with guided tours by a former sailor or one of his family; there’s also an aquarium dedicated to the fish of the English Channel and the North Sea.
The market is great; typically French and is the “housewives favourite” in the area. On a Friday morning the quiet little main square is filled with noise and vitality as the stall holders call out greetings to loyal customers or try to lure new ones in. You’ll be offered a taste of this or that, told a story, given a recipe or a tip. It’s a good place to pick up vegetables and charcuterie and at Christmas you can get the most amazing crystallised fruit, nuts and Christmas pudding ingredients at a very good price, much cheaper than anywhere else I’ve seen. Take a cool box and buy some fresh fish from the shops along the front, there’s a great choice. A couple of boulangeries will see you going home with a freshly baked baguette lovingly prepared by an artisan. There’s also a Tuesday morning market in Etaples but it’s a bit smaller.
From late spring to autumn, you can take a boat ride around the bay where you’re likely to spot the local seal population or try your hand at sea fishing on board a local fishing boat with experienced fisherman.
Where to eat in Etaples
Push the boat out with a meal at Aux Pecheurs d’Etaples located on the Bay of Canche. Well known to the locals for the quality of the food, you’re guaranteed that the fish is the freshest it can be, mostly caught that morning and cooked beautifully by the chef and his team.
There are a surprisingly good number of restaurants, many of which may not look smart from the outside but you’ll receive a warm welcome and a delicious meal, such as at Au Vieux Port (11 Place du Général de Gaulle) which serves hearty local cuisine, fresh ingredients bought daily, and has a beer cellar with more than 50 beers to choose from. You’ll find that all restaurants serve the popular mussels and chips (moules et frites).
Go for the market, stay for the food and the ambience.