Gravelines is a bright if sleepy little town which rests between the two great harbours Calais and Dunkirk. Once an important entry port to France in its own right, the origins of Gravelines go back many centuries.
History of Gravelines
It was the primary commercial entrance point for the City of Saint Omer which lies some 30 minutes up the autoroute to the south. It was an incredibly important city ….
However, the land surrounding the river Aa which carried boat traffic to the city, gradually silted up and the coastline advanced markedly to the north. As a result, St. Omer gradually declined in influence in tandem with being shifted further from its trading contacts.
In its heyday, Gravelines, as a commercial centre, was fought over by the Spanish, Dutch, English and even the Austrian armies. The architectural influence of all of these nations, especially the Dutch, can be observed around the town even today.
During the 19th century period of impressionist art, Gravelines was a favoured scenery point for many of the great French artists of the day. They were attracted by the combination of the sea, the chalk hills and the wide stretching beach lines blending with the bracing wind and crashing waves.
What to see and do in Gravelines
Gravelines is a tale of ‘Two Cities’. The coastal beach area is separate from the heavily ramparted main commercial centre.
The Vauban designed fortifications were built to protect the inhabitants and commercial activity from the barrage of invading forces over the centuries. Extensively restored in recent times they now offer a pleasant country walk which generally follows the line of the surrounding waterway. It blends perfectly with the umbrella of great plants and trees towering above. The public path is wide open and peaceful. Cycle parking facilities, jumping points for children and shaded picnic spots pepper this stretch of landscape. Self-drive motor or paddle boats can be hired to navigate the ‘moat’ that surrounds the ramparts.
Within the ramparts lies a busy and energetic town centre with a tall belfry that chimes on the hour. There are plenty of good restaurants, bars and shops. There is also an imposing flagged war memorial presenting the historical background from the conflict and cultural background of the area.
On the edge of the town square, Place Charles Valentin (where you can park freely) there is an entrance to a splendid art gallery. When you leave the gallery, go via the rampart tunnel. Take an elevated stroll around the fine gardens and admire views over the countryside and coastline from your lofty perch. The gardens contain some very good sculptures.
Towards the coast, beyond the fortified area, find the Gravelines beaches, a great place for a spot of kite flying and land yachting.
By Bob Lyons, ex-pilot turned travel writer and a total Francophile!