When you next arrive in France with your car in Calais, start off with a good morsel of real Gallic culture before heading off by taking the D940 Coast road to Boulogne, one of the best driving routes in France…
You’ll leave the port area and find your route quickly dissolves into rural countryside and you may be surprised by what you can find. Leaving greater Calais, the road directions are a little convoluted with left and right turn restrictions and one way systems. Keep the sea to your right though and suddenly you are in the open country.
The green and gently undulating terrain resembles the English countryside of a century ago. Watch out for the energetic cross channel ferries going about their business on the ‘Manche’. On a clear day, from the peaks of the outcrops, you get a glimpse of the white cliffs of Dover. Though this part of France and England have shared kinship in many ways, they become much more different as you deviate inland.
The journey towards Boulogne along this winding road is about 40 kilometres. The route curves up and down with the hills to match the natural folds in the land. Nobody travels very fast. I forgot I was in France once and spent a little way on the wrong side of the road. Everyone else just patiently waited for me to get back in the right place.
Your first place of interest is Sangatte, right on the coastline. In 1909, Louis Bleriot set off from the beach here for Dover in England. He flew his own tiny aeroplane to a foreign country to make the first international air passage and there is a robust monument to his achievement, bang in the middle of the high street. It was a significant historical event marked in unassuming style by the local people.
Take a stroll along the beach headland amongst the coarse and binding grass. Stop off to visit the Baraques military cemetery providing a smart resting place for some of the dead of the Great War. Sangatte is a little rural pillar of French history.
Set off again along the coast road and pull into Escalles, just beyond the Cap Blanc-Nez (white Nose Cliff). There is parking space for cars and from here you will see the tall and dominating column overlooking the sea that stands as a memorial to French and English sailors of World War One. You can walk up to it if you have the energy and read the inscriptions on the plaques.
Escalles is gazed upon by a misty, mysterious and forsaken windmill on the edge of the village. Its sails have gone, but the bulk is preserved. The small sixteenth century church of St. Maxime is in the town centre. Along with its tidy surrounding gravestones, it is a much repeated symbol of French rural life.
Continue your journey towards the south west and you come to the village of Wissant. This is an anonymous habitation but hides some secrets. Here you will find the Typhonium Villa, built in Egyptian style by the Belgian artist Adrien Demont and his wife. It is a glowering edifice on higher land providing accommodation for artists. Search for the fortified manor houses in the town centre and look for the old watermill. There is also a tiny Commonwealth War Grave.
Carry on towards the headland called Cap Gris Nez (Grey Nose Cliff). This is the closest point to England and is essentially an area of low lying marshland just inland from the coastline.
The town of Tardinghen at this location is home to remains of the Atlantic Wall built as protection against allied invasion during World War II. The local church of St. Martin along the high street is an especially daunting structure. The bleak concrete tower supporting the bells seems to add to the sense of misery and hopelessness that existed 75 years ago. Cheer yourself up again and find the Deux Caps local microbrewery which provides a welcome service.
The neighbouring town of Audinghen supports the prominent Atlantic Wall museum. This structure was built as a fortress by the German civil company TODT as part of operation Sea Lion in 1940. The robust blockhouse is a very obvious feature as it is approached from the road. It has the word MUSEE painted in huge white letters on the side. Visit the perfectly preserved and gigantic cannon. This gun was intended to fire shells weighing roughly 800 kilograms each at south east England during the Second World War. Today, your children can clamber all over the now harmless weapon whilst they catch sight of the English coast just thirty kilometres away.
The museum in the interior of the massive bunker contains many fascinating and undisturbed relics from German activity more than 75 years ago. It’s a little cold inside but the contents and the history are gripping.
Move on again and drop into Audresselles. This is a good place to take lunch in the famous and historic Coaching Inn, Rue Edouard Quene. You will also find the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist associated with the neighbouring farm. The church contains the twelfth century painted canvas of the Second Empire.
The village of Ambleteuse comes next. There is a privately owned museum (painted bright red – you can’t miss it) here that preserves the events and culture of the days of World War II. It exhibits features from all the global corners of activity of the War. Visitors who have an interest in this period will discover a historic gem; it’s an absorbing, memorable exhibition.
The owner of the museum has devoted his life to collecting remnants of the Second World War from around the world. There are hundreds of hand weapons displayed (all made safe), uniforms, military equipment, vehicles and documents. There are literally thousands of the most obscure objects defining those years. They are all beautifully exhibited and displayed and the owner will often provide a personal guided tour. Visit the re-located cinema in its original form from the nineteen forties. You can sit and watch digitised original film features from that period.
Continue towards Boulogne once more. The D940 runs right up against the coastline past Pointe aux Oies with provision for camping in tents and caravans. The air is salty and bracing and life here is peaceful.
Before arriving in Boulogne visitors will pass through the town of Wimereux with its lovely Belle Epoque style villas and long sandy beaches.
Another few kilometres will take you into Boulogne. This town is a whole new world with much to see and do. There are plentiful places to eat, stay the night, visit and admire.
The drive along the D904 is fun, uncongested and winding as it follows the contours of the terrain. The villages will remind you of a life style from an earlier time. There are many parking spaces just off the road to take in the sight of the sea, washing the beaches. The defining colours of the seaside, white and blue seems strangely pure here, which is why the area is called the Opal Coast.
The Calais Boulogne coast road is a splendid way to start a trip to France. It is a little bit about all that France keeps to itself. It is also a splendid way to avoid travelling on the main routes before you continue to your ultimate destination.
Bob Lyons is a retired airline pilot turned writer and a total Francophile.