Last week I decided to go for a drive on one of my favourite routes in France, the D940 coastal road from Calais to Boulogne-sur-Mer. You probably won’t even have heard of it and I don’t blame you, its a bit of a secret and almost always overlooked by drivers who reach Calais and push their pedals to the floor in an attempt to escape south as quickly as possible…
The Opal coast – remarkable treasure of northern France
The D940 runs parallel with the auto route A16 (also known as L’Européenne) which runs from Dunkerque to Paris. The millions of Brits who arrive each year in France via ferries and trains drive straight onto this main road that leads to the south. They look neither left nor right, they don’t diverge. They don’t pass go. They don’t collect £200.00.
In some ways this is good because it means the beautiful old road of the D940 is never crowded and keeps its good looks – think Cornwall with a French slant. It starts at Calais and as soon as you get out of the town you notice an immediate difference as you reach the quiet and rather pretty little town of Sangatte. There’s a long golden sandy beach and I’ve never seen anyone on it except once, there was a man with a fishing rod angling to catch his lunch!
The route goes up and down steep hills that give cyclists a real challenge and a thrill; the road winds round and round and takes in dramatic cliff top views across the English Channel, tiny little towns that boast a single shop (a boulangerie of course) and seaside resorts that are real gems. All along its meandering course you’ll find local fishermen selling fresh mussels, shrimp, oysters, lobster, crab and all manner of seafood from pop up shops in their garages, gardens and front rooms. If you stop and chat and buy, they may tell you the history of their family and show you photographs and reveal their favourite ways to cook the fish.
Everybody who takes this route will find their own favourite place to walk, stop, eat and drink in the view. It’s almost certain that they will want to return. It’s that sort of place. Like a secret that keeps luring you back to uncover more of its hidden charms.
Will it be the cliff tops of the Caps – Gris Nez and Blanc Nez (Grey nose and White nose). Stand here on a clear day amongst the meadow flowers (and poppies at certain times of the year) and you’ll see the White Cliffs of Dover shimmering in the distance just 21 miles away. You might also see people chucking themselves off the cliff with coloured, nylon wings billowing out – this place is very popular with para gliders! Or perhaps you’ll enjoy the sight of riders from the ancient equestrian centre over the road, letting their horses enjoy the fresh air and the views.
Will it be Audressselles, the pretty little fishing village with its quaint restaurants serving the freshest sea food available that tempts you to stop and soak in the ambience? Wooden fishing boats are parked outside houses like cars. Little white fishing cottages with blue shutters proudly define the origins of this place where to this day families keep the fishing tradition going fishing from Flobards, a type of wooden boat used here for many years which you’ll see pulling up on the beach filled with fishy bounty.
How will you resist the hidden little bays that have no name where seals frolic openly? Places where you can picnic in absolute peace and watch the waves gently curl up on the beach and where the locals collect the water to make sea salt to sprinkle on their moules mariniere.
Or will you fall in love with Wimereux with its Belle Epoque villas and its air of seaside grandeur? A place to take in the sunset with an aperitif on a terrace on the beach – simply unforgettable.
Drive on to Boulogne-sur-Mer and you’ll discover a vibrant town with 1000 shops, 200 restaurants and Nausicaa, Europe’s biggest and arguably, best aquarium and if it’s a fine day and the tide is out, wander to the Napoleonic fort on the beach at Le Portel and collect mussels for your dinner as people have for centuries.
The D940 carries on the otherside of Boulogne, right round the coast to Berck-sur-Mer taking in more lovely places like Le Touquet and Hardelot, the very swanky little seaside town much loved by Charles Dickens who lived here from 1860 to 1864. There are genteel restaurants, lovely hotels, a fabulous equestrian centre, dunes, a chateau and gorgeous countryside that make this a little gem.
The D940 Opal Coast road offers a diverse range of stunning views and quintessentially French experiences, an astonishingly rich rue to roam. Once seen, never forgotten… you will be back.
More on the Opal Coast:
The astonishing Crypt of the Basilica Notre Dame at Boulogne-sur-Mer dates back to Roman Times
The Opal Coast in photos
Hardelot, a very charming seaside resort
The Crab Festival of Audresselles