Explore Boulogne, a ‘tale of two towns’, on a budget
‘If it were but 300 miles farther off, how the English would rave about it,’ Charles Dickens said of his beloved Boulogne.
Today, unassuming Boulogne is a tale of two towns. There’s the fortified Upper City — with its complete stone wall — which is sure to delight fans of antique Gallic charm, while downhill you’ll find a bustling shopping area and France’s largest fishing port.
No surprise, then, that quality seafood is a priority in the myriad restaurants.
Where to stay
L’Enclos de L’eveche
It’s almost impossible to believe the amount of character you get for your money at this former vicarage in the old town: antique Harrods furniture, ornate cast-iron radiators, framed Hermes scarves on the wall — not to mention views of the basilica’s big and beautiful dome next door. And did we mention the sizeable double-height rooms?
Doubles from £77, enclosdeleveche.com.
Au Coin du Spa
This family-run B&B is set in a charming old town house over the road from the local conservatoire. Listen out for the wonderful strains of cello practice through its large windows. Indoors, there’s a focus on pampering, with Jacuzzi baths in the larger of its five rooms and a hot tub in the large garden.
Doubles from £100, aucoinduspa.fr
Apartment-cum-hotel Evancy offers great views across Boulogne’s port
One of Boulogne’s most recent openings, this sparkling-clean apartment-cum-hotel concept has the facilities required for a comfortable self-catered stay (and the wifi is good). Floor-to-ceiling windows in the lounge area offer great views (and seagull sounds!) across Boulogne’s port, which is peppered with hundreds of little fishing boats. It’s a short walk to Nausicaa, France’s national aquarium.
Doubles from £64, evancy.com.
Where to eat
This little eatery down by the port is Boulogne all over: small, unassuming and family-run, but with a loving attention to detail. Expect a traditional menu of homemade French fare that changes with the whims of its gourmand owners.
Herring is the town’s most popular fish, but it’s the skate dish that wins the most plaudits and comes in at £10.50. Address: 9 Rue Coquelin, 62200.
Restaurant Brasserie Chez Jules
This market square restaurant is a clear reminder that in France eating well while eating out remains a common right. Just £15 will fetch you a well-turned plate of something wholesome and satisfying, a glass of wine, a dessert made by the in-house patissier and, of course, a coffee. That it has attentive staff is a delightful bonus. Visit Chez-jules.fr.
Here, the eponymous Brigitte and her husband serve no-frills pleasure in the form of fresh fries from their been-here-forever trailer. Typical of northern France (and the Low Countries next door), this delicious fast food is best served with a piping-hot fricadelle sausage and piquant samurai sauce (£5.20). To be eaten seated, with one’s feet dangling off the edge of the harbour. Address: Quai des Paquebot, 62200.
Seas the day: P&O ferries runs a regular service between Dover and Calais, and from there it’s a short journey to Boulogne by train
P&O ferries run between Dover and Calais up to 15 times a day from £35 one-way (poferries.com). From Calais, take the train to Boulogne from £6.64 one-way (sncf.com).
What to see and do
Drop in(to) the ocean
It would be remiss not to pay ‘Europe’s largest aquarium’ a visit. Its huge pool ‘recreates a high-seas ecosystem’ for 24,000 creatures from sharks to shellfish. The above-water-level tour shows experts feeding the giant manta ray, which is five metres wide. Visit nausicaa.co.uk.
Boulogne’s ramparts with the belfry and the basilica in the background
Boulogne’s beautiful ville fortifiee is packed with attractions. Start off with a walk around its ramparts for the best views of the ‘old France’ architecture within.
Inside, hop up the Unesco-protected belfry before moving on to the castle and basilica. A happy hour is spent marvelling at the latter’s crumbling, neoclassical dome and fine mosaic work. Visit boulonnaisautop.com/en.
Boulogne has an incredible military history. It’s from these shores that Julius Caesar set sale on his two Britannia invasions and where Napoleon had intended to.
Get a sense of old Boney’s aspirations with a visit to the Column of the Grande Armée (£3 entry), atop which you’ll find the man himself, facing away from England. You can climb to the top —but be warned: it gets very windy. Visit boulonnaisautop.com.
After investigating the World War II paraphernalia at Musee 39-45, hop in the car to Cap Gris-Nez (above), the nearest point to England
There’s a vast collection of World War II paraphernalia on display at The Musée 39-45 in nearby Ambleteuse (£8 entry). Once you’ve had your fill, hop in the car to Cap Gris-Nez (the nearest point to England).
Three separate little walks take you round ruins that span a 16th-century fort (from Henry VIII’s short-lived occupation of the area) to Nazi bunkers.
There’s a nice little fish restaurant called La Sirene down on nearby Wissant Beach if you get peckish. Visit lasirene-capgrisnez.com.