A Delightful Getaway on the English Channel: Boulogne-sur-Mer

A delightful getaway from either the south of England or the north of France, is the historic city of Boulogne-sur-Mer. It is often thought of as a summer destination. However, for senior travellers who can choose freely when to travel, I recommend visiting during the off-season. You will avoid the crowds of summer tourists and accommodation prices will be much lower. Similarly visit weekdays rather than the much busier weekends.

Main Street leading towards the Harbour
Main Street leading towards the Harbour

Boulogne-sur-Mer is just a short drive from the Dover-to-Calais ferry. Or, if your home base is Paris, why not take the train? I did just that and was pleasantly surprised by this little known and underrated gem on the English Channel. This area of France is known as Côte d’Opale or in English, The Opal Coast. It is so-named for the color of the sea, just like the Azure Coast on the French Riviera.

What does Boulogne-sur-Mer have to offer? Quite a bit actually. If you plan to stay for a few days you should also explore some of the villages along the picturesque coast, but an overnighter will give you plenty of time to see the essential attractions of Boulogne.

Boulogne-sur-Mer is a busy port. Though heavily bombed during World War II, the large harbour has been rebuilt. In fact, Boulogne is the largest fishing port in France with herring as its main catch.

Entrance to the Old Town
Entrance to the Old Town

If you start exploring at the harbour, the best first stop is the Nausicaa, France’s national sea-life center. Not only does this aquatic center have examples of local fish and other sea creatures, it contains a collection of over 30,000 examples of fish from around the world. This massive variety includes such diverse examples as the African Penguin, California Sea Lion, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a number of shark varieties including the Sandbar and Spotted Wobbegong, as well as the Wolf Eel and Tomato clownfish, just to name a few.

As a bonus the educational signs that identify each specie are in English as well as French. Seniors 60+ get a small discount on entry charges.

Sidewalk cafés and the Basilica
Sidewalk cafés and the Basilica

Beyond the harbour, moving into the heart of the city you’ll find a delightful pedestrian walkway where you will find lots of fancy boutique shops. Climbing up to the castle and ancient fortified old town, you will surely enjoy the traditional area of the city luckily untouched by those bombing raids. But wear your hiking shoes, for although not terribly steep, the hill leading up to the old castle is a hike. Since I’m not terribly athletic I took my time stopping now and then for a breather and to snap a few photos.

The Old Town, with its 13th Century ramparts is a completely enclosed walled community of a few hundred houses, but also contains many monuments, including the Castle Museum, the Basilica, the Belfry, the Imperial Palace, and also the City Hall and Courthouse. Near the Basilica is a wonderful cobbled street with a handful of sidewalk cafés and interesting shops. Unlike many of the more touristy parts of France, the old town is not in general overrun by tourists. And off-season, you can enjoy a leisurely walk through quiet, almost deserted streets.

Ruined ramparts
Ruined section of the ramparts

Just outside of the Old Town, in fact accessible from just outside the fortress walls, is the ancient chateau turned into a fabulous Museum with the largest collection of France’s Egyptian artifacts and Greek and Etruscan vases outside the Louvre. Curiously the museum also possesses the most extensive collection of Eskimo (Inuit) masks in Europe, brought to Boulogne by a native-born anthropologist, Alphonse Pinart. Of course there’s a fabulous view of the city from atop the ramparts and seniors get a 40% discount on the entry charge!

On the other side of the Liane River there’s an even more panoramic view of the city, the harbour, and the channel from the Parc de Loisirs de la Falaise (Leisure Park of the Cliff). Proceeding a little further toward the sea, following the edge of the bluff, you will come to a lovely local beach, Plage du Portel. Here you can enjoy the white sands or if you prefer, stay up on the bluff and watch the sea and sunbathers from one of the many sidewalk cafés. In short, Boulogne-sur-Mer offers a wonderful short getaway, particularly off-season.

The author of this article, Douglas Warren, has travelled extensively in Europe. In retirement he has written two novels and a book of short stories, all available from his author Page on Amazon.

POSTED 30th DECEMBER 2016 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of DOUGLAS WARREN. The photographs were supplied by the author.