Explore Boulogne, a ‘Tale of Two Cities’, on a budget
“If it were only 300 miles away, how the English would rave about it,” Charles Dickens said of his beloved Boulogne.
Today, humble Boulogne is a tale of two cities. There’s the fortified upper town – with its full stone wall – which will delight fans of ancient Gallic charm, while down the hill you’ll find a bustling shopping district and France’s largest fishing port.
No wonder, then, that seafood quality is a priority at the myriad of restaurants.
Where to sleep
L’Enclos de L’Eveche
It’s almost impossible to believe just how much character you get for your money in this Old Town rectory: antique Harrods furniture, ornate cast-iron radiators, framed Hermes scarves hanging on the wall – not to mention the views of the grand and beautiful basilica dome next door. And did we mention the large 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, opposite the local conservatory. Listen to the wonderful sounds of cello practice through the large windows. Indoors, the emphasis is on pampering, with Jacuzzi baths in the larger of the five rooms and a Jacuzzi in the large garden.
Double room from £100, aucoinduspa.fr
The apartment-cum-hotel Evancy offers a magnificent view over the port of Boulogne
One of Boulogne’s most recent additions, this sparkling clean apartment-hotel concept has the facilities required for a comfortable self-catering stay (and the WiFi is good). Floor-to-ceiling windows in the lounge area offer great views (and seagull sounds!) over Boulogne Harbour, dotted with hundreds of small fishing boats. It’s just a short walk to the French National Aquarium Nausicaa.
Doubles from £64, evancy.com.
where should we eat
This little eatery on the harbor is quintessentially Boulogne: small, unassuming, and family-run, but with great attention to detail. Expect a traditional menu of home-cooked French dishes that changes with the whims of its gourmand owners.
Herring is the city’s most popular fish, but it’s the ray dish that gets the most praise, costing £10.50. Address: 9 Rue Coquelin, 62200.
Restaurant-Brasserie Chez Jules
This restaurant in the Market Square is a clear reminder that in France good dining is a universal right. For just £15 you get a well-set plate of something healthy and satisfying, a glass of wine, dessert from the in-house pastry chef and of course a coffee. That it has attentive staff is a delightful bonus. Visit Chez-jules.fr.
Here, the namesake Brigitte and her husband serve no-frills enjoyment in the form of fresh fries from their long-running favourite. Typical of northern France (and the Netherlands next door), this delicious fast food is best served with a piping hot patty and spicy samurai sauce (£5.20). Eat while seated, feet dangling on the edge of the harbour. Address: Quai des Paquebot, 62200.
What to see and do
Dive into the ocean
It would be remiss not to pay a visit to “Europe’s largest aquarium”. Its massive pool “creates an offshore ecosystem” for 24,000 creatures from sharks to shellfish. The over-water tour shows experts feeding the five-meter-wide giant manta ray. Visit nausicaa.co.uk.
The ramparts of Boulogne with the belfry and basilica in the background
Boulogne’s beautiful Ville Fortifiee is packed with attractions. Start with a stroll around the city walls for the best views of ‘old France’ architecture.
Inside, climb the Unesco-protected bell tower before continuing to the castle and basilica. A happy hour is spent marveling at the latter’s crumbling, neoclassical dome and delicate mosaic work. Visit boulonnaisautop.com/en.
Boulogne has an incredible military history. It was from these shores that Julius Caesar sold his two invasions of Britannia and where Napoleon intended.
Get a sense of the aspirations of old Boney with a visit to the Column of the Grande Armée (admission £3), at the top of which you will find the Man himself, turned away from England. You can climb to the top – but be warned: it gets very windy. Visit boulonnaisautop.com.
After examining WWII paraphernalia at Musee 39-45, hop in the car to Cap Gris-Nez (above), the closest point to England
A huge collection of WWII paraphernalia is on display at Musée 39-45 in nearby Ambleteuse (entrance £8). When you’re full, hop in the car to Cap Gris-Nez (the closest point to England).
Three separate short walks take you around ruins ranging from a 16th-century fortress (from Henry VIII’s short-lived occupation of the area) to Nazi bunkers.
Seas the day: P&O Ferries operate a regular service between Dover and Calais, and from there it’s a short train journey to Boulogne
There is a nice little seafood restaurant called La Sirene down on nearby Wissant Beach if you get hungry. Visit lasirene-capgrisnez.com.
P&O ferries operate between Dover and Calais up to 15 times a day from £35 each way (poferries.com).
From Calais take the train to Boulogne from £6.64 one way (sncf.com).