I didn’t have high expectations of Boulogne-Sur-Mer because I imagined it to be a place of little interest where people arrive by ferry and drive through very quickly without stopping on their way to more interesting places. From the garden of the gîte where we were staying we could see a large Cathedral and a tall military column and so as we were so close it seemed only good manners to go and have a look.
On the approach to the city through shabby pot holed streets there was little to make me review my original perception and when we parked the car and walked into town I didn’t really expect this to be a very long visit at all.
Some postcards in a souvenir shop showed some surprisingly nice views of Boulogne so we set out for the Cathedral and the old town to try and discover the best part of the city. At the top of the steep hill there was a medieval city wall and a gate leading inside and suddenly Boulogne took me by surprise because inside was something I was not expecting at all.
Boulogne’s Old Town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets. Here was the beating heart of a medieval city with a castle, one of the biggest Cathedrals in Europe and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars. In the middle was a public space with imaginative public art based on bits of old motor vehicles and scrap parts which was probably only the French could do this well.
The sun was shining and my opportunity for my favourite moules et frites and we found a pavement café on the Rue de Lille where a Frenchman was playing accordion to entertain the diners and I achieved my holiday objective of enjoying a pot of steaming molluscs.
After lunch we strolled around a while longer, outside the huge Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the Revolution in which the old cathedral and so many other churches were closed and destroyed. We didn’t go inside but even from the street we could appreciate the size of the massive dome, which is one of the biggest in Europe.
At the other end of the old town was the town hall where there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building, which was helpfully given in English as well as French. There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.
We left the old town by a gate next to the Castle Museum and I am forever amazed at the bits of trivia that I pick up on my travels because who would have guessed that inside is the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world? Why isn’t the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in Alaska? We didn’t go inside because we weren’t sure that Molly would appreciate it so we left and walked through the gardens beneath the walls and back to the agreed rendezvous point with the girls where they were waiting for us after completing their shopping.
On our way back to the seafront there was another surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats. A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish-based ready meals.
While we had been exploring the old town the girls had enjoyed the Nausicaa Aquarium and were waiting for us on the white sandy beach when we returned slightly late to meet them. Every winter storms strip the sand away and then every summer the city council imports several hundred tonnes from further up the coast to make sure that Boulogne has a beach to enjoy at least for a few months.
Boulogne had taken me by surprise that’s for sure and because of that it has now made its way onto my ‘must return to’ list!