Exploring Europe: Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

by Florentyna Syperek

The first time I walked down (and sadly, up) the cobbled streets of Boulogne-Sur-Mer, it was the summer of 2012, and my mum and I were hitchhiking through Europe with massive backpacks. This was one of our first stops after getting off the ferry, more by chance than by choice, mainly due to Boulogne’s proximity to the nearest motorway. The heat was pouring down from the sky, we got off at the wrong train station, and we were forced to walk in circles. So, all I remember from my first visit is a view of a basilica towering over the city, a strange, yet adorable house with dog sculptures above the windows, and heat. My goodness, the heat. And the sunburn. Word of advice: never forget to apply sunscreen to feet.

Thus, it was only when I returned to the region 3 years later with both my parents (and yes, sunscreen), that I was able to see and appreciate what Boulogne has to offer.

Vieille Ville

Complete with a basilica, historic walls and a castle, it is the Old Town of Boulogne which is the highlight. Full of lively pedestrian streets lined with antique shops, artist studios and bookshops, those who enjoy window-shopping will love wandering around, and admiring the imaginative window displays and pretty paintings. You will also find tiny cafes and patisseries with delicious French treats – their outdoor seating spills out onto the cobbled streets themselves, which makes for an ideal spot for lunch and people watching. In the evenings, the Old Town comes to life with colourful lights, laughter and music from local restaurants.

On the square located in the middle of the Old Town is another attraction. Every time I’ve visited Boulogne, there was a different garden installation on show, each year based around a different theme. In 2015, visitors could explore a garden of 7 Deadly Sins, each of which was cleverly represented by plants, sculptures and various symbols – some phallic, some not, although Lust did have the largest display, which included some disturbingly imaginative Mediaeval illustrations. This year the theme is tamer, with the 5 senses being represented in the garden, so you can safely go there with family members.

Surrounding the Old Town are the 13th century walls, which stretch for over one kilometre and provide visitors with stunning panoramic views of the city, as well as the sea. As a GSD student I was especially excited to catch a glimpse of the offshore wind turbines! The walls are also great if you want to escape the livelier streets or hide in the shade, but beware – the gates are closed at night!

Cathedral and crypt

Inspired by the Classical and Renaissance styles seen on St Paul’s Cathedral, the domed Notre Dame Basilica tower can be seen from most places in the city, due to its impressive size (101 metres) and a strategic hillside location in the Old Town. Luckily, during the early 1920s, when reconstruction work had to be conducted after the nave’s arches collapsed, the entire building was reinforced with concrete, allowing the basilica to withstand the bombings the city experienced during World War II.

Interestingly, one of the places with a great view of the magnificent basilica is a small laundrette located in a side street, next to one of the Old Town’s stone gates. This is great for backpackers – you can leave your laundry there while you go and explore the Old Town! It’s also very coming-of-age movie set, so there’s another photo opportunity for those craving likes.

However, it’s what’s hidden beneath the ground that I consider a real treasure, although one to be admired while wearing an extra layer of clothing, even in the middle of summer; Underneath the basilica one can visit an ancient crypt, the longest one in France (over 100m long), which has only been re-opened to the public in the spring of 2015. Some of the rooms found in the crypt go as far back as Roman times, when the city was a strategic military location for Julius Caesar. The walls and ceilings are adorned with beautiful paintings of patterns and Saints. Amongst the impressive collection of religious art on display in the crypt, one can find a precious enamel relic, which is said to contain the blood of Christ. Interestingly, the items on display in the crypt also include cannonballs, which were fired by Henry VII during the siege of Boulogne in 1544! The crypt is certainly a fascinating and unique place to visit.

Beach and Nausicaá

Gambetta-Sainte-Beuve, which is the tourist area along the large sandy beach, is a great place for a walk on the promenade or a break with some ice cream. If the weather is good, and you fancy a break from all the sight-seeing, you can go sunbathing or swimming.  The market (one of the many markets in the area*), which takes place on weekends, is also worth a visit; If you’re looking for fresh, local fish, fishermen set up stalls near the harbour every morning. Free parking and proximity to the rest of the city are a big plus.

Boulogne-sur-Mer is located in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France on the Côte d’Opale. Like with most French destinations in the North, it is mostly visited by French tourists, although during our visit we also spotted many school groups from across the Channel. It is a refreshing change from the hordes of noisy tourists found in the more popular tourist destinations in the South. Nicknamed the Capital of the Opal Coast, Boulogne is a holiday spot for those who are seeking a more intimate cultural experience, with plenty of empty, beautiful beaches nearby. Charles Dickens was said to be a fan (there’s even a rue Charles Dickens in the Old Town), and we all know that those Victorians knew how to have fun. Arrive with great expectations – you won’t be disappointed!

This article is the first in the Exploring Europe Series, where I will explore various European destinations. I will look at both more popular cities, as well as introduce you to the less popular places, hopefully inspiring you to travel around Europe.

* A full list of markets in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais area can be found on the Euro Tunnel website.

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