My weekend jaunt around Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region
England and France really are very close together. I only discovered this with my own eyes a couple of weekends ago, when I took a P&O ferry over to Calais from Dover for a little weekend away, in and around a charming little French town called Boulogne-sur-Mer. Unpleasant petrol-smelling memories of overnight ferries to France in my childhood were swept away by the easy 1.5 hour crossing at the English Channel’s narrowest point, in which I was treated to Champagne and a delicious lunch with a view, in the Club Lounge onboard. There are just 21-miles of water that separate England from France, and that separate us islanders from “the Continent”, which we sometimes consider to be so foreign a concept.
I was greeted in Calais by Claire, a lovely local French woman who was to be my guide for the weekend. Knowing the region and its history so well after growing up there are living there, she was a real window into the area and made me feel very welcome. We began by visiting La Haute Maison Stables near Calais to go horse riding, which I only do about once a year but always love. The rain put a stop to the idea of a hack around the local area, so instead I joined an indoor show-jumping class. My knowledge of French equestrian terms was certainly put to the test and I have never jumped anything while riding before, so it was certainly an experience! But Madame Lefevre and Madame Castel kindly showed us around the stables and introduced us to the 80 horses they keep there.
Next up we headed into Boulogne-sur-Mer to meet Antoine Louis from the Tourist Office for a tour of the old town. Little did I know that it had actually been under English occupation during the Medieval Ages, before France bought it back, and Boulogne has always been a strategic point for invasions either of France or England, due to the proximity between the two countries. Antoine even took us to a point where we could see the white cliffs of Dover over in England! I had never before fathomed how close our two countries are until that moment, where I could even discern individual building lights once dusk had fallen. The tour began at the 13th-century Castle, continuing on down towards the imposing 19th-century Notre-Dame Basilica down into the cobbled streets of the old town, where we visited the Belfry and Town Hall, the Law Courts and a convent that today serves as the library.
I can imagine that, with warmer weather, the historic town centre must be incredible romantic and there are plenty of brasseries and wine bars to suit the occasion.
For dinner, Claire and I headed to Le Welsh Pub in the new part of the town for some delicious French wine and food. The French seem to serve nothing but 3-course meals, and so it was that my weekend was well-accompanied by delicious pâtés and terrines, French steaks, sorbets and rich desserts. And on the ferry home I couldn’t help but indulge in an entire baked Camembert…
I stayed at the Opal Inn Hotel on the seafront in Boulogne and awoke to a lovely sunny view over the beach, with some brave sand-yachters battling the strong winds from the English Channel as they raced over the wide sandy beach. After breakfast I walked a mere 2 minutes along the seafront to the Nausicaa Aquarium National Sea Centre for a tour of the aquarium, one of the best attractions in the area, which I’ll write about in a separate blog post.
Claire and I had lunch in the aquarium’s restaurant with a great sea view. The whole weekend served as a reminder of my New Year’s resolution to learn French. (I make the same resolution every year, and in 2011-12 I had a degree of success as I took an evening class, but this year I haven’t had a single opportunity to practise French, outside of my ski trip to Morzine in March and my weekend in Paris in July). Following on from my fascinating visit to the aquarium, Claire and I headed to the International City of Lace and Fashion, a museum in Calais. It used to be one of the main industries of Calais before and even after machinery was invented to make lace, and the level of detail that used to go into handmade lace is quite stunning!
Travelling always succeeds in opening my eyes to entire ways of life that I never normally contemplate or realise exist, and this museum was no exception. I take for granted the civilised and developed world I live in inside the UK, and I forget about the years and years of industrialisation, labour and the numerous inventors and pioneers that have built the world into what we have before us today. A step back into history is an invaluable way of understanding and better appreciating the present. Alongside the lace museum there is also a temporary exhibition of Iris Van Herpen, a Dutch designer of Haute-Couture, which is an intriguing blend of art and fashion.
All too soon the time to head home to England came around, but we managed to squeeze in a short walk to the Cap Gris Nez, which we timed perfectly for a stunning sunset.
Looking down the French coastline, and across the Channel to the English shore, with the sun setting in the west, I felt amazingly refreshed. Travel has an amazing way of renewing the soul and even though England was still within sight, and such a short distance away, I still felt utterly calm and renewed with adventurous spirit, showing that even a short weekend away to the north coast of France can repair any level of wanderlust. It was such a lovely short break, even in November, and was exactly what I needed to cure my post-DTour travel pangs.