From his lofty perch, Napoleon gazes across at what might have been. Back in 1804 more than 100,000 men of his grand army stood alongside him here at Boulogne-Sur-Mer poised to invade England. They even built the column in anticipation of victory.Fortunately, they got distracted by Austria and Russia in the east and abandoned the invasion. Napoleon put the column to good use as the site for awarding France’s highest war medal, the famed Lègion d’Honneur.
Napoleon’s column dominates the Boulogne skyline. The Opal Coast so called by the 19th century impressionist painters who flocked here for the natural light and colour is a gem long prized by the French.
Amongst the stunning sand dunes, gloriously wide beaches, cliffs and forests, there are slices of authentic French life; local artisans producing breads, cheeses and chocolates in villages untainted by tourism. There are no crowds to spoil the fun and unbelievably, it’s right on our doorstep.
Boulougne-Sur-Mer has a reputation as the fishing capital of France evidenced by the flat bottomed fishing boats always a familiar silhouette along the shoreline.
Watching the fishermen haul them out of the sea always draws a crowd, but why not go one step further and spend a morning with them at sea? The local tourist office can organise a trip for €15 per person.
Boulogne has been a fortified town since Roman times and today, the old town is still a joy to explore; wandering the ramparts, the old belfry and the castle museum. A more modern attraction is Nausicaa, one of the largest aquariums in Europe. Just along the coast road, the charming harbour at Wimereux beckons for lunch, with nothing but fresh fish on the menus. With its Victorian beach huts lined up along the sea wall, Wimereux oozes simple Gallic charm.
Walk off a long lunch along the nearby cliff tops and take in the majestic view across to the Kent coast.
Let’s turn back south and almost within walking distance of Boulogne harbour is Le Portel Plage and Equihen Plage, their magnificent wide sandy beaches stretching for nearly two miles. Almost entirely shunned by foreign visitors, you’ll find hidden little gems here.
Untamed coastal land with wild life in abundance, quaint typically French village atmosphere and on Tuesdays and Fridays an open-air market.
A little further south, past the fishing port of Etaples we reach the two ritzy resorts of Hardelot and Le Touquet.
Hidden away amongst coastal pine forest, Hardelot was created in 1904 by John Whitely, an Englishman seeking a glamorous yet discreet destination to entertain his friends. He bought 1,000 acres of forest and built 20 luxury villas. In no time it became the favourite haunt of the Victorian well-to-do, including Charles Dickens, who frequently met his mistress here well away from prying eyes.
Hardelot is perhaps overshadowed by Le Touquet, its much bigger neighbour, but there’s no mistaking its glamorous heritage; the numerous villas discreetly tucked away amongst the pines, the equestrian centre, the two glorious golf courses — Les Dunes and Le Pins, easily comparable to Spanish courses and a small yet convenient village centre with access directly to the beach.
A little further south, Le Touquet is a world of difference. This is still the pick of northern French resorts for a weekend getaway for well-heeled Parisians many with holiday homes in the forest or overlooking the beach —no wonder it is nicknamed Paris by the sea. It’s got its own airport for a start; a clear sign of wealth and the restaurant there, L’Escale, is well worth a try.
The grand casino, the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, dominates the main square. Fleming visited many times, met his wife here and was a regular at the Westminster Hotel across the road, where his signed photo is now in permanent residence. He was in good company, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Tony Blair and even Sean Connery have been familiar faces.
The town oozes style and elegance whatever the time of year; the narrow streets are lined with designer boutiques and classy patisseries and restaurants. I remember a woman carrying a small poodle in her handbag — so very French!
The miles of beachfront are spectacular and you’ll find everything from volleyball to boules going on. However, every first weekend in February the beach hosts the annual Enduro race.
Over 1,000 bikes compete in races across the beach and the nearby dunes, but be warned, the population rises to over 200,000 visitors during that weekend.
The coastal spectacle is intoxicating, but venture inland a few miles and you’ll uncover more delightful surprises. Montreuil Sur Mer for example, complete with ramparts and winding cobbled streets is a gorgeous 18th century hill top town.
Victor Hugo fell under Montreuil’s charm when he happened to stop here for a day on his way north and decided to put on a light show of Les Miserables in the town.
Each summer during the last week of July and the first week of August the musical is performed as a Son et Lumiere in the castle grounds and, it hooked me. Perhaps it was the timeless French setting, or the thought of Hugo walking those very stones, but either way, the atmosphere was electric.
Ferry: P&O Ferries crosses daily from Dover to Calais, Crossings start from £38
Frain: Eurotunnel Le Shuttle offers up to four crossings per hour. £46 return per car