Boulogne: Channelling a touch of French chic

With a new crossing from Dover, Boulogne is well worth a fresh look.

By Sharron Livingston, August 6, 2009
Boulogne’s cathedral: a prominent landmark in the beautiful, walled Old Town

Boulogne’s cathedral: a prominent landmark in the beautiful, walled Old Town

Earlier this summer, I was milling around Boulogne’s farmers’ market at Place Dalton, enjoying the hustle of the traders, practising my Franglais and rubbing shoulders with the locals. Business was brisk, the atmosphere vibrant and the steeple of the 13th-century St Nicolas church (the oldest in town) located in the hub of the market, glowed in the morning sun.

I took pictures as euros changed hands for farm-fresh cheese, home-made honey, jams, fish soup, strings of garlic, chicory, fish, meat, vegetables and flowers. And as the Anglaise snapped away, market traders stopped to smile at the camera.

Brits have been visiting this pretty coastal town for so long that the Boulognaises are used to having us around and have even come to rely on cross-Channel tourism to bolster their coffers. Hoverspeed stopped operating on the Dover-Boulogne route in 2006, but when Speedferries took up the mantle later that year, a collective sigh of relief could be heard across the town.

In January 2009, Speedferries were forced to stop operating and all seemed lost until L D Lines took over the route in May 2009 with a new dynamic fleet. Their newest offering, the Norman Arrow, sails from Dover’s Eastern docks and, in just over an hour, passengers are in the heart of Boulogne, thanks to the port’s location at the foot of the town centre.

So now that normal service to this charming old town has resumed, what does Boulogne offer the day-tripper or weekender?

Families on a day out should not miss Nausicaa, probably the world’s finest aquarium, where you can enjoy close encounters with around 35,000 species of marine life. Sharks swim overhead, rays approach to have their chins stroked while odd-looking creatures stare back at you through the glass.

But most impressive are the reconstructions. The Madacascan coast, for example, has been reproduced to show off its exceptional biodiversity. I particularly enjoyed the replica beach of the Cape in South Africa where real penguins shuffle up close before diving back into the water.

Though Boulogne has a beach, where sand-yachters whizz by at the whim of the wind, there’s a more family-friendly stretch of sand in the next town, a mile or so away, at Wimereux. Locals stay here and, as a result, there are all the facilities a young family would expect for an enjoyable seaside day out.

For shoppers, visiting the farmer’s market is an ideal introduction to the town. But Boulogne’s lower town also has a compact pedestrianised area on Rue Thiers. This is where my all-time favourite family-run cheese shop, Philip Olivier, can be found. This charming outlet is run by the fourth generation of the same family and M Olivier, a master of cheese, remains as enthusiastic as ever.

Of the 300 or so cheeses on offer, 30 of them are regional. His favourite is La Vieux Boulogne, made with cow’s milk, washed in beer to be eaten at its prime nine weeks later. M Olivier suggests it is best downed with the regional Deux Caps beer. Be warned though, this cheese has not been dubbed “the world’s smelliest” for nothing. For something more delicately scented, try his Livarot, a soft, cow’s milk cheese or his Reblochon, both of which have won him a gold medal.

Cafe society: Boulogne’s Old Town is a perfect spot to enjoy a cafe creme, or a lunch comprising the local speciality, fish

Cafe society: Boulogne’s Old Town is a perfect spot to enjoy a cafe creme, or a lunch comprising the local speciality, fish

Opposite, a specialist wine shop, Tresor de Vins, sells wines from Alsace, Burgundy, Rhone, Loire and Champagne. It is owned by Jean-Luc and Agnes Malkowiak who bill their shop as “le cave des passionnes”, (a wine cellar for the passionate). For a more eclectic mix of wines though, try Le Chais, in rue des Deux Ponts, which sells more than 50,000 different wines in atmospheric cellars.

Also on the Rue Thiers is the tiny outlet of Chocolats de Beussent, whose delicious chocolates are made at a factory in nearby Beussent (open to the public) using cocoa harvested from their own plantation in Ecuador.

Boulogne is one of France’s premier fishing ports, so if you love fish, be sure to take a cooler bag because the fish sold at the port-side fish market at Quai Gambetta is not only reasonably priced, it has been deposited by trawlers that same morning.

Looking upwards, the town’s most prominent landmark, the cathedral dome, dominates the skyline. It stretches out from the Haut Ville (upper town), and marks out the most beautiful section — its ancient, walled, Vieux Ville or Old Town.

It’s a steep walk up to the ramparts but this cobbled area is ripe for romantics. Once through the wall’s gates, the rising Rue de Lille is where all the quaint arts and crafts shops, cafés and restaurants (including one whose every dish is made with cheese) are located. At the top of Rue de Lille, I can recommend Vole Hole as a fine wine bar to sup a glass or two.

The ramparts themselves are remarkably intact and are superb for a quiet ramble along tree-lined paths. The views over both the old and new town are gorgeous. This is also home to the moated, 13th-century Chateau Musée. Once the stronghold of the Count of Boulogne, its museum is really worth a visit.

Cross the narrow, stone bridge and enter through the castle gates. Inside are collections from several prominent anthropologists from Boulogne who contributed relics from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and the South Sea islands. There are also superb Eskimo masks and a number of French historical collections.

There are many places to snack in Bolougne. But it is far better is to dine at one of the restaurants that specialises in the local speciality — fish. Aux Pecheurs Etaples, opposite the farmers market, is a fine example. It is run by a corporation of fishermen (who also manage a superb fishing museum in nearby Etaples). There’s a fish shop, a brasserie-style restaurant in the front and, at the rear, their gastronomic fish restaurant decked out in nautical memorabilia.

I enjoyed a delicately cooked lemon sole meunière served with frites and a glass of white wine for 20¤ (£14.70).

Most hotels in Boulogne are two or three-star, and Hotel Ibis near the old town offers budget accommodation from around £40 for a double room. More characterful is the Hotel de la Matelote which offers quaint, four-star rooms and a fine-dining restaurant too. Doubles here start at around £70.

But for something a little special, it is worth considering Hotel Clery. This is a fabulously elegant chateau just a few miles from Boulogne at Hesdin L’Abbe.

It is a little pricey at around £115 per night for a double room, but what price romance?

Jewish Boulogne

Boulogne sur Mer has a small Jewish community and one synagogue:at 63 Rue Charles Butor, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France

Last updated: 11:32am, August 11 2009