From his lofty perch some 53 metres up, Napoleon Bonaparte gazes across at what might have been. Back in 1804 over 100,000 men of his grand army stood alongside him right here at Boulogne sur Mer on the Calais coast poised to invade England.
They even erected the column in anticipation of such a great victory. Fortunately for us, they got a little sidetracked by Austria and Russia over in the east and eventually abandoned the invasion, but it was a very close call. Left with an impressive column but no English defeat to celebrate, Napoleon put it 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, a poignant reminder of a bygone age and an interesting diversion along a coastline full of these vignettes, yet surprisingly overlooked by so many of us. The Opale Coast (Côte d’Opale), so called by the countless 19th century impressionist painters who flocked here to capture the abounding natural light and colour is a real hidden gem of northern France and long prized by the French. Here, amongst the stunning sand dunes and gloriously wide beaches, the cliffs and the forests, you’ll discover slices of authentic French life wherever you go; local artisans producing breads, cheeses and chocolates in villages untainted by the trappings of tourism. And the best thing of all? There are no crowds to spoil the fun and unbelievably, it’s right on our doorstep just a hop across the Channel.
Boulougne sur Mer itself has a reputation as the fishing capital of France no less, evidenced by the innumerable clinker-built flobarts, the unique local flat bottomed fishing boats always a familiar silhouette along the shoreline. Watching the fisherman using tractors to haul them in and out of the sea always draws a crowd, but why not go one step further and spend a morning or afternoon with them at sea? The local tourist office at can organise a trip with the fishermen for just €15 per person.
Boulogne has been a fortified town since Roman times and Julius Caesar had more luck with his conquest of Britain than Napoleon did, sailing his 800 ships across from the harbour here in 54 BC. 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 and home to a host of marine life.
Just along the coast road, the charming harbour at Wimereux beckons for lunch, where you’ll be spoilt for choice with all that fresh fish on the menus. With its restored Anglo-Norman style villas and Victorian beach huts lined up along the sea wall, Wimereux’s simple Gallic charm is delightful. You can walk off a long lunch along the nearby cliff tops and if it’s a clear day, take in the majestic view across to the Kent coast Talking of views, Wimereux golf course, built in 1901 is a spectacular Scottish style links course open to the elements high up on the bluffs and a real test for any adventurous golfer.
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 2 miles . Almost entirely shunned by foreign visitors, you’ll find hidden little French gems here. Untamed coastal land with wild life in abundance, quaint typically French village atmosphere and on Tuesdays and Fridays an open air market selling all kinds of local produce.
A little further south, past the fishing port of Etaples we reach the Opale coast’s 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 in northern France to entertain his friends. He bought a thousand acres of forest and set about building 20 luxury villas around a tennis complex. In no time it became the favourite haunt of the Victorian well to do, including Charles Dickens, who made frequent trips across to meet his mistress here, well away from prying eyes.
Today, Hardelot is perhaps overshadowed by Le Touquet, its much bigger neighbour, but there is 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 the courses you find in southern Spain and a small yet convenient village centre with access directly to the beach. It’s a world away from the bustle of the towns, just the sights and sounds of daily woodland life all around you.
Just a nine iron chip further south however, Le Touquet is a world of difference. This is still the pick of northern French resorts for a weekend getaway for the Parisian well to do, many with holiday homes in the surrounding forest or in apartments 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 it must have seen some grand arrivals in its time. By the way, the restaurant there, L’Escale, is well worth a try.
The old casino dominates the main square and is said to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. There are many references to the area in the book which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Fleming visited here many times, met his wife here and was a regular at the Westminster Hotel across the road, where his signed photo is now a permanent resident. He was in good company of course, Winston Churchill, Noel Coward, Tony Blair and even Sean Connery (keeping with the Bond theme) have been familiar faces. This is a town that oozes style and elegance whatever the time of year; the narrow streets lined with designer boutiques and classy patisseries and restaurants. I remember a lady coming out of a restaurant once, carrying a small poodle in her handbag – all very French!
The miles of beachfront are spectacular and you’ll find all kinds of activities happening in and around it, from volleyball to the traditional French ball game boules during the summer months. However, every first weekend in February the beach is handed over to bikers for the annual Enduro race. Over a thousand bikes and quads compete in a series of races across the beach and the nearby dunes, all very exciting but be warned, the population rises to over 200,000 visitors during that weekend.
The coastal spectacle here is very intoxicating, but venture inland a few miles and you’ll uncover more delightful surprises. Montreuil Sur Mer for example, complete with ramparts and windy cobbled streets is the epitome of a gorgeous 18th century French hill top town with floral decorations in just about every window box you pass. It seemed Victor Hugo also fell under Montreuil’s charm when he happened to stop here for a day on his way north and decided there and then to set part of Les Miserables in the town. (Jean Valjean is the mayor of 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 I have to admit, 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.
So, next time you drive off the ferry or train at Calais, you’ve got a very good reason to not just roar south. Stay awhile on the Opal Coast and show Napoleon the error of his ways.
P&O Ferries has up to 23 crossings daily from Dover to Calais, The new ships the Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France are the largest ships to ever use the Dover Straits and are akin to luxury liners with capacity for 1,000 vehicles and 2,000 passengers. Crossings start from £38 return per car with a club lounge upgrade offering free drinks for an additional £12 pp. www.poferries.com
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle offers up to 4 crossings per hour and an overnight ticket from £46 return per car. www.eurotunnel.com
Les Miserables Son et Lumiere €15 pp: www..lesmiserables-montreuil.com
Flobart Fishing: Le Portel-Plage Tourist Office www.ot-leportel-plage.com
Tel: 0033 32 1314593 €15 pp 2 passengers per boat.
Nausicaa Aquarium: Family of 4 ticket €15.60 per adult €9 per child www.nausicaa.co.uk
Where to stay:
Club Hotelier du Boulonnais: The official site highlighting eighteen two to four star hotels across the Boulonnais region. www.hotels-boulogne-sur-mer.com