Looking for a place to visit that’s rich in history, culinary delights and activities, but not too far away? The Opal Coast fringes Pas de Calais, a region in northern France that borders the Strait of Dover is well worth the visit. It is easily accessible from the UK by land, air, sea and the channel tunnel.
Here are my top ten attractions, from Boulogne sur Mer and back to Calais.
1) Visit the aquarium – Nausicaà in Boulogne sur Mer
Nausicaà is a huge aquarium dominating the sea front of Boulogne sur Mer. The original aquarium was built in the large cellars of the town’s old casino. In 2018, the addition of a huge new tank, has made the aquarium the largest in Europe.
By following designated routes visitors can explore two aspects of the sea – Mankind and Shores and a Journey on the High Seas. The inter-linking sections are well laid out with information boards, videos and tanks.
Refreshments are available in the café by the tropical lagoon where visitors can watch the fish, including two zebra sharks, being fed. It was a fascinating experience that can easily last all day.
2) A Walk around the Walls of Boulogne sur Mer
The original city walls were built during the thirteenth century. A second rampart was added during the sixteenth century creating a wide walkway that encircles the old town. The tree-shaded path incorporates four gates and seventeen towers.
This lovely walk offers a refreshing break from the narrow cobbled streets of the old town and good views of the new town beyond it.
3) See the collections in the Castle of Boulogne sur Mer
The castle, Chateau de Boulogne sur Mer, was built within the city walls during the thirteenth century. It was surrounded by a recently restored moat and connected to the town by a stone bridge. Today this huge building, arranged around a large inner courtyard, houses several interesting collections. They include an Egyptian section and the Boulogne Art Gallery.
Although the collections are not specifically related to the town, they do include a hat worn by Napoleon and one of his diamond rings.
4) Explore the Crypt of the Basilica of Notre Dame de Boulogne
Beneath the ‘new’ Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne is the huge crypt of the original cathedral which was destroyed during the French Revolution. This huge crypt is the longest in France and I was grateful for the maps on the floor to help me find my way around this fascinating underground maze of tunnels. They even include the remains of a Roman temple.
This crypt has three functions:
- It acts as the foundations of the church above it
- It displays artefacts from the original church
- It tells the story of the church as an institution through the frescoes on the walls.
5) Stroll along the Beach of Boulogne sur Mer
The vast, sandy beach of Boulogne sur Mer was attracting visitors before the French Riviera became fashionable. The long promenade is ideal for a gentle evening stroll, admiring the regimented rows of charming little beach huts.
6) Dinner at La Matelot in Boulogne sur Mer
La Matelote is a Michelin Star restaurant on the sea front of Boulogne sur Mer and worthy of a visit. A hotel of the same name has developed around the restaurant and is a delightful place to stay. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal there. The food is excellent, very tasty and well-presented. This restaurant certainly deserves the star it has proudly displayed for over thirty-five years.
7) Market Day in Wimereux
Wimereux, a small market town close to Boulogne sur Mer, is worthy of a visit. On Wednesday, its market day, the streets are lined with stalls bursting with local produce. This quiet seaside town is also famous for its decorated beach huts along its long promenade and Art Nouveau villas – an era referred to as the Belle Epoch in France.
8) Experience 2 Caps Brewery for beer and cheese
At the 2 Caps Brewery, I met the passionate master brewer Christophe Noyon whose family owns the farm where the brewery is based. His enthusiasm and the setting of this small craft brewery are what make the visit worthwhile.
That, and the post-tour tasting that included the renowned Belle Dalle cheese made with a strong real ale of the same name. Christophe has worked with the legendary cheese-maker Philippe Olivier to produce some excellent cheeses using his beer.
9) Coastal walk along Cap Blanc-Nez
Cap Blanc-Nez is the more attractive of the two cliff-top walks on the Opal Coast. But unlike the Cap Gris-Nez, it is not a true cape as it does not jut out into the sea. It is a very pleasant walk along the cliff top with splendid views along the coastline and across the English Channel.
The walk on Cap Blanc-Nez also features an obelisk that was built to commemorate the Dover patrol, which kept the Channel free of German U-boats during the First World War.
10) The Museum for Lace and Fashion in Calais
The Museum for Lace and Fashion in Calais was established in one of the last collective lace factories, typical of the late nineteenth century. It is in the heart of the Saint-Pierre district once devoted to the making of lace.
Its permanent exhibition is dedicated to the history of lace-making. My tour included a demonstration of the cumbersome mechanical lace-making machines in action. Even though the making of patterns has been modernised, the machines themselves are still worthy of a nineteenth century work-house.