The reintroduction of a direct ferry service between Dover and Boulogne-sur-Mer has thrust the charms of this French seaside village back into the spotlight, says DAMIAN TULLY-POINTON.

For a town with such a long history – it’s been an important harbour town since Roman times – and as vital and modern as France’s biggest fishing port, Boulogne-sur-Mer really shouldn’t need an introduction. But relative anonymity is the price this endearing charmer has paid for being just a few kilometres further from Dover than Calais.

Boulogne-sur-Mer (Boulogne for short) was the original gateway to France from England, having grown up around a naval dockyard established by the Roman Emperor around 55BC. Calais only emerged as a contender for the title in the mid 19th century, when the towns’ long standing rivalry to develop cross-Channel ferry trade began.

The shorter route between Dover and Calais gave Calais gave the edge from the outset. Then, in 2000, the last of the major ferry operators abandoned Boulogne altogether in their battle with the Channel Tunnel.

The tide turned, however, with the reintroduction last year of direct fast ferry services from Dover to Boulogne, meaning Boulogne’s days of playing second fiddle to its more commercial and far less charismatic sister could be over.

Situated just two hours’ drive from Paris in the heart of the Boulonnais Natural Park, Boulogne makes for a delightful alternative first stop in France. The fact it’s not Calais may have once put it at a disadvantage, but spend some time here and you’ll soon discover that this is Boulogne’s biggest selling point.

Fishy business
Sitting at the mouth of the river Liane, Boulogne is a port town through and through, with both a peaceful marina for recreational sailors and fisher folk, and the lively working dock through which pumps the town’s economic lifeblood. The daily fish haul ends up on plates across Europe, and the capécure on the waterfront is place to go to see it unloaded, auctioned, frozen, salted, packaged and despatched. Locals and visitors alike flock to the Quayside Boulevard Gambetta each morning for the pick of the freshest fish in the country. Herring is the traditional fish, served in practically every way imaginable, and the Herring Festival in November is the best time to try it. During the festival, the quayside bustles with fisherman and their wives in traditional dress who serve passers-by with grilled herring and a warming glass of Beaujolais.

If your interests are more historic than gastronomic, you can learn about Boulogne’s deep-rooted fishing traditions at the Maison de la Beuriére ( in the heart of the old seafaring quarter. Built in 1870, the authentic fisherman’s house recounts what life was like for a sailor’s family in the early 1900s.

Continuing the aquatic theme, the town’s major tourist attraction is the National Sea Discovery Centre (Nausicaa), which enables visitors to see sharks, sea lions, caimans, stingrays and other aquatic creatures up close on their own wet turf. The museum, the biggest of its kind in Europe, aims to educate visitors on man’s relationship with the world’s oceans and their inhabitants. See

Town of art and history
Rich in a heritage which has earned it the subtitle Ville d’art et d’histoire (‘town of art and history’), Boulogne is adorned with enduring monuments of its long and influential past. The jewel in the city’s crown is the Old Town, built within the original Roman walls.

Entered by way of one of four large arched gateways, the Old Town’s cobbled streets offer a real sense of old world France and a feast of centuries-old architectural gems including a 12th century belfry, 13th century ramparts, a medieval crypt, and a castle built by medieval counts (it’s now a museum). It’s also home to the spectacular Basilique Notre Dame, whose towering Italianate dome visible is all over Boulogne. The cathedral was built between 1827 and 1866, when Abbe Benoit Haffreingue wanted to restore the cult of Notre Dame.

Napoleon was the town’s most famous resident. He based himself in Boulogne while preparing for his invasion of England in 1802-5. A column (the tallest in France at 54m) built for him by his army still stands on the main road into town.

Get beached
Making up part of the 40km Côte d’Opale (Opal Coast) that stretches from Boulogne to Calais, Boulogne’s sandy beaches have been held in the affections of British visitors since they started frequenting them in the 18th century. Among the regulars were Charles Dickens, who once described the town as his ‘French watering place’, and English painter Turner, who captured its seascapes, sunsets and local fisherfolk in many sketches and watercolours. Today, the coastline is as popular with sun-worshippers as it is with adrenaline junkies. Sailing, surfing, wind-surfing, sand yachting, and speed sailing take place almost year round. The coastal vistas are also favoured by cyclists, walkers and equestrians.

A feast of shopping
Boulogne, thankfully, lacks the massive shopping complexes and alcohol hypermarkets of Calais, offering instead an inviting range of specialty shops. In terms of food, you’re spoilt for choice. Don’t miss Phillipe Oliver’s famous self-titled cheese shop (43 rue Thiers) which stocks the biggest choice of cheeses in northern France – it sells 30 different cheeses from the local region alone. Get a whiff (and a taste, if you’re not put off) of the town’s famous Vieux Boulogne cheese.

The hand-made chocolates of nearby Chocolaterie de Beussent are also a must. Completing the gourmet experience are numerous small town patisseries, delicatessens, bakeries, wine shops, and cafés and restaurants. The markets on Wednesday and Saturday mornings in Place Dalton offer an overwhelming range of fresh regional produce at tasty prices.