Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside. And I do love the sound of seagulls. I know when I hear them that I'm definitely on my holidays. And the seagulls in Boulogne-sur-Mer are among the most vocal I've ever come across. They are proud of their city and they have every right to be.
A major fishing port in the north of France, Boulogne is just 31 miles from Dover, 120 miles from Brussels and just down the road from Calais.
We based ourselves at the very centrally located Hotel Metropole and went in search of food. In Le Cyrano, in Rue Coquelin, the charming Jerome is front of house and his wife Angelique is in the kitchen. It's a small homely restaurant serving fish straight from the nearby port. Marmite de pecheur was a hearty mix of salmon, mussels, haddock, white wine, cream and veg. All a great start to our adventure.
The old town is walled and has four gates. Three of the gates can be entered with a car and one is for pedestrians only. History abounds. And surprises.
Compass jellyfish dance and entrance visitors to the Nausicaa aquarium
Like Le Jardin Ephemere just beside the Town Hall. A former car park, it has been transformed into a feast for the senses. The theme in the garden is changed every year, and when I was there it was all about superstitions. Hats on beds, baguettes turned upside down on tables, broken mirrors, and crossed knives are among some of the items in situ, along with an explanation as to why they put the fear of God into some people. It would appear that the Romans believed that evil spirits lurked within a mirror and when it was broken they escaped and brought bad luck.
The city is all very compact, and the Belfry is only a hop, skip and a jump away. A former Romanesque keep, it was built in three stages spanning the 12th, 13th and 18th Centuries. The Town Hall has now been integrated into it. The nearby Basilica was sold during the French revolution and eventually demolished, and in 1827 a local Jesuit priest called Father Haffreingue decided to rebuild it.
Knowing absolutely nothing about architecture but having received a sizeable donation from a benefactor, he travelled to England to learn about church buildings and in 1829 his vision was realised and the Basilica opened its doors. The crypt is one of the biggest in France. A hundred metres long, it's a labyrinth of passages and a treasure trove of artefacts and murals. Well worth a visit.
The 13th Century castle now houses a museum. Comprising nine towers, it's impressive. There are four permanent exhibitions - one of which traces the history of the city. Other exhibitions take place throughout the year.
It's so lovely to wander from sight to sight through the cobbled streets and embrace the sense of history in this beautiful old town. But one of the main reasons why people come to Boulogne-sur-Mer is Nausicaa, the biggest aquarium in Europe. It focuses mainly on the relationship between the sea and man. It's an educational and scientific experience as well as an entertaining one.
Originally a casino, it was re-purposed from 1987 and opened to the public in 1991. In 2007 it welcomed its 10-millionth visitor. I have never seen so many excited and happy kids' faces in one day in my life. A vast building, Nausicaa is home to 60,000 creatures and you could literally spend days in there. It's an homage to the sea as well as an aquarium and it prides itself on its conservation prowess. Exhibitions and videos are interspersed with tanks of varying size and interactive ventures that keep kids entertained for hours. In a huge tank certain species of sharks swim alongside tropical fish. It seems these sharks circle their food a few times to make sure it's safe to go for it. I'll have to develop a strategy like that myself to slow my consumption down.
I love penguins and as I get older I realise I'm actually beginning to walk like one. They were among the first creatures we encountered at Nausicaa and I could have stayed there watching them all day. There are multitudinous jellyfish here too. Very graceful creatures. Again, I could watch them endlessly - like a lava lamp from the Sixties. Apparently there are jellyfish conferences throughout the world! I never knew.
Lunch at the restaurant there is really good bowls of mussels and other tasty refreshments...
Nearby Cap Blanc Nez and Cap Gris Nez, known collectively as Le Grand Site des Deux Caps, are a nature lover's dream. Beautiful beaches and lush countryside stretch for miles. We hired E bikes (€15 a day). Now, I hadn't been on a bike for more years than I care to remember but God loves a trier so they say. Well clearly he doesn't have much time for me because I landed on my petit derriere. Heavily. But I got up and tried again. It was good fun and a great way to see the area.
Another good way to see the sights is a trip on La Florelle, a boat that leaves from the port and takes in the harbour delights.
The Presbytere a Tardinghen, near les Deux Caps, a restaurant with a vista extraordinaire, was a great choice for lunch. Delicious tournedos of salmon with a parsley butter and creamy vegetable risotto followed by peach and almond crumble was not good for the diet.
Like all of France, there's a huge focus on food and wine in the area. And craft beer. We visited Brasserie Artisanale des 2 Caps and tasted some of owner Christophe Noyon's fine beers. He offers a choice of nine, and appears to love them all passionately. Now I love my food passionately and the restaurant option here is vast. L'Aloze at the Atlantic Hotel in the pretty coastal town of Wimereux, just four miles from Boulogne, is sublime. Dining with an amazing sea view. A tomato gazpacho to die for and a perfectly cooked entrecote followed by a trilogy of scrumptious desserts. Divine.
The history, the scenery, the people, the food, the wine and of course Nausicaa all make for a wonderful journey into the true France.