As the premier fishing port of France, Boulogne naturally has brilliant fish restaurants - plus very tempting foodie shops and a good slice of history.
I’ve always been fascinated with Boulogne since reading Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt, in which he mentions Aunt’s fondness for Soles a la Boulonnaise (delicious). He sums it all up in the first line: ‘Strangely enough I felt almost at home in Boulogne’. Mais oui.
Walking along Quay Gambetta you pass the fish market, where the heaps of sole and mounds of shellfish inspire thoughts of lunch. Well, it really is worth going to Boulogne just for the restaurants, but do bear in mind that the French start lunch early and it's definitely best to book. And many offer special children's menus with tasty food at very reasonable prices. The best place to park is on the quayside in front of the fish market, from where it is a short walk into town.
For a real treat you can't beat "La Matelote Hotel & Restaurant 1 Michelin star (restaurant: 80 Boulevard Sainte-Beuve; 33 (0)3 21 30 17 97 www.la-matelote,com). Menus always include complimentary extras and gourmets will relish the 'Saveurs de la Mer' menu.
Pick up maps and other information at the Office du Tourisme near here (Parvis de Nausicaa, Boulevard Sainte Beuve; 33 (0)3 21 10 88 10; www.tourisme-boulognesurmer.com).
Nausicaa, the French national sea centre, is opposite "La Matelote". But don't be put off by the name - it refers to a Greek heroine in Homer’s Odyssey. I take visiting children, and environmentalist friends, to see sharks and sea lions as well as the riveting exhibitions that show the world in a new perspective (Boulevard Sainte Breve; 33 (0)3 21 30 99 99; www.nausicaa.fr) . The restaurant here serves traditional and regional dishes (menus around €20). At the other end of the size scale, Maison de la Beuriere (16 rue du Machicoulis; 33 (0)3 21 30 14 52) in the old seafaring quarter is a tiny museum which gives an insight into life of fishermen at the end of the 19th century. Eat alongside today’s fishermen at Le Chatillon (6 Rue Charles Tellier; 33 (0)3 21 31 43 95 open 8am-15.30 weekdays) a no-frills fish restaurant.
Boulogne remains a firm favourite for discerning shoppers.
The food shops and boutiques are in the lower modern town. Cross the road from the port and make your way up the Grande Rue. Take time to explore the side streets, particularly Rue Thiers, Rue Victor Hugo and Place Dalton where the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets are held from 08.30am to 1pm. Best time to get to the market is around 10.30 am when it is in full swing, it tends to wind down at midday and closes at 1pm.
I make straight for Philippe Olivier’s astonishingly beautiful cheese shop at 43 Rue Thiers. With the largest choice of cheese in Northern France, they have 30 from the Nord Pas de Calais region alone. Beautifully displayed on straw mats, local specialities include Cremet du Cap Blanc-Nez, a white creamy-yet-crumbly mound named in honour of the nearby headland, and the tangy Vieux Boulogne. Across the street at number 56, you can find locally-made Chocolat de Beussent. My favourite patisserie, amusingly called Fred, on Place Dalton has mouth-watering window displays which include favourites such as tartes framboises and pain noisette.
At Number 1 Grande Rue, Charcuterie ED Bourgeouis sells ready to eat vegetable dishes, croissants stuffed with cheese or shellfish, pates, hams, garlic sausages, salamis, black and white puddings and rillettes. Further up Aux Pecheurs d’Etaples (31 Grande Rue, 00 33 (0)3 21 30 29 29; www.auxpecheursdetaples.fr) is a buzzy fish restaurant (menus €14 to €25). Attached to a fish shop it is owned by a fishermen’s co-operative, and specialities include assiette de fruits de mer (seafood platters) and Welsh de la Mer (Seafood Rarebit). ‘Le Welsh’ dishes, topped with melted cheese, are a feature of Boulogne cuisine. Chez Jules (8-10 Place Dalton; 33 (0)3 21 31 54 12) a baguette's throw from the market is much more than the cafe/pizzeria it first seems -good though these are. Upstairs there is a comfortable classic restaurant which makes a relaxed retreat after sightseeing. Specialities include brochettes of seafood or meat served on long skewers which are supported on stands. Menus range from €16.
Walk off lunch by continuing up the Grande Rue to the Haute Ville which is reached through the 13th-century ramparts. The dome of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame dominates the Boulogne skyline; built in 19th century it has a medieval crypt (closes for lunch noon-2pm). Next door Chateau Musee (Castle Museum; 2 rue de Bernet; 33 (0)3 21 10 02 20 www.ville-boulogne-sur-mer.fr) has exhibits ranging from ancient Greek vases to Inuit art and French sculpture. Pedestrianised Rue de Lille with its cobbled streets, artists' shops and pavement cafes can be like a mini Monmartre. For a further echo of Paris don't miss Hediard, boutique gourmand, at 7 Rue Port Neuve. L'Enclos de 'Eveche, an atmospheric small hotel in the heart of the old town.
Wine-lovers will be in their element in the atmospheric cellars of Le Chais (49 rue des Deux Ponts; 33 (0)3 21 31 65 42; www.lechais.com). It can be tricky to find but well worth persevering. Follow sign 'Brequerecque' go under the railway arches and turn immediate left. Free parking outside. The 50,000 bottles in stock range from table wines at prices similar to French supermarkets to rare vintages and superb 'growers' champagne' Asssailly-LeClarie & Fils (€15.90). Denis Lengaigne. the charismatic owner is happy to open bottles for tasting. Closed Sunday, Monday and lunch 12-2.30 pm Tuesday to Saturday. Pre-order by email: firstname.lastname@example.org Special offers and a superb selection of top wines region by region.
Don't miss Wimereux, a charmingly old-fashioned seaside resort some ten minutes drive out of Boulogne. Hotel Atlantic (www.atlantic-delpierre.com) has a gourmet restaurant, brasserie and seaview bedrooms.
How To Get There:
Whilst regular cross channel passengers have mourned the loss of the LD Lines Dover-Boulogne ferry service (due to overcapacity on the Dover Strait) there are hopes that a direct ferry will be reinstated www.ldlines.com 0844 576 8836.
Meanwhile the best way to get there is by P&O on the Dover-Calais crossing (driving time from Calais to Boulogne is around 25 minutes via the A16 autoroute). www.poferries.com tel. 08716 646464
Or enjoy a meal on board in Langan’s Brasserie. Upgrade to the peace of the Club Lounge for an extra £12 per person: includes glass of champagne and sometimes a chance to have a shoulder and neck massage (the therapist will ask you to pay what you think it is worth - suggested price from £8: worth every penny, darling).
Eurotunnel: Folkestone-Calais www.eurotunnel.com 08765 353535 takes 35 minutes