Because the French railway network extended its tentacles only slowly north from Paris to the ports, there was a spell in the mid-19th century when the Channel port of Boulogne remained conspicuously isolated from the rest of France. Brits could get there easily from London, using the new rail routes to the Kent coast and then continuing by steamer.
But onward travel through France was slow and so, for a generation of Brits, this little fragment of France abutting the English Channel was the only portion of the country that they really knew.
The Nord / Pas-de-Calais region
But what a lovely corner of France it was… and still is today. Its charms are too easily overlooked by British travelers today, whose arrival in France is often all-too-hurried. They are too intent to rush on, keen to head south to the Dordogne or Provence. Insofar as they stop at all in the Calais or Boulogne region, it is usually only on the way home and then merely to load the car with the cheap wine that has become the Brits’ favorite import from France.
Viewed from the perspective of Paris, and even more so from the salons of the Riviera, the cities and ports of the far north of France are still seen as impossibly remote. It’s a sentiment nicely captured in the hugely successful film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (“Welcome to the Sticks”). “North of Paris lie only the boondocks,” says our Avignon friend, going on to recount stories of pungent Maroilles cheese, cauliflowers and mining communities in terminal decline. Such are the prejudices of one too pampered by life in the sunny south.
So we told her that was nonsense and hopped on the next train to Boulogne, the one-time ferry port that once thrived on its links with Britain. The cross-Channel steamers have gone, now focusing their commercial efforts on Calais just 35 km up the coast. And, without the day trippers, that makes Boulogne all the more enjoyable.
The local tourism authorities still have a sharp eye on the British market, ever conscious that in terms of travel time Boulogne and Calais are closer to London than they are to Paris. “Real France, real close” run the ads prepared for the UK market.
Boulogne in particular is something special. We wandered the Gambetta Quai each morning, which boasts a superb fish market. And each evening we ate fresh fish in whatever manner Tony Lestienne favored that day. Lestienne is the most accomplished of chefs in a town with a rich culinary tradition. If you eat at the La Matelote restaurant, you are in for a treat. But if budgets are tight, head to the restaurant in the nearby Nausicáa Centre, where Monsieur Lestienne runs the in-house catering.
With its ramparts, walled Old Town and maze of narrow streets, Boulogne is pure France. And there are enough sights to detain you for three or four days.
The castle museum is a gem, with its oddly eclectic mix of exhibits. The range runs from a hall devoted to the funereal rites of Ancient Egypt through a stunning collection of Alaskan masks to delicately beautiful paintings of local Opale Coast beaches and dunescapes.
The big-draw sight in town is of course Nausicáa, an aquarium and environmental education center that lies on the northern fringes of town. It is justifiably celebrated.
Riding the coast: North to Calais
We left by bus, taking the morning local service up the coast to Calais. This is a roller coaster of a route that takes in cliffs and bays aplenty, the entire run enlivened by wonderful views of the white cliffs of the Kent coast just across the Channel. It is a good reminder that this is a corner of France whose fortunes have been forever shaped by its proximity to England.
Getting to Boulogne
From England, we strongly recommend the P&O ferry link from Dover to Calais. This is travel as it should be – relaxed, sedate and stylish. From Calais Port, it is an easy (if not exactly beautiful) hike into town to take one of the regular local trains from Calais Ville station to Boulogne.
Calais Ville station wins no prizes for grace or grandeur, but do take a few minutes to see Calais town hall, just south of the station. It is one of the most strikingly beautiful buildings in all of Flanders.
The rail route from Calais down to Boulogne runs inland, which means that you will only get occasional glimpses of the sea. So you might consider taking the none-too-frequent local bus service that departs from the Place d’Armes in Calais and hugs the coast all the way down to Boulogne. (Just note: No Sunday services on that bus route.)
From London St Pancras (and for that matter also from Brussels Midi), there are Eurostar trains direct to Calais Fréthun, in each case with a travel time of just one hour, where you can walk down to the very spartan local platform for the onward train to Boulogne. Calais to Boulogne takes just 30 minutes.
And if you are in France and can overcome local prejudices about the far, far north, you’ll find great rail connections from Paris to Boulogne. We recommend the line via Amiens, used by classic old-style but very comfortable InterCité trains, which take about 2hrs 45mins for the journey.
There are also five-times-daily TGV services which speed from Paris to Boulogne in just over two hours. The route they take is less immediately appealing than the more traditional Amiens line, but you do get some nice views of the landscapes of Picardie and Flanders.