Winter is a good time to test what else a seaside place has to offer apart from beaches. Based on my first visit for many years Boulogne-sur-Mer gets very good marks.
In addition to the beaches, Boulogne is busy all the year with four other attractions. It is worth a stopover for food alone, especially seafood, as it is France’s largest fishing port. It has a magnificent fortified old city, completed in 1230. There is a museum in the castle containing a unique collection of Alaskan art. And for the last 20 years, it’s had the Nausicaa Sea Life Centre dedicated to the study and conservation of marine life with 40 aquariums involving 35,000 “animals” (their words) covering 1,000 different species. In 2012 they expect to see 650,000 visitors.
Nausicaa has a comprehensive website www.nausicaa.co.uk. Even if you enjoy your visit just to see the “animals” of which, not surprisingly- fish predominate – the center has a vast range of impressive displays in many original layouts. But, bear in mind that the mission of Nausicaa is far more than just aquarium displays of interestingly looking fish and other species. For example, there is currently a great emphasis on the importance of coral: how it grows, the need for its preservation and how Nausicaa develops its own coral. Understandably, there is a lot of scientific information. There is also lengthy information about the principles of marine sustainability. By the way, in marine matters, the word “blue” is used in place of “green.” Some of the information is based on idealistic concepts translated from French. So, I suggest, don’t think you have to read all the words on all the display boards just follow the “threads” that interest you.
Some threads that caught my fancy were the sustainability of coral and the understanding that Nausicaa has about their animals, for example, how animals can be stressed in some display situations. I also liked the presentation of the World Ocean Day on 8th June and two other events coming up in 2012. In the summer, there is a focus on what attracts visitors more than anything else – the babies. “Nausicaa’s babies” takes you back through the last twenty years or so showing the favorite babies of the times such as the sharks, rays, and corals. And finally there’s tie-up and the personal appearance in April of Michel Redolfi the composer whose work over the years incorporates natural sounds to be listened to underwater- take a look at this YouTube link to hear and see what it’s about:
There is no doubt that Nausicaa justifies a trip to Boulogne in its own right and it can be covered from the UK in a long day which is why in term time it is popular for school trips. But I also wanted to have a good look at Boulogne, not having been there for nearly 20 years.
Apart from the demise of the direct ferries, not a great deal has changed in the harbor and seafront areas. The appeal of Boulogne over Calais used to be that all the restaurant and bistro activity was right next to the ferries which meant a final, very good value meal on the way home. So pleasant was that that I never took the walk of under a mile to the fortified Old City. Until now.
You can see most of the old town in about half a day as it covers not much more than a square kilometer. A short list of what’s there includes the 111th-century belfry (UNESCO Heritage site), Notre Dame Basilica, the Gothic Church of St. Nicolas and the Castle Museum. See all the details on the official site: www.tourisme-boulognesurmer.com.
I would describe the Museum as “attractively compact”. For example, the four Egyptian Rooms have a small number of all the key objects for the periods concerned, including three mummies, to cover it all without the very long walks necessitated at the British Museum and similar establishments! It also has the largest collection of Greek vases in France.
It is always a pleasure to find something that is truly unique. Alphonse Pinart a famous son of Boulogne and an explorer, traveled at times single-handed in a canoe, up the Western coast of what became Alaska. In 1873 he brought back the stunning local Inuit masks which now form the collection in the Museum. Claimed to be “unique in Europe,” this sort of work was hardly known in Europe before the 19th Century. His collection includes early Alaskan Ray-Bans: leather goggles with slits used as protection against the sun and snow (pictured). It’s fascinating to see how similar the masks are to those of South America for which there is no traceable link.
Concerts, Exhibitions, and Gigs
From April to December Boulogne has a good programme of concerts and exhibitions.
The Pompidou Centre Paris is “coming” from May to September 2012 with a mobile pop up exhibition with free entry. It is also bringing a selection, of works on loan, of modern masters including: Picasso, Braque, Léger and Matisse. Throughout the year there are jazz and classical music events at the Palais des Sports 15 minutes’ cab ride from the town. The night I was there, Liz McComb was singing with her Quintet and backing from two local school choirs.
There are nearly seventy restaurants and bistros in Boulogne and about a third get some sort of comment on the various “travellers’ comment websites”. I only had a chance to try two on my flying visit. One was a disaster, an old established name that was no longer what it once was. I failed to follow my own advice which is to check on current recommendations and always include the Red Michelin book I my bag or at least to see it online. However, we had an excellent lunch at the Restaurant in Nausicaa – two separate fish dishes with individual sauces with the depth of taste that comes from home made stock and the right reductions (Menus: lunch €18 evening from €28) tel: 33(0)321 33 2424. Three other restaurants, all well regarded are: La Matelote (one Michelin Star, menus from €31) tel:33(0)321 30 1797; Grand Restaurant, overlooks Harbour (menus from €19) Tel: 33(0)321 31 4420 and L’llot Vert (menus from €18) tel: 33(0)321 92 0162. Be sure to book in advance for dinner.
Hotel le Metropole tel: 33(0)321 31 5430 has a charming garden next to Phillipe Olivier’s cheese shop rated by some as the best in France.
Boulogne and Nausicaa is well worth a visit and ideal for a half-term break and I look forward to the next time. So speed down from Calais on the A16 Motorway, or take a coach or get a €15 cab from the Eurostar station. Finally, in the year when Charles Dickens crops up all over the place, Boulogne is included. After 1853 he swapped it for Broadstairs for summer holidays and sent his sons to school there.