After we left the British Military Cemetery at Terlincthun we drove directly to the old town of Boulogne and were fortunate to find the last remaining vacant parking space inside the old stone walls. I have been to Boulogne several times before and I am happy to declare it one of my favourite cities in all of France.
The old town is built within the original Roman walls and has recently been well restored and it was in complete contrast to the concrete and glass of the sea front and the shopping streets. Here is the beating heart of a medieval city with history oozing from every corner with a castle, a cathedral and narrow streets lined with charming properties, little shops, cafés and bars.
From the car park we walked along the main street full of interesting shops and busy restaurants and under the walls of the huge cathedral which was rebuilt in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the 1789 Revolution in which the old cathedral was closed and worship forbidden before it was declared the property of the State and then dismantled and sold, stone by stone.
The medieval cathedral was the site of a shrine to ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ a representation of a vision that appeared in Boulogne in or around the year 646 and which arrived in a boat without sails, oars, or sailors, on which stood a wooden statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus in her arms. The French Revolutionaries didn’t have a lot of regard for this sort thing and so at the same time as they destroyed the cathedral they burned the priceless wooden statue as well.
Anyway, the church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century complete with a massive dome, one of the largest in Europe, and inside there is a modern replica of ‘Our Lady of Boulogne’ which is one of four that were sculptured in 1943 and toured France until 1948 when it was known as ‘The Lady of the Great Return’ and is today symbolic of the reconciliation between nations.
From the cathedral we walked along the Rue de Lille and negotiated the pavement table barricades scattered almost randomly across the pedestrianised street and then to the Hotel de Ville with its immaculate gardens like an oasis in the centre of the cramped city where we stopped for a while and enjoyed the hot sunshine and the contrast of a cool beer under the shadow of the city’s twelfth century UNESCO World Heritage Site medieval Belfry.
For the record France has thirty-eight sites, the same as Germany, but is six behind Spain (44) and eleven behind Italy (49) which incidentally tops the World table for the number of sites.
Inside the town hall there was free entry to the Belfry Tower that included a guided tour and history of the building which was helpfully given in English as well as French. There was a long climb with a couple of stops for informative narrative and there were good views from the top of the tower and we were lucky to be part of quite a small group of visitors because we had time and space to enjoy the rooftop vista.
After the break we walked half of the walls and then returned to the car to go to the fishing port to find some lunch and after we had some difficulty finding a parking spot we strolled casually down the hill into the town past the Nausicaa Aquarium, one of the largest aquarium museums in France. We walked along the busy docks that smelled of fish and this was a surprise because Boulogne, it turns out, is the biggest fishing port in France and there is a large fishing fleet including deep-sea trawlers and factory ships, as well as smaller sea-going and inshore fishing boats. A third of France’s fresh fish catch is landed here, and a huge quay-side fish processing factory makes 20% of the nation’s tinned fish, and half of the frozen fish, fish fingers and other fish based ready meals.
We found a seafront restaurant and asked for menus but things went spectacularly wrong when an unexpected strong gust of wind blew my glass of beer over straight into my mum’s lap which put her off her lunch. It was getting quite windy now so we tried two or three different tables and then abandoned the seafront lunch idea and returned instead to the shelter of the old town where perhaps we should have stayed in the first place.
Here we selected a restaurant on Rue de Lille and ordered what we thought was going to be a snack but turned out to be quite enormous meals which, although we didn’t know it at the time was going to spoil our evening meal. Mum didn’t enjoy her Welsh Rarebit, Alan had an oversize omelette, Richard had a pizza that would have been sufficient for all four of us but I did get the pot of moules marinière that I had been promising myself.
Lunch over we tried to walk some of it off by visiting the other half the old town walls and alongside the Castle Museum and the gardens on the other side and then we called it a day and returned to the hotel where we made matters worse by opening the bar and drinking more beer in the couple of hours before our evening meal.