As France’s premier fishing port and the second biggest in all Europe after Spain’s Vigo, which, incidentally, is the busiest in the whole world, the bustling Channel town of Boulogne sur Mer is a logical location for Nausicaá – the superb French National Sea Life Centre (www.nausicaa.fr).
330,000 tonnes of fish and seafood are processed in the town’s port for the table each year. Meanwhile, the 5.4 million litres of water that fill Nausicaá’s 45 aquariums and terrariums provide a safe haven for more than 36,00 sea creatures.
Latest addition is a spacious one-million litre pool for six lithe Californian sea lions. Nausicaá visitors can see these intelligent creatures up close thanks to an underwater glass tunnel.
For this much hunted and now endangered species, the waters around the nearby Channel Islands have been given protected national park status.
A 2,300 sq km marine crossroads at the confluence of two seas fed by seven rivers, the Picard Estuaries and Opal Coast Natural Marine Park is home to 200 animal and plant species, 69 species of sea birds, 16 species of marine animals and 90 species of fish.
But Nausicaá also showcases a host of more exotic creatures, gathered globally, from the warmest tropical waters to the cold Arctic and Antarctic wastes, making this one of the world’s premier sea life centres.
Boulogne’s close proximity to the British coast ensures a huge influx of visitors to the attraction from across the Channel – families, school groups, corporate groups and individuals.
Appropriately, the signage, audio guides and informational panels are in English as well as French and there are English-speaking guides and attendants.
In the 21 years since the venue opened it doors, in 1991, it has welcomed some 1.3 million visitors. One in eight of them come from the UK and Ireland.
Claimed to be the only discovery centre of its kind, Nausicaá presents the marine environment in a manner that focuses on the relationship of mankind and the sea. It manages to be scientific, educational and good fun at the same time.
There’s a year-round calendar of special events, including April’s Festival of Sea Imagery, June’s World Oceans Day, and the temporary ‘Islands Stories’ exhibition, which runs through to the end of 2014.
Once the prime choice for day trippers from the UK, since its ‘60s hey-day Boulogne lost most of this business, not just to near neighbour Calais – much better served by ferries, indeed, that’s the route we took thanks to one of the P&0 Ferries’ fleet of modern, fast and comfortable ships (www.poferries.com) – but to the extensive autoroute network which whisks incoming motorists off to the south and the sun.
That’s a crying shame because this Nord-Pas de Calais region is one of France’s most bounteous, with captivating natural scenery ranging from haunting marshes and abundant rivers and streams to imposing escarpments, lofty hills and vast forests. But the real key to its great appeal is the human element. History has left a vivid imprint, with stunningly beautiful châteaux, monasteries and churches, ancient forts, imposing monuments, zig-zagging trench remains, and vast cemeteries providing haunting memories not just of the two world wars that swept across Flanders, Artois and Picardy but of the 100 Year War, Roman Invasion and other earlier conflicts.
And then there’s the food! We overnighted at the convenient three-star Opal Inn (www.hotel-opalinn.com), just across the street from the Sea Life Centre. Before heading out of Boulogne on a leisurely five-day road trip, we strolled up into the cobbled old town to dip back into a bank of fond memories with a meal at the delightfully time warped Le Welsh pub and La Table de Nicolas brasserie (www.welshpub.com), where I first dined on a day trip way back in the mid-1960s. I’ve often thought of the pot au feu de poisson (fish stew) I savoured on that occasion.
Welsh rarebit has a long tradition here, first popularised by First World War British troops garrisoned in the town, but for me, plump moules mariniere were de rigeur, followed by a succulent cod steak and slices of chorizo in a pastry case with vegetables, gnocchi, parmesan cheese and saffron sauce. Had there been more time, we would have opted for a truly enticing and massive plateaux des fruits de mer seafood platter. When traditional fayre is so tasty, do we really need Michelin Star frippery for anything other than special occasions?
From Boulogne, we headed south through the delightfully rural Seven Valleys to the picturesque little hilltop town of Montreuil sur Mer, which once had the sea lapping at its portals but is now 10 miles or so inland thanks to the silting up of the meandering River Canche.
Atmosphere-laden cobbled streets, encircling town walls and a wealth of ancient buildings plus welcoming little bars and bistros and charming boutiques make this an overnight stopping place I have much favoured down the decades.
This prosperous little town was the general headquarters of the British Army from 1916 to 1918 – as attested by the ‘A Friendly Invasion – The World At Our Doors’ exhibition (www.musees-montreuilsurmer.fr), which runs through to October.
The oldest of the town’s buildings is the exquisitely half-timbered Les Hauts de Montreuil (www.leshautsdemontreuil.com), a welcoming traditionally styled hotel that dates back to 1537 and offers 32 comfortable guestrooms and a romantic summer terrace, as well as an intimate gourmet restaurant. Next door, the more modern style Le Patio is a sister hotel.
How’s mille-feuilles of grey shrimps, shallots and fresh herbs followed by tender lamb cutlets simply prepared with spring vegetables and a desert of fresh raspberries with pistachio flavoured cream sound? – delicious.
President Charles De Gaulle once famously expressed the view that it is impossible to govern a nation that has more than 300 different kinds of cheese. You can find most of them at the Caseus cheese shop on the square that carries his name.
Other local produce outlets worth tracking down are Aux Legumes d’Antan (www.auxlegumesdantan), in Offin, between Hesden and Montreuil, where François Delepierre offers old varieties of organic vegetables; Alain De Rick’s thoroughly indulgent chocolates at Beussent (www.choco-france.com); goats cheeses and artisan breads offered by Valérie Magniez at La Halte de Autrefois in Hesmond (www.halte-autrefois.com), and the exotically heady Perle de Groseille redcurrant liqueur produced by Hubert Delobelle at Loison sur Créquoise (www.prledegroseille.com).
An early start on our second day found us on die-straight roads cresting a plateau whose broad horizons are a carpet of bright red poppies every summer while little hidden valleys are home to tiny communities whose pace of life has remained languid down the centuries. You’ll still find yourself waiting as cows are led from field to dairy or crawling behind a tractor but then who wants to hurry in such an idyllic world?
Our destination for the day was the ancient city of Arras, best known for its two vast arcaded squares with their delightful little shops and expansive street markets. The big draw for us though was a spooky underground visit to the Wellington Quarry’s underground galleries (www.explorearras.com), which once sheltered some 24,000 British and Empire troops waiting for days in near darkness 20 metres below the city pavements as German shells rained down from the sky and their own officers meticulously panned a massive surprise attack.
Set between the two squares, our aptly named Ibis Arras Centre Les Places hotel (www.accorhotelcom) was modern, clean and comfortable, if basic, with no restaurant, but there were at least a dozen recommended eateries within two minutes’ walk
In this centennial year of the outbreak of the Great War (www.remembrancetrails-northernfrance.fr for information) you could easily spend a week or two simply visiting the multitude of historic sites here, from Vimy Ridge, with its monument to the 11,285 Canadian troops posted missing, presumed dead; the Notre Dame de Lorette necropolis, last resting place for some 40,000 French troops, 22,000 of whom were never identified, and the German war cemetery at Neuville Saint Vaast, where 44,833 German soldiers who were killed in the Artois region are now buried beneath serried ranks of black crosses.
Right from the once battle torn Somme valley up to World War Two’s Dunkirk beaches and on into the ‘In Flanders fields’ of Belgium, battlefield tourism has become a major industry in these parts. However, having rather over-dosed on sombre melancholy, we switched into culture vulture mode with a visit to the magnificent new – free admission – outpost of the Louvre (www.louvrelens.fr) in the old coalmining town of Lens. A vast Japanese designed building housing a huge selection of mainly sculptural works, this wonderful new facility is part of the French governments ongoing programme to decentralise the nation’s major cultural institutions. While maintaining strong links with the Louvre in Paris, this project has largely been funded by the Nord/Pas de Calais local government.
“This project has brought new life to the region,” says Nord/Pas de Calais president Daniel Percheron. Our last mine closed in 1986. France abandoned us and Lens became a ghost town but now we’ve been re-born.”
Heading back to the Opal Coast, our endlessly fascinating but easy-paced trip ended on a literal high spot with the spectacular 25-mile coastal drive from Boulogne up to Calais and our waiting P&O ferry – one of the most beautiful roads in all Europe yet within sight of the English coast.
With those expansive views across to Folkestone and Dover, this lightly trafficked switchback byway culminates in an alpine style climb over the massive chalk headland of Cap Blanc Nez, with its statue of Bleriot, first man to fly the Channel.
The beaches here are magnificent, with broad, firm sands backed by impressive dunes. Dotted along the route are busy little fishing towns and villages like Wimereux, Wissant, Audresselles and Ambleteuse – site of a superbly presented Second World War museum (www.musee.3945.com), covering the Battle of Britain, the Atlantic Wall, the Normandy landings, the war in Russia, and other topics.
Now you can’t leave France without a farewell sampling of the country’s wonderful cuisine and we got it right by taking an early dinner at the Atlantic Hotel’s swish Restaurant L’Aloze, backing on to the seafront promenade in gentile Wimereux (www.atlanticdelpierre.com).
Here Alain and Benjamin Delpierre work their magic with a very contemporary twist on the cuisine of one of France’s most richly endowed gastronomic regions.
It was all too tempting to sample some local beers, explore the expansive wine list and opt to stay on for another night in one of my favourite parts of France.