A day in northern France on a budget

John Hippisley took his friend to Boulogne for the day

We in Canterbury are fortunate to live so close to Dover that a quick short notice trip on the ferry or Channel Tunnel to La Belle France is a real option.

The ferry is more expensive to book on the day, but if you can book less than 24 days, you will get the best price off-season. In my case I booked 23 days prior to my trip and got a case of wine thrown in.

Given that the wine is worth £36, a ticket for £29 return is a no-brainer.

I tend to get the earlier crossing as that way I have more time to relax in France rather than rushing round trying to get as much done as possible.

In my case I booked an outward crossing of 7.25 which landed in Calais around 10am French time and we are at our breakfast by a quarter past.

Tour guide and food critic John Hippisley

Most people who go to France by ferry sadly miss the delights of Calais and head straight on to the motorway, but it’s a sweet place.

Forget all the miserable news about gangs of immigrants wandering the streets. I have been travelling there for a long time and apart from the odd one or two around the very peripheries of the town, this isn’t the case.

From the ferry port head to the town centre. I park in Place d’Armes, which is around five minutes from the docks.

If you travel on a Monday, Wednesday or a Friday, there is a vibrant farmers’ market in the main square.

I generally head for the Cafe de La Tour, which is located opposite the new street fountains.

Credit to the mayor of Calais for looking after the people. When I first came, the square was little more than a building site, but now there is a concert hall and a really friendly atmosphere.

I suggest you take a stroll through the market and sample some lovely fresh local bread from the bread stall, and maybe some really fresh garlic and herbs, or try some local cheeses from the cheese stall. Pop your purchases back in the car and then drop into the cafe.

Owner Michel may well be behind the bar or one of his English-speaking staff will greet you: they are not your archetypal surly French waiters of the past.

They will guide you to a table and hand you a spiral bound laminated menu for you to inspect – and, yes, there are
English dishes on there.

I normally plump for the six-euro petit déjeuner français which is a hunk of deliciously fresh baguette with butter and jam and comes with strong coffee.

My friend is eager to explore Boulogne, which is south of Calais an hour along the coast road, or 30 minutes via the motorway.

As we are in no great rush I choose the coast road, which is very pretty. Even more so when you’re lucky with the weather.

Many people I have taken in the past want to get shopping and there are plenty of bargains to be found in the Nord Pas de Calais.

The massive Cite d’Europe is only 10 minutes drive from the ferry, but since the fortifications of the Channel Tunnel it’s a bit of an odd route to get there from the ferry.

I find that Coquelles, located around eight minutes from the city centre, has ample parking and good prices. You’ll find an Auchan store and a petrol station.

The fuel prices are still cheaper than the UK, and they have some really good special offers. If you want beers and wines there’s plenty to choose from.

You can spend as long as you want, and then like me head down the coast towards Cap Blanc Nez, which is around 10 miles on lovely sweeping roads through green fields dotted with Norman churches.

Pull into the car park at Cap Blanc Nez and walk up the coastal path to see the English coast from France and think how close we came to invasion in Second World War and in the days of Napoleon.

You will also see their equivalent of St Margaret-at-Cliffe’s Dover Patrol, similar in design to Cleopatra’s Needle on London’s Embankment.

It is worth the walk for the stunning views of the coast down towards Wissant Plage, and beyond it Boulogne-Sur-Mer.

Sweeping down through Escalles the nearest village, look out to your right for the huge German gun emplacement of Batterie Todt: Casemate 2.

Continue towards Wissant, where you can stop and enjoy a strong coffee at one of the many cafes that line the beach. Even in the off-season you’ll find one with a friendly face and a steaming cup of happiness waiting for you.

I often stop at La Marie Galante, Audresselles, which is just after the road swerves close to the coast.

There is deliciously fresh seafood there, and a good wine list too. But on this occasion I want to get my friend to Boulogne so we push on.

As you sweep into Boulogne, there are some fritteurs on the side of the road if you get there around noon, busy with drivers pulling in to get their hands on some triple cooked fries and maybe a Mergez sausage, with mayonnaise.

You’ll also see the huge Napoleonic fort out in the bay and the harbour wall on it left.

It’s sad to see dear old Boulogne-sur-Mer, a shadow of its former glory, is in such a relatively run-down state, since the ferry service from Britain ceased in 2000.

Apart from a brief resurrection the town has been largely overlooked by the Brits, which is sad as it’s a charming place really.

When they lost the ferries the French government built the Nausicaá National Sea Centre to support the local economy.

That is a very interesting exhibition, and good for the little ones to get their hands on sea creatures.

I drive towards the old port and reminisce on how vibrant it used to be. There are pleasure craft there and a strong
fishing fleet. It still retains its charm.

Then up the main road to the old town. I suggest you park in the open air car park outside the old city walls as parking in the citadel can be tricky.

Take time to walk the walls or visit the chateau, located the far side of the basilica, amble around the old cobbled streets. It’s not hard to see why the old walled city was so loved by the brits of yesteryear.

You can climb the belfry if you have the legs for it and from there take a commanding view of the city spread out before you. Perhaps you can feel old Napoleon standing alongside you looking at the sea.

Every time I come here I think of Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s ‘Allo ‘Allo – you can almost hear the accordion music.

For shopping, I recommend Philippe Olivier’s fromagerie in the main town on Rue Adolphe Thiers which supplies some of the finest restaurants of the world with delicious cheeses.

My friend and I enjoy a beer in the cafe de La Marie, situated in the square, then head back towards Calais. We’ve had a lovely trip, and I promise I will return soon to discover more of Boulogne.

We take the coast road back to Calais, pausing to catch the sunset, then back home towards our ferry. On our return to Calais, we stop off again at the Cafe de la Tour for supper.

This time I choose a house omelette. They really are an excellent restaurant and I always think the best sign of a good restaurant is if the locals use it.

Finishing our meal we take a leisurely stroll round the square and then drive back to the ferry port, thus ending our trip to a wonderful part of the world.

Passionate about Canterbury, John Hippisley is a trained chef, a writer, a publisher and operates the Canterbury Ghost Tour.


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