Against my own best advice as regards travelling in August, the weather in Belgium just managed to chase us out of the country once more. This time direction France, Nord-pas-de-Calais region. Now, this is not exactly the European South so we did not expect 30 + degrees and warm seas but we did want some sun and a change from the grey Brussels scenery.
Of course, we were not alone in search of the North European elusive sun. A few km of traffic jams going out of Brussels and just until about Oostende (one of the most popular Belgian North Sea resorts) were responsible for us advancing about 100 km in just under two hours on Friday evening. But we were prepared for it and had both snacks and the Spotify “Best songs to sing along in the car” (or something along these lines) to make time pass easier.
Less famous than the Bretagne and Normandie, its larger and scenic sisters bordering the English Channel, the Nord-pas-de-Calais coast (also referred to as Cote d’Opale) remains fairly popular with both French and English tourists during the Summer months so book ahead to avoid being stuck at the top of the price range, especially at week-ends (it happened to us in Deauville last year). If you are planning a longer break, I noticed a lot of ‘gites’ or ‘chambres d’hotes’ which is the French for guesthouses and houses to rent located not far from the beach in the village of Hardelot-Neufchatel. You can start your search here: http://www.gites-de-france.com/.
Of the three towns we visited, Touquet-Paris Plage was definitely the liveliest one, with plenty of restaurants and coffee places to choose from on Saturday night. We booked a table at ‘Les 2 Moineaux’, in the pedestrian city center (12 Rue Saint-Jean, 62520 Le Touquet-Paris-Plage). The place is small but cosy and they have a short menu to choose from. We went for the menu and found it a good value for money. All the food was fresh and tasty, built around products from the region, cooked in an imaginative and healthy way. They speak perfect English if your French is a bit rusty.
The beach was nice in both Touquet and Hardelot-Neufchatel. Hardelot is actually a smaller beach town in between Le Touquet and Boulogne. It seemed particularly popular with families with small children. We spent most of our Saturday beach time here but you can choose to do a host of watersports instead (kytesurfing, seakayaking, sailing and sand-yacht are all available). They have a well equipped Nautical center on the South part of the beach.
The town of Hardelot is quite tiny but we could find both a supermarket and a boulangerie opened on Sunday for the perfect brunch on the beach. All in all, this is a good choice if you want to be in a quiet town but have the option to quickly reach the nightlife and multiple dining options in Touquet or Boulogne. A great source of information about Hardelot is here: http://www.hardelot-tourisme.com/office-de-tourisme-neufchatel-hardelot-plage-eng.html
On Sunday, we headed to Boulogne for a bit of sightseeing and, as it turned out, walking in the rain. We parked the car outside the fortified city walls and continued to stroll up and down the small streets. When reaching the belfry square, we found an open air temporary garden exhibit, decorated around the theme of the Seven Capital Sins. Photos of Envy and Rage are below. You can find a description of the concept and artist (in French only) here: http://www.ville-boulogne-sur-mer.fr/jardin-ephemere/.
The rain came suddenly upon us in the gardens so we headed for the Cathedral of Notre Dame. You can see its dome from pretty much anywhere in the city. It culminates to about 100 m in height and was inspired by Saint Paul’s in London and St. Peter’s in Rome. Inside the church, you can visit the circular altar and the crypt. The crypt gives access to a maze of underground chambers and galleries under the entire floor of the basilica of Notre Dame. In this subterranean section you will discover paintings, which cover most of the walls and vaults as well as vestiges of Boulogne’s ancient Roman past. In May 2015, the crypt re-opened after restoration work and the entrance is 5 Euro per person.
We also had our sights on the Rampart’s walkway, that you can access from the stairs at the bottom of the access gates. A tour along the path should make for a relaxing walk, with uninterrupted views over the city and the park below the walls. in a sunny day. Unfortunately our day was turning for the worst, with storms approaching from the North, so we headed for the car instead. Although not entirely the relaxing beach week-end that we had in mind, the beach towns on France’s Opal Coast have plenty of charm and outdoor appeal. We are looking forward to discover more of the region and have our sights on Bretagne for a long week-end in October. Any tips on a few nice experiences in Bretagne that we can try out?