Travelling to Dunkerque
Dunkerque, usually known as Dunkirk in English, is right on the tip of northern France, in the region of Nord-Pas de Calais, and just minutes from the border with Belgium. Life here has always relied on the sea; historically a whaling and fishing community were based here but, in later years, its port has been more concerned with trade, particularly the tourist trade.
This means that there is a great choice of hotels in Dunkerque, and many reasons to stay here. There’s plenty of fun to be had on the large expanses of beach here, and exploring the dunes which give Dunkerque its name – it means the church of the dunes in Flemish – is exhilarating. In fact, there’s 700 hectares of dunes, 10 miles of beaches and a recognised sailing resort to enjoy from your hotel here.
Dunkerque is also synonymous with the heroic evacuation of Allied troops from France in 1940. Subsequently destroyed by German attacks, Dunkerque was rebuilt after the war and today its joie de vivre finds exuberant expression in its annual carnival.
Many of the hotels in Dunkerque cluster by the water. For some this means being located centrally overlooking the quays, others nestle next to a small lake that is still very conveniently placed, while others offer you a sea view along the beaches or the dunes.
Although there remain one or two historical buildings that survived the bombs of World War II those with a love of the past may prefer to stay at Loon Plage where the 17th century fortifications at Gravelines are still visible nearby.
With such a thrilling beach on its doorstep it’s no surprise that there’s no shortage of family-friendly hotels in Dunkerque. Also suitable for families are the apartment hotels that can be found by the quays. Those looking for something special may enjoy the Dunkerque boutique hotels, while those on a budget will find plenty of options, including a number of bed and breakfasts.
Be sure to book your hotel in advance if you are heading to Dunkerque to join in the festivities that peak in the three days before Ash Wednesday every year. These are known as the Trois Joyeuses, and every year 40,000 revellers take to the streets in crazy costumes.
On Sunday the visscherbende band parades through Dunkirk wearing yellow rain hats, playing songs for people to join in and dance to. These motley musicians are supposed to represent the fishermen who used to head out on perilous trips to Iceland to catch herring. Watch out for the mayor who throws almost half a ton’s worth of smoked herrings into the crowded streets. That’s breakfast sorted for tomorrow!
Thanks to its location the food in Dunkerque is an interesting fusion of Flemish cuisine and seafood. One of the pleasures here is sampling the fresh seafood, preferably enjoyed overlooking the sea that so bountifully supplies it. Beer also tends to feature in its cuisine, and not just as a drink to enjoy alongside your moules frites! Other specialities include coq à la bière (chicken cooked in beer), potjevleesch (a pork, rabbit and chicken terrine in jelly) and carbonnade flamande (a braised beef and onion stew).
One of the few historic buildings to survive the war was a 19th century tobacco warehouse that is now home to a museum that recounts the fascinating story of the port. Three heritage ships are moored at the quay next to the museum. Just opposite these is the Unesco protected belfry. Built in the 15th century to replace an old watchtower, this was originally the campanile of Saint-Eloi church. Climb to the top for panoramic views and to see the 48 bells that still ring out a snippet of La Cantate à Jean Bart every hour.
East of the port Dunkerque’s gigantic expanses of sand begin. This is one of the best beaches along the Côte d’Opale, and it’s well served by a promenade and a string of ice cream shops and restaurants. Families will enjoy hiring a four-seater pedal-kart and propelling themselves along the front.
If you head toward the Belgian border you can explore an 83-hectare nature reserve that protects the beautiful dunes on the Flanders’ coast. More than 400 plant species, including marram grass, buckthorn and dune grass, provide home to nightingales and migratory birds.
Just a short drive towards Calais nature lovers can enjoy the Platier d’Oye’s system of low-lying wetlands. The ponds and lagoons here are also home to migrating birds, but at all times of the year you will find waterfowl and shorebirds.
Those looking to discover more about Dunkerque’s place in World War II history have an excellent museum on their doorstep. The Battle of Dunkerque Museum is housed in Bastion 32, the coastal defences where Allied forces coordinated Operation Dynamo from. After visiting the War Memorial in the cemetery, you can head southeast to the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper, Belgium. This looks at the history of the First World War from a Flanders perspective.
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