BONONIA the Romans called it. Well, actually they called it GESSORIACUM, but nobody's ever worked out how that evolved into BOULOGNE. It was still Gessoriacum when Julius Caesar dropped in in 55 BC, collected 800 boats and went off to conquer England, thus setting a pattern for Boulogne as a place where people pop in on their way somewhere else.


It was BONONIA, though, by the time the first Cathedral got built in 636, replacing the Roman Temple which had gone out of fashion. Angels, it appears, brought a statue of Our Lady - Notre-Dame - across the sea for the occasion. There's still a procession every August to commemorate this. Both statue and Cathedral have been replaced frequently since.


The next tourists to pass through Boulogne came in 882. They were Vikings, and for the next thirty years the town was just a heap of ruins. The Middle Ages were as tough for the town as for any other, and the castle was built to protect it by Philippe Hurepel in 1231-1235 over the ruins of the Roman fort. The local rulers, the Counts of Boulogne, had their Palace in the Old Town, though only the bell-tower (le Beffroi) still stands. All Northern French towns had a bell-tower, from which the lookouts could see enemies coming and ring the alarm bell. The town walls – les Remparts – went up at the same time, thirty feet thick to resist new-fangled cannon balls, with seventeen towers and four massive gateways. France and England disputed Boulogne from 1420 to 1435: but the big break came in 1477, when King Louis XI designated the town as a Holy Place and pilgrims started tripping in. The present Town Library started out as the place where they stayed. That was the beginning of the tourist industry.


British tourists, however, are not noted for their good manners, Henry VIII sent a bunch over in 1544 who occupied Boulogne for six years, nicked everything that wasn't nailed down, and sold the place back to Henri II of France for a vast sum in gold. In an effort to keep these English out, the townsfolk blocked up the Porte des Degrés. It wasn't opened again until the threat from England was thought to have gone – in 1895; and it's still only wide enough for pedestrians. In the seventeenth century the town's fortifications were improved by Vauban, the greatest of all military engineers.


In June 1785 Pilâtre de Rozier – who had been the first man ever to fly in a hot-air balloon – made a little history in Boulogne. He had intended to be the first hot-air balloonist across the Channel, but became the first air accident casualty instead. His balloon had got to 1800 feet before it came apart.


The Nineteenth Century in Boulogne began with Napoleon's plans to invade England. He stayed in the Hotel Desandrouin, now known as the Imperial Palace, and had the harbour enlarged to take the 2.000 boats he collected for the crossing. The soldiers were kept outside the town. Napoleon had a vast column put up to commemorate his victory (La Colonne de la Grande Armée, it's still there on the cliffs outside town), and all the medals were ready for the troops, but he had a problem. William Pitt explained it neatly to the House of Commons. "I do not say he cannot come", Pitt announced, "I only say he cannot come by sea".


In 1805 Nelson destroyed the French Navy and the Emperor of Austria declared war on France. Napoleon and the lads marched off to fix the Austrians, leaving Boulogne with memories and a hat for the Museum. The people of Boulogne went back to hotel-keeping and the next big project, which was to rebuild the Cathedral. This took from 1827 to 1866 and resulted in a building which appears in none of the Guides to Great French Cathedrals. Worth seeing, however, are the crypt – which is the original Norman – and the altar, which was a present from an Italian Prince. Marble, heavy, carved, inlaid with precious stones, it gives new meaning to the word "overdone".


Once Napoleon had been dealt with, the tourists started to come back. Dickens wrote a few books in Boulogne; about twenty percent of the population was English throughout the century. Many of them, as recently in Spain, were on the run from the law or their debts. Of course, they got into trouble again in Boulogne, to such an extent that the locals called the town prison 'L'Hôtel d'Angleterre'.


The twentieth Century's main contribution to Boulogne was to flatten it. Despite fierce resistance and the 17th-century fortifications, the Germans took Boulogne in May 1940 and Hitler came to gaze across to England – Dover is easily visible on a clear day. Over the next four years the RAF put in 400 raids, but somehow the Old Town remained intact while the new bits and the port were turned to rubble. The docks were redeveloped after the war to suit their present three purposes; Car ferry terminals, yacht marina and the largest fishing port in France. English invaders still arrive regularly, but these days most of what they take home is paid for.




The most immediately useful shops are shown on the map.




COMTESSE DU BARRY – delicatessen


DERRIEN – Charcuterie, picnics


LUGAND – Pâtisserie, cakes


IDRISS – crystallised fruit in amazing variety – good presents.


DUMINY – books, maps, guides


CAPRICE CADEAUX – gifts, china


FOIR’SOLD – bazaar






NOUVELLES GALERIES— Department store

RUE NATIONALE is where the fashion shops and boutiques are; cheaper clothes across in RUE VICTOR-HUGO. The CENTRE LIANE is a small shopping precinct based round the CHAMPION supermarket.

The MARKET is held in PLACE DALTON on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.


It's worth pointing out that people come from all over France just to breathe in Philippe Olivier's cheese shop: it ought really to be a criminal offence to visit Boulogne without buying at least a nibble of one of his 400 or so cheeses.


As for Foir'sold – if it's still there, such places are ephemeral – it's a shop which will sell absolutely anything provided it's cheap. Every town has at least one, Foir'sold is Boulogne's.


Clothes shops in the Rue Nationale included, at the last count, such names as ANASTASIA, CLOE, REFLETS DE PARIS and BERGAMOTE. PRESTIGE is for trendy males. LA MAISON DU RIDEAU (the house of the curtain) in Rue Nationale sells household fabrics, as does the splendidly-named PINCÈDE ET PUCKRIDGE in Rue Faidherbe. In Rue Victor-Hugo try KIABI for cheaper clothes, LACROIX for unisex garments.


Supermarkets; for wine & Groceries, go to CHAMPION in the Centre Liane. for enormous quantities of everything, take a bus to AUCHAN.




A lot of the good restaurants are near the beach, along the Boulevard Sainte-Beuve, which continues the Boulevard Gambetta to the left of our map. LA MATELOTE is the most famous here: its seafood has earned it a Michelin rosette, so it's by no means cheap. You can recognise the building because its pink.


Very good value (though still not cheap) is LA LIÉGEOISE in Rue Monsigny near the theatre (the building on the map most shaped like a cross). Good French food and lots of it.


Finally, you may have wondered what No. 10 on the shopping map meant. It means the BAR HAMIOT, which is FRANCE in block capitals. It opens at five in the morning for the workers on the fish market, and serves a cheap lunch - fish especially recommended - which the locals queue up for. Don't miss it.





La Basse Ville

The Low Town, the New Town.


What's to see?


Two things in LA GRANDE RUE (Main Street):


At No. 111 the house of SAN MARTIN, of whom there's also a statue near the Casino. He was the General who liberated Peru, Chile and Argentina from Spain. That's a lot of liberating. People from the bottom half of South America come to Boulogne for this alone. His flat is on show, his uniforms, and an exhibition on the history of Argentina.


If you prefer the history of Boulogne, better go to the MUSEUM – Musée d'Archéologie et des Beaux-Arts – just up the street from St. Nicholas' church. (St. Nick's is worth a peep, by the way; it's eighteenth-century on the outside and thirteenth-century on the inside, quite a neat trick.) The Museum – it has rather eccentric opening times – deals with the history of the town, especially in Napoleon's day, and has sections also on Old French tombs, Greek pottery and Egyptian antiquities. Art-lovers enjoy the paintings of Boulogne by famous artists who visited, including Corot, Boudin and Fantin-Latour.


The best VIEWS of the sea and across it are seen from the CALVAIRE DU MARIN, a small chapel on the Northern edge of town (Rue du Calvaire); or, even further out of town, from the COLONNE DE LA GRANDE ARMÉE, 53 metres high with a statue on top of – guess who.



La Vieille Ville

La Haute Ville


What's to see?


1. Le Château

2. La Cathédrale Notre-Dame

3. L'Hôtel de Ville

4. La Bibliothèque

5. Le Palais Impérial


1. Le Château et les Remparts

If you're going to be in the Old Town about lunchtime, be warned that there aren't many good places to eat up here. It's a good idea to buy yourself picnic stuff (see SHOPPING) on the way up the Main Street, and eat it on the walls. They were built in the thirteenth century and they're up to thirty feet thick. The Town Council has had the top planted with flowers and lawns, and they make a continuous garden all round the High Town. There's even more space where the tops of the seventeen towers are attached. You can walk all the way round on one level; the four gates let traffic in through archways, which is why the only public transport in the Old Town is a minibus.


The views from the walls deserve several stars, too; inland over the Forest of Boulogne, up and down the coast and across to the white cliffs of Dover, always spectacular.


The CASTLE was built by Philippe Hurepel in 1231. Well, actually, Philippe didn't do much building himself, he just told the locals what to do, and they said ‘Oh yeah, or else what?’, and Philippe, who had 500 extremely tough soldiers under his command, told them or else what and they got down to work. Even then it took them four years, so 1234 is probably a better date for the building. Easier to remember, too.

This wasn't the first castle; the Romans had one here before, and Philippe's men built on the ruins. The Roman Governor of Boulogne lived there, and so did Royal Governors, right up to the Revolution.


2. La Cathédrale

You're not going to believe this. One night in the seventh century – which is the Dark Ages – the guards on the castle walls (that would be the old Roman castle) saw a light out at sea. It came closer, and turned out to be a self-propelled boat crewed by angels and containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. When the onlookers took fright, the statue spoke. (That would really calm them down, now wouldn't it?) ‘Build a Cathedral for me to live in’, ordered the statue, so they did, and over the centuries they added bits on and improved the place until the French Revolution. In 1793 the local Republicans, hearing that Mary was the Queen of Heaven, took the statue out of the Cathedral and burned it. One hand, badly charred, was all that remained; it can still be seen today. The Cathedral itself, by now crumbling, was entirely replaced between 1827 and 1866; not a particularly distinguished building, but it has some interesting features:


The DOME, whose height is unusual, reminds some people of Leeds Town Hall.


The CRYPT, underneath the church, is Norman in origin, a maze of tiny passages including a room with wall-paintings dating from 1090, and the remains of a third-century Roman temple.


The ALTAR was a present to Boulogne from an Italian, Prince Torloni. It was made in Rome by the Pope's own craftsmen; design by Carnavali, sculpture by Leonardi, mosaics by Rinaldi. It came from Rome in nine separate chunks on wagons pulled by 36 white stallions. Included in the decoration are 150 different precious stones. if you are a tremendous admirer of pretentious 19th-century Italian over-decorated rococo stonework, wow, is this the place for you.


Two STATUES are worth a glance for the same sort of `Well I never' reason; a really enormous St. Joseph carved from a single slab of marble, and the replacement Mary, made from a single cedar tree a thousand years old.


3. L'Hôtel de Ville

The Town Hall was originally the Palace of the Counts of Boulogne; a Count in the old days was a man in charge of a County. The only old bit left is the bell-tower, LE BEFFROI. You'd expect the bell – and the clock – to be at the top of the tower, but for some strange French reason they're halfway up. The purpose of the bell is to sound the alarm if the watchmen on the tower see enemies (usually the dreaded English) approaching from sea or land.



4. La Bibliothèque

This is what architects nowadays call a multi-purpose building. It was started in the thirteenth century as a hostel for the pilgrims who came to Boulogne to see the miraculous statue. Then it started to specialise in sick people who came to be cured by the statue, and by the fifteenth century the hostel had become a hospital (which is, incidentally, why the two words are so similar). Hospitals in those days were run by nuns, and they gradually took over the building for their own use and turned it into a Convent. It's still officially called the Couvent des Annonciades. At the Revolution all convents were closed, so the building became a prison. You could be locked up there for, among other things, being a nun. After the unpleasantness was over the building remained Town property, and is now the Library.



5. Le Palais Impérial

This eighteenth-century building was taken over by Napoleon when he came to Boulogne to plan the invasion of England (see HISTORY). It is now part of the Law Courts, which is appropriate seeing that most of France's law was written by Napoleon. But if you want to know more about his time in Boulogne, you'll have to go down the hill to the Museum.