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Mesmerised by the huge screen in front of me you would think I was watching a gripping drama. Instead, I was watching the Great Ocean Show: a real life foray into the secret world of the ocean depths at Nausicaa in Boulogne-sur-Mer.
My viewing panel measuring 38 cm thick, 20 metres wide and five metres high, and weighing 54 tonnes. The tank is modelled on the natural environment around the island of Malpelo which is located far away from any coasts. It illustrates marine life in the open sea from the surface to the depths of the ocean.
The big tank here is part of a massive expansion at the aquarium which has virtually doubled in size and only opened to the public in May this year. Nausicaa is now the biggest aquarium in Europe and gives visitors a real chance to learn about marine life.
An 18–metre long transparent tunnel offers multiple views to see sharks, mantra rays, shoals and may other species. And with interactive stations for children to engage and take part in, getting them off their tablets and smartphones has never been easier.
Built in the shape of a mantra ray, Nausicaa’s size is equivalent to four Olympic pools. Given its size, it’s not surprising how easy it is to spend over half a day here. Some of the tanks have to be cleaned daily by divers and the work behind the scenes of feeding fish at regular intervals is a laborious one. But sea lovers getting excited as they go from one tank to another is pretty awesome to watch.
I too could have spent half a day here being gripped by sea life, but with time of being of the essence, it was time to explore the rest of Boulogne. An ancient town, just half an hour away from Calais, Boulogne was the major Roman port for trade and communication with Britain. Today it has earned its reputation as a city of art and history, a coastal town with its fishing port and a place to throw yourself into the festivals, events and traditions that have grown from its natural heritage.
Boulogne’s city of art and history status is largely part to the fortifications and the castle, the belfry and the Basilica of Notre dame. The castle is now a museum and is home to a number of exhibitions throughout the year. The current Napoleon exhibition is running until November 15th and depicts the era in caricature when the emperor planned to invade the UK.
Perhaps the most prominent building in the old town with its 83-meter dome is the Basilica of Notre Dame. Built in the 19th century by Abbot Benoît-Agathon Haffreingue, the altar produced in the workshops of the Vatican has been made from 147 different types of marble. And even more remarkable is the crypt which sits beneath the Basilica.
The largest in Northern Europe, it’s impressive in size and contains a maze of galleries beneath the entire surface of the basilica and more. The walls are decorated with medieval frescoes and sculptures. Be sure to take a warm jacket with you when visiting as it can be cold at 12 degrees.
For me, it was the 12th century Belfry that fascinated me the most. Proudly looming above the heart of the town and built in the Middle Ages as a symbol of freedom of local communities, it has been classified as World Heritage by UNESCO since 2005. It’s no longer open to the public due to safety reasons surrounding the small, steep and winding steps but I had a sneak preview and managed to get to the top to discover the magnificent views of the area.
Cod, whiting, sole, herring – the fruits of the sea are the pride of local gastronomy here. The port of Boulogne-sur-Mer supplies most of what is served by local restaurateurs.
Staying at the L’Hôtel des Arts in Wimereux, we had the chance to feast on some of that fresh fish as we dines alfresco at the Two Sisters bar-restaurant overlooking the sea. With weather on our side, it was a great way of ending the evening.
A visit to Chateau d’Hardelot will lead you back to Victorian Times. The castle lies in a field next to the village of Condette, and dates back to the 12th century when it was first built by the Counts of Boulogne. Taken and retaken several times by the French, the English and the Burgundians, the castle was sold as national property in 1791. But since 1987 the castle is owned by the village.
Not your conventional castle, it has been extensively renovated compete with glass windows, Victorian furniture and incredibly neat. It’s not to everyone’s tastes but the gardens are free to raom in when open and are a joy to walk around.
Adventure-seekers can rejoice by taking a hike along the 23km stretch of iconic coastline featuring Deux Caps; Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez. This sight is known and recognised for its outstanding scenery. And on a good day you can even see the white Cliffs of Dover.
I only managed to walk a short stretch of this way but I did cycle to it after hiting a bike from Maison du Grand Site des Deux Caps” in Audinghen. The ride is incredubly enjoyable and if your legs aren’t strong genough you can always hire an e-bike.
And if you’re hungry be sure to stop at La Siriene. Perched on the coast in the heart of the great site of the two capes, between Boulogne-sur-Mer and Calais, our two dining rooms offer a unique view of the sea, from Cape Blanc Nez to the British Isles. The food is seriously good here and it’s no wonder the restaurant is booked in advance. The crab cakes followed by the cod was divine and the pavloca was needed for he return trip on the bike.
All images (except aquarium): Visit Pas de Calais