Dunkirk… anyone hearing that name could be forgiven for thinking of the evacuation of troops from it beaches in 1940, but in the last 73 years Dunkirk has evolved into a town worthy of visiting and which is ‘Regional Capital of Culture 2013’.
My visit began at Dover with a 90 minute sailing on the P&O super-ferry ‘Spirit of Britain’ to Calais. How ferries have changed over the years with restaurants, shops, bars and comfortable seating. There’s even ‘Club Class’, with a welcoming glass of Champagne, free tea/coffee thereafter and even free wi-fi. Arriving in Calais following a very smooth crossing the sun was shining in a clear blue sky with Delphine from ‘Nord Tourisme’ waiting to greet me.
Jean Bart & a local delicasy
Soon her car was whisking me through the countryside on the short trip to Dunkirk passing a mix of urban areas and open farmland on the way. Everything looks so tranquil in the afternoon sunlight.
During the journey Delphine delights in telling the story of Jean Bart, local hero and privateer. In the late 1600’s during the Franco-Dutch war Jean Bart is reputed to have captured ships loaded with wheat thus saving his fellow countrymen from starvation. The regions people still refer to themselves as ‘The children of Jean Bart’. Overseeing a square in the town centre is the large bronze statue of Jean Bart bearing the inscription ‘A Jean Bart La Ville De Dunkerque MDCCCXLV’.
A local delicacy produced at the workshop of Jean-Daniel Vandewalle are ‘Aux Doigts de Jean Bart’ a calorie filled delicacy made from coffee cream and almond biscuit and coated in milk chocolate. The L’Atelier de Jean-Daniel at 6, Rue du Sud, really is worth a visit. Filled not just with ‘Fingers’ but with delicacies of different shapes and sizes, in a multitude of colours. You cannot visit Dunkirk without sampling these wonderful ‘Fingers’,
St Eloi Belfry
The ‘St. Eloi Belfry’ standing 58 metres high has World Heritage status. With the tourist office on the ground floor this is another ‘must visit’ whilst in Dunkirk. The internal lift takes you as far as the bell tower but then a climb up narrow stone steps is needed to access the viewing area affording views over the town, and beaches stretching to the Belgium border. The tower houses 48 working bells, the largest at 7 tonnes is called? Correct, Jean Bart. The cost of the visit is 4 Euro.
Over the years the town has grown into a vibrant centre accommodating both the old and the new. Housing modern shops, supermarkets and boutiques but still tucked away in the older parts of town are small intimate restaurants for which the French are famous. One such establishment is Atelier De. Steff at 3, Place Jeanne d’Arc where a 3 course menus can be had for as little as 29 Euro. My starter of Foie gras de canard, pane de grains de torrefiees, Coeur a fruit de la passion was an absolute delight. Service was excellent as were the wines selected by my host.
That night was the official opening of the ‘DUNKERQUE 2013 Capitale Regionale DE LA CULTURE’ to be celebrated by a firework display with music in the harbour. With the assistance of Delphine a great viewing spot was obtained. At 9.45pm the lights in the area went out and music came from speakers strategically placed around the harbour. Plumes of flame darted skyward from discreetly placed tubes. Boats and their operators bathed in silver toured the harbour area and the ‘Lightship Sandette’ moored nearby became a spectacle of light and fire. A sea going tug decorated for the occasion performed manoeuvres’ to the delight of the crowd around Sandette. The music became louder and faster, plumes of flame were replaced by rockets that illuminated the night sky. As the finale arrived the sky was awash with exploding rockets of gold, blue, green, silver and red marking the opening of the festival in thunderous manner. As the last glimmer of light fell to the ground an eerie silence descended upon the gathered crowds but was quickly replaced with cheers as the crowds began dispersing to celebrate the new era at various bars in the area.
For me, time for a glass of excellent local wine before returning to my room and bed at the comfortable All Suites Appart Hotel in Avenue de l’Universite that overlooks the harbour.
The next morning I’m awoken by the early morning sun streaming through the window. Looking out the water in the harbour was still, difficult to imagine the thousands that had gathered there the previous evening.
Art exhibition open until September
First stop this morning was the LAAC Lieu d’art et action contemporaine de Dunkerque, a Contemporary Art Exhibition where works by Andy Warhol, Jean Tinguely and other famous artists are on display. This modern building is tastefully set by the river. On entering you come to the main auditorium which is dominated by a work by Francis Bonje entitled ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’. Ascending the stairs you arrive at the gallery that is divided into 8 rooms or spaces and each houses works depicting different themes. One area is the Karel Appel-Circus with brightly coloured figures. My favourite being the room of ‘Political Objects’ with its wall of small cellophane packets containing various objects and pills that purport to do everything from getting rid of ‘A Fear of Puppets’ to teaching you to ‘Play the Guitar Instantly’ to the ‘The Truth Telling Fish’. The exhibition is open until the 15th September and admission is 4.5 Euro for the first person and 3 Euro for the second. It is free entrance on the 1st Sunday of the month and closed on Mondays.
As said at the start, when mentioning Dunkirk, people can be forgiven for thinking of the great evacuation and ‘Operation Dynamo’ in 1940 where 1,400 British and French vessels of all types and sizes were used to evacuate 340,000 men to England in 9 days. A huge feat even by today’s standards. Although Dunkirk has evolved since then, there is still a wonderful museum set in arches with the entrance flanked by the French and English flags. Within you will see a film taken at the time and showing the realism of it all. There are show cases exhibiting weapons, scenes and uniforms. Preserved engines from aircraft and maps showing the advance and evacuation. Open every day until 30th September entrance is 4 Euro but free to 1939-1945 veterans. They say it takes about an hour to tour but I was longer there and still needed more time. The curators who are on hand to explain things are proud of their museum and rightly so. It is certainly a museum that I will visit again.
Wine & beer festival
Final venue was the Kursaal-Dunkerque Wine and Beer Festival. Stalls packed with wines of red, white and rose. Others with beer, another with olives of so many different styles and varieties and one selling delicious macaroons with a variety of mixtures. Time for a stroll along the sea front and those beautiful sands, the promenade where you are spoilt for choice with chic restaurants. Ours was the ‘Comme Vous Voulez’, a delightful luncheon venue. Soon it was the appointed hour for Delphine to deliver me back to Calais for the short sea crossing home to Dover on the Pride of Canterbury.
Dunkirk, now a modern town, but steeped in history, a harbour filled with craft of different sizes including the immaculately preserved Paddle Steamer, Princess Elizabeth that took part in the evacuation. The old and the new blend together so well, and, not forgetting the beautiful beaches leading up to the Belgium border, it is a must to visit. The people are so friendly here with hotels and restaurants that offer high quality at reasonable prices. The area is easy to get to by P&O Ferries and has a great deal to offer
My suggestion is, try it, you won’t be disappointed.
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