The main attractions of much of northern France are the impressive main squares of the principal towns – e.g. Arras, Lille and St Omer. The belfries and town hall spires (e.g. Calais) make significant statements as to each town’s importance and cultural ambitions, rising as they do above the otherwiese rather featureless landscape.
Arriving by ferry into Dunkerque with DFDS is not one of the most exciting waypoints on the trip to sunnier parts of France – but then it lies a few miles away from the town in the midst of an industiral port area – yet has good access to the autoroute network to speed you away to your chosen destination and avoiding the town completely. The town of Dunkerque itself is too modern and industrial for my tastes – rebuilt after 1945 it was intended to be a bold architecture for the future, but to my mind it lascks “warmth” and human scale.
On a smaller scale, a few miles inland from Dunkerque lies the town of Bergues (62 Pas-de-Calais, Hauts de France) The highlight here is the walled town – it is effectively a Vauban fortification, surrounded by several interlocking and dauntingly thick and high walls with a moat, angled such that any attacker would have an to cross an easily-defended field of fire. The scale of these fortifications ( and many others built by Vauban around the borders of France (the “Hexagone”) is so impressive that you do not have to be a fan of military history to appreciate them.
Within this imposing structure is a pleasant small town – with a main square and a belfy! – this feels very French/Flemish and makes it worth a detour – a peaceful stroll around the ramparts and the heart of the town provides a pleasant break before or after the crowded and impersonal experience that getting across the English Channel has become.