Exploring Dunkirk’s Battlefields and Beaches

The northern coast of France is probably most remembered for the evacuation of troops in 1940 from the beaches of Dunkirk, this momentous event, now captured on film, ‘Dunkirk’ has made the city world famous with the release of the film. Since the film’s release, Dunkirk has become known to peoples in the far corners of the globe who until now had never heard of it. This has resulted in tourism increasing along with which comes shipping and trade. Dunkirk Town Hall and port by Velvet via Wikimedia Commons Dunkirk are now creating a Port Centre, Flandres Quay is being extended to accommodate the increase in ferry traffic, 2018 sees the centenary of the end of conflicts in the 1914-1918 war and with it will come increased tourism. Over recent years, Dunkirk, an area steeped in history, has evolved into a location offering the visitor and holiday maker alike much to see and do.

Arrive by DFDS ferry from Dover only 90 minutes away to the modern Port of Dunkirk where golden sand beaches extend north to the Belgium border. Leaving the port, it’s then a short drive into the town centre and refreshment at one of the many cafes, bars or restaurants.

Hotels are plentiful, being mainly in the 2 and 3 star category, but offering an acceptable standard of accommodation at reasonable prices making the cost of a holiday stay within the budget of many. The main beach, Malo Les Bains Beach, boasts 7 kms of gently shelving sand, a wide walkway flanked with bars and restaurants, this is the place to be on a warm summers day.

Local delicacy: Aux Doigts de Jean Bart The name Dunkirk comes from the Dutch meaning ‘church in the dunes’ and can be traced back to the late 900s. One of Dunkirk’s hero’s is Jean Bart, local resident and privateer. In the late 1600s 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 nearby 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’, try one and you will want another.

St Eloi Belfry The ‘St. Eloi Belfry’ standing 58 metres high dates from the 13th Century, houses 48 working bells that on the hour ring out the ‘Jean Bart’ tune. The largest at 7 tonnes is called? Correct, Jean Bart. 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 from this World Heritage Site over the town and beaches stretching to the Belgium border. The tourist office on the ground floor is another ‘must visit’ whilst in Dunkirk. The cost of the visit is 4 Euros.

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.

Museum of Fine Arts For those interested in contemporary art the LAAC Lieu d’art et action Contemporaine de Dunkerque is a must. 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. The entrance takes you directly to the main auditorium, dominated by a work of Francis Bonje entitled ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’. Ascend the stairs and arrive at the gallery divided into 8 rooms or spaces each housing works depicting different themes. One area is the Karel Appel-Circus with brightly coloured figures. My favourite being the room of ‘Political Objects’, 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’.

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. Dunkirk 1940 Museum: Operation Dynamo 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, watch film taken at the time showing the realism of it all. Show cases exhibiting weapons, scenes and uniforms, preserved engines from aircraft and maps showing the advance and evacuation. Open every day from April to September entrance is 3.50 Euros but free to 1939-1945 veterans. They say it takes about an hour to tour but I was there longer and still needed more time. The curators who are on hand will answer questions and are proud of their museum and rightly so. It is certainly a museum that I will visit again. For those interested in WW1 and WW2, visit the Dunkirk Town Cemetery, the last resting place of over 1,000 allied soldiers and the Memorial to over 4,500 who have no known grave.

Dunkirk beach 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 friendly, hotels and restaurants offering high quality at reasonable prices, what more could you ask for. The area has a great deal to offer and my suggestion, try it for a weekend, you won’t be disappointed.

We are sorry to advise that the Specialist Leisure Group, which includes Shearings, entered administration on 22 May 2020. If you have booked a holiday with Shearings, or you have any questions please visit the Shearings website.

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Alan Fairfax

Travel writer & cruise journalist

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