When you next arrive in France with your car in Calais, start off with a good morsel of Gallic culture. Head off towards Boulogne along the coast road, the D940. I do it all the time. This route leaves the port area and quickly dissolves into the rural countryside. You will be surprised by what you can find.
As you leave greater Calais, the road directions are a little convoluted with left and right turn restrictions and one way systems. Keep the sea to your right though and just keep going. It suddenly all stops and you are in the open country. Breathe easy again and keep your eyes open. There will be a lot to stop and look at, visit and enjoy.
You will sense the lie of the land first of all. The green, gently undulating and agricultural terrain resembles the England, just across the water, from a century ago. Watch out for the energetic cross channel ferries going about their business on the ‘Manche’. Look out for the dirty British coasters with their salt caked smoke stacks plying their trade. On a clear day, from the peaks of the outcrops, you will get a glimpse of the white cliffs of Dover. Over there, on a similar journey, it is all just the same. The two countries have a shared kinship in many ways along their neighbouring coastlines. They just become so much more different as you deviate inland. That, of course, has always been the exciting bit.
The journey towards Boulogne along this secondary road is about 40 kilometres. The route curves up and down with the hills to match the natural folds in the land. Nobody actually travels very fast. I forgot I was in France once and spent a little way on the wrong side of the road. Everyone else just patiently waited for me to get back in the right place.
After the nagging commercialism of Calais the first place to find is Sangatte, right on the coastline. In 1909, Louis Bleriot set off from the beach here for Dover in England. He was to fly his own tiny aeroplane to a foreign country to make the first international air passage. He made it one morning and there is a robust monument to his achievement, bang in the middle of the high street. It was a significant historical event marked in unassuming style by the local people.
Take a stroll along the beach headland amongst the coarse and binding grass. Stop off to visit the Baraques military cemetery providing a smart resting place for some of the dead of the Great War. Sangatte is a little rural pillar of French history.
Set off again along the coast road and pull into Escalles, just beyond the Cap Blanc-Nez (white nose). Park your car and look right up to the top of the coastal cliff. There is a tall and dominating column overlooking the sea that stands as a memorial to French and English sailors of World War One. Walk up towards it if you have the energy and read the inscriptions on the plaques.
Escalles is gazed upon by a misty, mysterious and forsaken windmill on the edge of the village. Its sails have gone but the bulk is preserved. Someone seems to live their isolated existence in it. The small sixteenth century church of St. Maxime is in the town centre. Along with its tidy surrounding gravestones, it is a much repeated symbol of French rural life.
Continue your journey towards the south west and you come to the village of Wissant. This is an anonymous habitation but hides some secrets. Here you will find the Typhonium Villa, built in Egyptian style by the Belgian artist Adrien Demont and his wife. It is a glowering edifice on higher land providing accommodation for artists. Search for the fortified manor houses in the town centre and look for the old watermill. There is also a tiny Commonwealth War Grave containing a mere 11 graves.
Carry on towards the headland called Cap Gris Nez (grey nose). This is the closest point to England and is essentially an area of low lying marshland just inland from the coastline. On a dull day it all seems very desolate.
The town of Tardinghen at this location is still home to some remains of the Atlantic Wall built as protection against allied invasion during World War 2. The local church of St. Martin along the high street is an especially daunting structure. The bleak concrete tower supporting the bells seems to add to the sense of misery and hopelessness that existed 75 years ago. Cheer yourself up again and find the Deux Caps local microbrewery. It provides a welcome service to the local region.
The neighbouring town of Audinghen supports the prominent Atlantic Wall museum. This structure was built as a fortress by the German civil company TODT as part of operation Sealion in 1940. The robust and eternal blockhouse is a very obvious feature as it is approached from the road. It has the word MUSEE painted in huge white letters on the side. Visit the perfectly preserved and gigantic cannon. This gun was intended to fire shells weighing roughly 800 kilograms each at south east England during the Second World War. They would be in ‘free flight’ for about 2 minutes and cause appalling destruction. Today, your children can clamber all over the now harmless weapon whilst they catch sight of the English coast just thirty odd kilometres away.
The museum in the interior of the massive bunker contains many very fascinating and undisturbed relics from German activity more than 75 years ago. The museum can be a little cold inside for the visitor but the contents and the history are gripping.
Move on again and drop into Audresselles. This is a good place to take some lunch in the famous and historic Coaching Inn, Rue Edouard Quene. You will also find the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist associated with the neighbouring farm. The church contains the twelfth century painted canvas of the Second Empire so well protected and preserved by the French people.
The village of Ambleteuse comes next. There is a privately owned museum here that preserves the events and culture of the days of WW2. It exhibits features from all the global corners of activity of the Second World War. Visitors who have an interest in this period will have discovered a shining gem.
The owner of the museum has devoted his life to collecting remnants of the Second World War from around the world. There are hundreds of hand weapons displayed (all made safe), uniforms, military equipment, vehicles and documents. There are literally thousands of the most obscure objects defining those years. They are all beautifully exhibited and displayed and the owner will often provide a personal guided tour. Visit the re-located cinema in its original form from the nineteen forties. You can sit and watch digitised original film features from that period.
The museum is decorated bright red on the outside and sits along the coast road running through Ambleteuse. The exhibition is truly gripping and memorable. It will be difficult to know what to look at first.
Continue towards Boulogne once more. The D940 runs right up against the coastline past Pointe aux Oies. There is much provision here for camping in tents and caravans. The air is salty and bracing and the life is peaceful.
Before arriving in Boulogne visitors will pass through the town of Wimereux. Not so much to see but another Commonwealth War Cemetery is here. Some visitors may have family connections with the graves. Twenty first century architecture also exists in Wimereux.. Admire the crescent of the pine wood sided brand new flats. They run along the beach front outwards to embrace the sea view.
Another few kilometres will take you into Boulogne. This town is a whole new world with much to see and do. There are plentiful places to eat, stay the night, visit and admire. Boulogne is very much a fervent place full of active French life and light.
The drive along the D904 is fun, uncongested and winding as it follows the contours of the terrain. The architecture of the well spaced domestic housing will remind you of a life style from much earlier in the previous century. This is the culture of the war years in the countryside that had been left essentially to its own devices. The peace was invaded only by the occasional coastal battery cannon.
There are many parking spaces just off the road to take in the sight of the sea washing the beaches. The local French people are always there with their children. You can join them and share a sort of unspoken friendship. For British visitors, the association comes from the shared difficulties during the war years and the sight of both countries together on the same bit of earthly real estate. The colours in so many of the places seem to be bright blue and white defining the seaside.
The Calais Boulogne coast road is a splendid way to start a trip to France. It is a little bit about all that France keeps to itself. It is also a splendid way to initially avoid the modern aggression of travelling on the main routes as you set about turning inland to continue to your ultimate destination.