Most people who take a ferry to Belgium or to France get off the boat and head south straight away, but hug the northern coastline and you’ll find pretty villages, interesting museums and unusual traditions a plenty.
The north coast of France and Belgium is often overlooked by tourists, but even if you’re just looking for somewhere to overnight before heading further south or you’re more into just hopping across the channel on day trips to France, try and find some time to do a little exploring nearer to the port as there’s all manner of interesting stuff to see.
Here are a few of the top spots – chances are you’ll never have heard of them!
Most of the historic monuments in this part of the world focus on the battlefields of World Wars 1 and 2. But there’s plenty here to keep culture creatures who aren’t military historians happy too.If you have kids in tow, see if you can find the Museum of Traditional Games (645, rue Gaston Dereudre, 59279 Loon-Plage, France) at Loon-Plage.
Here you’ll find an ancient farmhouse converted into a museum with displays describing the history of local games like Nicolas Billiards – a circular table with four sets of bellows attached to it. The aim of the game is to use the bellows to blow a small ball into your opponents’ goals. You can try your hand at most of the games as well – ideal for keeping smaller holidaymakers happy – particularly if it rains.
Stay: Camping Des Dunes (Rue Victor Hugo, Plage de Petit-Fort-Philippe, 59 820 Gravelines) is a friendly three star campsite a stone’s throw from the beach and the town.
Fishy goings on
Ever seen fishing on horseback? Local fishermen still trawl for shrimp on horseback at Oostduinkerke on the north Belgian coast – just as they have done for some 500 years. Dressed in bright yellow waterproofs, the fishermen sit on horseback, dragging nets behind them as they plod through the low-tide waters catching shrimp as they go.
These days it’s a dying trade kept alive more for the tourists than for business. Horses shy away from the lapping waves when they are first introduced to the idea, but eventually rider and horse develop a unique bond – one horse remains with the same fisherman throughout its working life.
The sea forms a vital part of the local economy here and you can find out more about the traditions of fishing on horseback and more at the Belgian National Fisheries Museum (PastoorSchmitzstraat 5, 8670 Oostduinkerke, Belgian). Kids will particularly enjoy the aquariums, teeming with fish and other sealife.
Stay: Camping Amazone (Westhinderstraat 2, 8670,Oostduinkerke) is a quite and peaceful spot with good facilities just moments away from the beach and the village.
Here for the beer?
These parts of France and Belgium are pretty famous for brewing uniquely interesting beers too. On the French side of the border there’s La Gravelinoise – a light, hoppy beer with hints of coriander. It’s produced in a microbrewery in the attractive small town of Gravelines.
You can buy bottles at the local tourist office in Gravelines (11 rue de la République) or from La Cave Gourmande (6 rue Léon Blum, 59820 Gravelines). And in another pretty little French village, Esquelbecq, EsquelbecqMicrobrewery (22 rue de Wormhout, 59470 Esquelbecq) makes a number of interesting brews.
Among them is one called La Rouge Flamande which is named after a breed of local cow.It has a sparkling, flowery aroma in the mouth with a slightly nutty aftertaste – seriously refreshing on a hot summer day! Brewery tours and tastings are available April to October. Or you can drop by the bar at the brewery to sample a few of the brews Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 12.30 pm and 2 pm to 7 pm.
Stay: Camping Des Dunes (see Quirky Museums above) is ideal for Gravelines. Camping Gite des Roses (2 Chemin du Heron, 59470 Esquelbecq) is a pleasant three star site, just moments from the village.