THE northern French port of Dunkirk has been enjoying much attention since the release of the blockbuster Christopher Nolan movie of the same name. Almost universally acclaimed for its realism, cinematography and story-telling, the film has attracted many a war buff to its shores.
The film tells the gripping tale of the evacuation of 340,000 British and French troops forced to flee the German advance, mostly by British sailing and fishing boats.
Naturally, the region’s tourism authorities are keen to extoll the virtues – and there are many of them – of this corner of France nudging up against Belgium.
The film-makers were given free use of the beach and its jetties for five weeks and taking one of the guided walking tours of the area where the action happened in 1940, it is easy to imagine the sheer scale of Nolan’s task to recreate the sights and sounds of that short, intense chapter in wartime history. Another guided walk can be taken around the Le Fort des Dunes, a 19th century fortress under German occupation at the time of the evacuation and located within a vast wildlife sanctuary. For a few euros, visitors can also enjoy a windswept audio-tour.
Almost more interesting was the Dunkerque War Museum with its thousands of artefacts picked from the shores after the Second World War. Packed into its caverns are old vehicles, a rusting hunk of Merlin Rolls Royce engine taken from a stricken Spitfire, uniforms, shell casings, badges, bottles and a great deal more.
For the adventurous, flights in a four seater plane taking in the whole area go from the local airfield at Dunkerque giving a Spitfire pilot’s eye view of the evacuation site. Straying into Belgian airspace, our French pilot asks politely in English for permission to land – a far cry from the rampaging dogfights in these skies almost eight decades ago.
Dunkerque is modern in feel, lacking those pretty cobbled back streets, rickety terraces, squares or a traditional old town quarter. In fairness, rather like its near neighbour Calais, Dunkerque was decimated by wartime bombing – 90 per cent of the town was obliterated – and today, in parts, it is rather industrial and not massively prepossessing.
The beach at Dunkerque is huge and, in summertime, packed with French holidaymakers This is always a good sign. Often, Parisians escape with their children to the northern coast, rather than head for Nice or St Tropez. The shoreline walkway is dotted with very decent French restaurants, full of chatty natives. Another good sign. Check out La Cocotte (Nolan dined here) and Comme vous Voulez on the seafront.
Further inland is L’edito, which is always well populated and much-loved by locals, while the food aboard the Princess Elizabeth ship turned floating restaurant – not least the veal cooked for 17 hours at 87C – is virtually faultless. There are rumours of Michelin status.
Clearly, Dunkerque has ambition, judging by the investment which has gone in, and has seized the opportunity for a blockbuster movie to be shot where it happened. The port is well served by DFDS ferries for Brits, but allows non-British visitors to hop across the Channel for a UK visit. Whether or not you’re a war buff, Dunkerque is a friend waiting to be made.
We travelled by www.dfds.co.uk and stayed at the Hotel Borel http://www.hotelborel.fr/en/
L’Edito restaurant with views over the marina http://www.restaurant-ledito-dunkerque.fr/
Dunkirk War Museum http://www.dynamo-dunkerque.com/
Le Fort des Dunes http://fort-des-dunes.fr/en/
La Cocotte http://www.lacocottedk.fr/
Dunkerque flying experience www.aeroclub-dunkerque.com
Comme vous Voulez restaurant on the beaches of Dunkirk http://comme-vous-voulez.com/