FRANCE NORD dunkerqueDunkirk (pop 70,800) is the most northerly city of France, just a few kilometres from the Belgian border. The low-lying city is protected from the sea by natural dunes, giving the city its name Dunkirk (which means Church of Dunes, as a church was built atop one of the dunes in the 7th century). Having been part of the French Flemish region till the 20th century, Flemish (a Dutch dialect) can still be heard in Dunkirk. However, the city’s main tongue remains French. Dunkirk was once just a simple fishing village. However, it grew to become a port soon enough, catching the eyes of the Spanish, Dutch and English during the medieval era. Therefore, Dunkirk was volleyed back and forth between the Dutch, Spanish, English and French during the Eighty Years War in the 16th century. The city was finally sold back to the French by Charles II of England in 1662. Dunkirk then morphed into a privateer base under the reign of King Louis XIV. One of the most famous French privateers was hometown boy Jean Bart, who is best known for his successful attacks during the Nine Years War (that was fought by France and the European Coalition between 1688 and 1697).However, do not expect to be blown away by a rich collection of historical buildings that depict the city’s history, as most of Dunkirk was levelled down during WWII. Hence, what you see today mostly comprises of rebuilding works that were carried out in the fifties.

Dunkirk’s main square, Place Jean Bart is named after their famous son and it is located just a few kilometres southwest of the beach (follow avenue des Bains). You can arrive at Dunkirk via train at the station located a few meters southwest of the town centre.

The city manages to capture its maritime history in the well-presented Musée Portuaire [9 quai de la Citadelle, +33 328633339 www.museeportuaire.com ad/ch €5/4].Located in an old tobacco warehouse, the museum has an almost industrial aura and it shows how the city’s growth links up to its maritime history, via crafty ship models (from 18th century schooners to the modern day containers) and a display of fishing equipment. The main attraction in the museum is the early 20th century Duchesse Anne three-master ship. This well-preserved artefact, which once served as a German naval ship was acquired by France as a WWII reparation. You can have a first hand look of the naval deck, the living quarters (with the original hammocks intact) and the captain’s room.

Another must-see sight in Dunkirk is the les dunes Flamandes (Flemish Dunes). Located east of Dunkirk along the Belgian border, these dunes are unlike the sand hills that are formed in desert areas. These coastal dunes were created by the waves which deposited silt and other sediments from the sea. The sand grains are held in place (creating the dunes) by a myriad of coastal plants such as orchids.

Dunkirk has managed to save a few of its ancient buildings despite the bombings of the WWI and II. One such edifice is the medieval Belfry [rue de’l Amiral Ronarc’h]. Constructed in the 13th century and expanded in 1440, this Belfry is now hailed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it is the oldest structure in town. The belfry once functioned as the bell tower of the St Éloi church, which once stood beside it. However, the church was burnt down in 1558, isolating the belfry. The Gothic belfry continues to chime today, with 48 bells that ring out every 15 minutes. The tower also functions as the home of the local tourist office.

Église St Éloi [12 rue Clemenceau + 33 328665659] would have easily been recognised as one of the oldest churches in the region, if it had survived the fire that burnt it down; as the original structure was constructed back in the 7th century. The current church building is located in a different spot and it dates back to the 18th century, with some remodelling works done in the 19th century. However, the beautiful Gothic revival architecture of the church still merits a visit.

You can easily head on to the water to explore the busy local port (the third largest in France) via boat tours, which are arranged by the tourist office.

FRANCE NORD carnaval de Dunkerque

A major draw of Dunkirk is the Dunkirk Carnival. This unmissable festival has been celebrated in Dunkirk for centuries, as the town used to bid farewell to their fishermen with celebrations and food, before they headed out to the Icelandic seas for six months. The festival eventually evolved to become a local celebratory tradition and it lasts for more than three weeks! The Dunkirk Carnival sees throngs of locals and visitors flooding the streets alongside loud and colourful music troupes and dancers. The Carnival ends with the mayor and other local dignitaries assembling at the town hall balcony, throwing dried herrings at the colourful crowd down below. The Dunkirk festival is usually celebrated between February and March.

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DUNKIRK1. Tourist office for Flemish Dunes  2. Train station  3. Musée Portuaire  4. Flemish Dunes (east of map limits; zoom out to view)  5. Medieval Belfry & local tourist office  6. Église St Éloi  7. Hôtel de ville