After three days and nearly 110km, day four would finally be a shorter day. My destination was Boulogne-sur-Mer, which seemed to be the last place to get an ‘easy’ connection back to Brussels via Lille. I did briefly consider just continuing to walk, ad infinitum, but my body was honestly not up to it. Also, you know, things to do (and a PhD supervisor who may or may not read my blog ;)).
Day four barely dawned at all: the sea was ferocious, and the sky was so filled with grey salty haze that the sun barely made an appearance. It was windy, evocative, ethereal. I felt like a character out of Tolkien or something, stumbling amidst the barrows. Except that my ‘barrows’ were clifftops.
From my ‘murder hotel’ in Audinghen, I firstly headed to what was marked as the ‘sea wall museum’ on Google Maps. I was hoping this would be some kind of pagan-esque tribute to the sea—one can only hope—but it turned out to be another war museum, in memory of the ‘sea wall’. Nevertheless, had I not detoured down that road, I wouldn’t have seen a sign pointing to the ‘route nordique’. “Pues, soy Nordica,” I said to myself, “so this is clearly the route for me.”
The path took me to the seaside and a religious statue of some kind—I clearly did not care enough to take a good look—before working its way up to the clifftops. Thence followed a dramatic period of mud, blustery winds, and a violent sea.
A few kilometres later, I decended back to sea level, then meandering through various gorgeous traditional fishing villages. These had historically used a special type of boat—a ‘flotard’—when heading out to sea, and there were still examples of flotards in the towns—a chunky flat-transomed boat, designed to be wheeled backwards into the waves using a tractor. Having seen how wild those waters can get, I’m honestly amazed.
A couple of villages later, I took the ever-inevitable coastal route, and found myself walking along an extremely rugged beach. With the sea-spray in the air, it appeared borderline apocalyptic.
While days one and three of my walk were amazing, day four was a bit more akin to day two: an exhausted grind. Though I was walking a much shorter distance, it took me a long, long, long time to do it, and for the remaining time until I reached Boulogne-sur-Mer, I was mainly focused on convincing one foot to move in front of the other. (More regular training might be helpful…?!)
At last I reached the top of a hill, expecting to see Boulogne-sur-Mer laid out in front of me: and I did. But what I wasn’t emotionally nor physically ready for was the fact I was going to have to first conquer another hill. I may have wailed. Loudly. “You want me to go up a fucking hill??? Howwwwwww”. Yes, I was in a state: I had only walked ~23km that day, but it had taken nearly seven hours to cover, instead of a more normal 4.5.
A significant amount of old-lady shuffling later, I made it into the town and to the closest train station, but it was another two hours until the next connection to Lille. So I looked at my phone, considered the fact there was no coffee in my immediate area, and realised I was just going to have to fill the time by exploring the town.
As it turned out, Boulogne-sur-Mer was super interesting. It, like Gravelines, is one of the ‘fortified villages’, and has a history going back to Rome. There’s a wall surrounding the old town, a huge cathedral, gorgeous medieval squares, and a proper castle. By which I mean, the castle had a moat. With water. (And presumably sea monsters.)
Overall, it was an amazing trip, and well worth doing. I feel like the next section I do on my ‘all around Europe’ coastal walk will likely be back in Spain (the Barcelona-Valencia strip is too tempting!), but France really delivered. With a few alterations—e.g. avoiding the dangerous highway/overpass west of Dunkirk, and taking the inland route from Loon-Plage to Calais rather than opting for a coastal detour—I think it would make a fantastic extension to existing established through-hiking trails. Doing it with other people to cut down on accommodation costs, and perhaps avoiding the middle of winter, might also be good. I can imagine that those with an interest in occupation of the French coast/WW2 would find it especially rewarding.
Audinghen to Boulogne-sur-Mer (with bonus exploration!): 27.29km
Total from De Panne in Belgium to Boulogne-sur-Mer in France via coastal and littoral trails: 134.9km.