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Walled City of Boulogne: the Town Hall and traditional Belfry

Boulogne Castle-Museum and Walled City

Porte des Dunes, Old Town of Boulogne, postcard 1910
1910 postcard showing the Porte des Dunes, Walled City, Boulogne-sur-mer.

Fortifications and Castle-Museum: a day in Mediaeval Boulogne

Walking through the Walled City of Boulogne-sur-Mer on a summer morning is a delight for the senses. That is, the five senses… and the sense of history. Built on a hill overlooking the sea, the Walled City encloses its winding streets, quaint boulangeries and flowery squares in thick Mediaeval walls. A short stroll through this lively old town takes you from the elegant 18th century Town Hall, with its ancient traditional Belfry, past the law courts (Palais de Justice), to the 19th century domed Basilica of Our Lady of Boulogne.  Further along, and still within the Walled City, is our main destination today: the Boulogne Castle-Museum.

Walled City of Boulogne: the Town Hall and traditional Belfry
Town Hall and Belfry, Boulogne-sur-mer, Walled City

A hyphen between England and France

The town of Boulogne is an intrinsic part of the history of both England and France. A Count of Boulogne accompanied William the Conqueror in his conquest of England. A century later, a Countess of Boulogne was English King Stephen’s queen consort. A son of the French King Philip Augustus, Philip ‘Spiky-Hair’ (aka Philippe Hurepel), married a Countess of Boulogne. He built the castle and the fortifications of Boulogne in 1231, on the site of the old Roman fort. And his reason? He was rebelling against his sister-in-law, the Queen Regent Blanche of Castille, who was making life difficult the rest of the French royal family. 

But young Philip Spiky-Hair did not survive long after his building spree. In 1234, he died taking part in a joust, having previously killed another tournament participant. It was a dangerous time to be a knight…or even a prince! 

Under the Tudors, the castle and walled city continued to play a role in the history of England and France. Henry VIII conquered Boulogne from the French King Henry II in 1544. Six years later, the French King bought back Boulogne from the English Crown as part of a peace treaty.

The Boulogne Connection

Although it remained in French hands, Boulogne became a centre of smuggling to Britain. Boulogne and Sussex smugglers would pass tea, wine and spirits from France into England, to avoid the heavy taxes imposed by the British Customs and Excise. By the 1780s, this illegal trade had become more lucrative than all the fishing industry of Boulogne and the Sussex Coast put together! Smuggling continued during the Napoleonic Wars: to tea and spirits, the smugglers added spies and information. In the same way as Hastings and Rye across the Channel, Boulogne owed its economy to smuggling. 

Monument to the Boulogne people dead for France, in the French Resistance to Nazi Occupation. Belfry of Boulogne, Walled City, Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Monument to the Boulogne Resistance, Town Hall, Walled City.

From dingy barracks to Boulogne Castle-Museum

From the 17th century, the French authorities used the castle as military barracks.  Much later, the Nazis occupied it, along with the Town Hall, to impose occupation of the region. As a coastal town, Boulogne became one of the centres of the Resistance, with Philip Spiky-Hair’s rebel castle as its symbol. After the war,  the castle became a prison. Finally, in 1974, the town of Boulogne acquired it and the existing museum of Boulogne moved its art and architecture collections into its ancient halls. The Mediaeval chateau revived as the magnificent Castle-Museum it is now.

Castle of Boulogne, seen from the side.
Castle-Museum of Boulogne-sur-mer - Photo: Velvet, Creative Commons.

The Boulogne Castle-Museum today

Inside its imposing fortress, the Castle-Museum of Boulogne houses permanent and temporary collections. Along with Egyptian sarcophagi –  if you’re a fan of The Mummy, you’re in luck! – the Museum is most famous for its Ancient Greek ceramics.  Alongside such treasures, you can see historic European art and decorative arts, including drawings by great masters such as Rembrandt and Manet. The Castle-Museum also showcases a unique collection of French 19th and early 20th century painting, sculpture and glassware. In 1916, Charles Lebeau, an industrialist and art collector, left his art collection in his will to the town of Boulogne. From the sculptor Rodin to the painters Corot, Courbet and Sisley, this collection displays all the technical and artistic innovation of the 1870s to 1910s. Stunning glassware from the pre-war Great Exhibitions rounds off the Lebeau legacy.

Gustave Courbet, Marée montante (Incoming Tide), 1860-1865, Museum of Boulogne sur mer
Gustave Courbet, Marée montante (Incoming Tide) - Inventory nr: 69L, Provenance: Museum of Boulogne-sur-mer, Copyright: Photography service, Museum of Boulogne-sur-mer.

Boulogne Castle-Museum presents: A Season in Greece

Next to the Louvre Museum, the Greek collection at the the Castle-Museum of Boulogne is the greatest in France and one of the most important in the world. Boulogne owes its Greek collection to the early 19th century collector Charles Panckoucke. This Paris-based publisher and antiquarian satisfied his obsession with the Greek demigod Herakles (Hercules) and other Greek mythological characters by buying up a phenomenal number of Greek vases depicting the heroes. The Museum of Boulogne acquired the collection in 1861, and it forms a central part of the artefacts in the Castle-Museum.

From the 6th July to the 8th December 2019, the Castle-Museum is putting on a special exhibition on Greek ceramics. As well as its own stunning collection of Greek vases and other artefacts, it will be displaying some unique pieces from all over the Ancient Greek world. During that time, the museum will be closing its local history rooms to the public.

Suicide of Ajax, black figure vase by Exekias of Athens, circa 550-525 BC, on display at the Museum of Boulogne sur mer.
Suicide of Ajax, Black figure vase by Exekias, Athens circa 530 BC. - Inventory nr: 558.R3, Provenance: Museum of Boulogne-sur-mer; Copyright: photography service, Museum of Boulogne sur mer.

Useful information

Boulogne-sur-Mer is 45 minutes from Le Touquet, via the A16 road.
Trains from Etaples (Le Touquet) to Boulogne take 26 minutes.

The Walled City is at the top of the town, on a steep hill. You can reach it by car and park just outside the fortifications, or inside along the streets or in two main car parks: Parking de l’Enclos de l’Êveché and Parking de la Place de la Résistance. Go early, as the car parks fill up.

It’s a 20 minute walk from the main train station to the Old Town, and a 15 minute bus ride from the central bus station (900 metres from the train station) on bus line B1.

Castle-Museum opening hours: between the 2nd May and the 30th September, opens at 9.30 am and closes at 6pm. From the 1st October to the 30th April, opens mornings between 9.30 am and 12.30 pm and afternoons between 2 pm and 5:30 pm. The Castle-Museum closes on the 1st January, 1st May and 24th, 25th and 31st of December.

Permanent collections cost €6 and €4 for concessions*. Temporary collections cost €3 and €2 for concessions. To view all exhibits, €7 and €5.
To see the whole museum, including the historic castle, the crypt and the exhibits: €10 and €6 for concessions.

Children up to 16 can visit the Castle-Museum for free, as can students in history, history of art, art students and students in museum and heritage studies.

*concessions: seniors over 65, young people between the ages of 16 and 25, students apart from those who can go for free.

 

Nehemsimontus' median sarcophagus, Thebes, 25th-26th Dynasty, at the Museum of Boulogne-sur-Mer
Sarcophagus of Nehemsimontu, author unknown, Thebes 25th-26th Dynasty. - Inventory nr: 1b.R2; Provenance : Museum of Boulogne sur mer copyright: photography service, Museum of Boulogne sur mer.

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