It’s Dunkirk in English, Dunkerque in French but both words are derived from the Flemish term – Dune Kerk – The Church of the Dunes
Dunkirk is France’s most northerly seaport and France’s third largest port after Marseille and Le Havre. The harbour town sports an impressive 17 kilometres of industrial landscape that sprawls along the coast. But it has not always been so. During the first millennium Dunkirk gradually developed from an inhospitable mass of silt washed over by raging seas from the Flemish coast, into a thriving hamlet of fishermen. By natural design, a series of dunes had formed consequently keeping the sea at bay and creating the lowlands.
During the 7th Century the fishing community who were of religious Christian persuasion and led by St Eloi, built a church on the top of one of the dunes. In recognition of this, the town was named Dunkerque which means ‘The Church of the Dunes’.
Being just a fishing port, Dunkirk was easily vanquished by the Spanish, French, English and Dutch. During the Battle of the Dunes in 1658 the Flemish Protestants gave Dunkirk over to Oliver Cromwell in exchange for the help of his Ironside troops in fighting off the Spanish. In 1662 Charles II sold Dunkirk back to the French for 5,000,000 livres, to be ruled by “Sun King” Louis XIV. This was also the time of the much admired privateer Jean Bart.
World War II brought mass destruction to Dunkirk. After five years of German bombardment, Dunkirk was almost entirely demolished. Both the town and its economy had to be rebuilt. Through a process of rapid commercial and industrial expansion, Dunkirk today has grown into France’s third largest port. The town centre, renovated and expanded, now offers three fine museums and an annual carnival that brings colour and festivity to Dunkirk.
The best place to to find out more about the port is at the Musee Portuaire Dunkerque, a museum of maritime relics telling the story of Dunkirk and the operating of the port. Miniature tall ships replicas, boats and an array of fishing equipment are all on display. Don’t forget to take a look at some of the historic ships moored outside the museum like the beautiful schooner, Duchesse Anne.
Though Dunkirk has remained in French hands ever since 1662, the gastronomy available in restaurants, the festivals and flamboyant, colourful street carnivals betray an innate Flemish culture and cuisine especially in the pretty Flemish towns and villages which dot the countryside around Dunkirk – like Buerge with its 17th Century ramparts; Gravelines with its impressive fortifications and moat, Oye-Plage, home to a nature reserve, and Grand Fort Phillippe, famed for its fish smokery.
As its name suggests, Dunkirk has some incredible dunes and a fabulous, lively beach at Malo-Les-Bains. In the summer, its soft sand is perfect for a seaside jaunt, and when the autumnal winds appear, wind surfers and kiters replace the sunbathers.
How to get to Dunkerque Town Centre
Dunkerque town centre is a full fifteen-minute drive from the ferry. Take the A16 motorway in the direction of Ostend and exit at junction 33 following signs to Dunkerque Centre. Turn left onto Avenue Rosendal which quickly turns into Boulevard St Barbe and follow signs to Centre Ville.