As the 70th anniversary of Dunkirk's most famous hour approaches, NORMAN MILLER lands on its shores
THE coast embraces Dunkirk
with a long ribbon of golden sand backed by dunes, an epic beach haunted by poignant memories. At the water's edge I stand beside the skeletal remains of an English pleasure boat, reflecting on the estimated 300 men who lost their lives when German Stuka planes bombed and strafed her in late May 1940.
The Crested Eagle once ferried holidaymakers from London to the Essex coast but her wreck is one of three left on the sands at Zuydcoote, eerie reminders of the 235 vessels that never made it back from the great evacuation of more than 330,000 British and French troops in the face of the Nazi assault. Click here now for amazing offers to Dunkirk!
Dunkirk is gearing up to mark the 70th anniversary of what was dubbed Operation Dynamo, with 50 or so "little ships" restaging the heroic Channel crossing of their 1940 predecessors on Thursday to kick-start a week of events.
There will also be special exhibitions at the excellent Musée Portuaire (Harbour Museum) and Mémorial du Souvenir, the atmospheric wartime museum housed in part of the town's old Second World War fortifications, plus remembrance ceremonies and concerts featuring Forties music.
However there's more than war memories to a place that describes itself as a combination of "a port, town and beach".
For starters, Dunkirk hosts northern France's premier carnival, transforming the city during February with colourful parades and costume balls along with unusual traditions such as having the mayor throw smoked herring to the crowds from the top of the town hall.
Historic sights, though, are few amid the predominantly post-war architecture left 80 per cent in ruins by the war. I make time to take the lift up the 18th-century Belfry for views over Dunkirk. Here, the "port-town-beach" idea is made concrete as a vast panorama, given a deafening aural backdrop when the bells peal their 15-minute chorus just yards away. Want incredible offers to Dunkirk? Click here now...
Opposite the Belfry the star turn in the Saint-Eloi Church is the tomb of Dunkirk's 17th-century naval hero Jean Bart, the son of a local fisherman who carved out a swashbuckling career battling the English and Dutch, including a legendary escape from Plymouth. See his statue in the main square by the cathedral before visiting the Fine Art Museum to admire work by Van Dyck and Corot.
The perfect complement to the modernity of central Dunkirk is the beach suburb of Malo-les-Bains. Less than 15 minutes' walk from the centre, its streets of 19th-century villas stretch back from the restaurant-lined beachfront promenade. I grab a table in the sun at Le Roi de la Moule and, taking my cue from the restaurant's name, order Dunkirk's famed mussels.
In the evening I enjoy more adventurous cooking at Le Corsaire inside a striking harbour-side glass box decked out with modern art. As memorable as the food is (spinach with foie gras and langoustine salad with papaya), is the fact that chef Arnaud Tétart cooked Princess Diana's last meal in Paris.
The next day I explore the nearby towns of Bergues and Gravelines. My art passion means I'm most interested in the excellent Drawings And Prints Museum, showing graphic masterpieces from Dürer to Picasso.
Another must-see art venue is in the pretty village of Bourbourg, near the Norfolkline ferry port, where Sir Anthony Caro's stunning sculptures form part of the restoration of the medieval church of St Jean Baptiste.
Many visitors also head for Bergues. It's picturesque but the main draw is the village's starring role in the 2008 film Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis (loosely: "Welcome To The Sticks"), which broke every box office record in France with its tale of a jaded man finding happiness through small-town pleasures.
I arrive in the late afternoon and wander around the wide green ramparts of the old town walls before winding up in the main square and grabbing a table outside the bustling L'Univers bar.
Ordering up a glass of the classic local aperitif Picon (a refreshing cocktail of oranges, caramel and vermouth), I happily watch the world go by.
It's hard to imagine in the peaceful twilight chatter that 70 years ago this area was ravaged by war, but having witnessed its reminders everywhere from the heart of Dunkirk to the vast beaches of Zuydcoote, it's something no one can ever forget. THE KNOWLEDGE: Norfolkline (0844 847 5042/www.norfolkline.com) offers return sailings to Dunkirk from Dover from £38 (car and four people). Hotel Borel (dialling from the UK: 0033 328 665 180/ www.hotelborel.fr) offers doubles from £74 per night (two sharing), room only. Dunkirk Office of Tourism: 328 6679 21/ www.ot-dunkerque.fr