Less reliant than Boulogne-sur-Mer or Calais on the cross-channel ferry trade, Dunkerque is the liveliest of the three big Channel ports, a university town with an appealing, boat-filled inner harbour, the Bassin du Commerce. It was from the shores of Malo-les-Bains, an attractive beachfront suburb, that the evacuation of Allied troops took place in 1940. Dunkerque remains France’s third largest port and a massive industrial centre, its oil refineries and steelworks producing a quarter of the total French output. Devastated during World War II, central Dunkerque is largely the brick-built product of postwar reconstruction, slightly more ambitious and stylish than the rebuild of Calais or Boulogne-sur-Mer. But among the 1950s architecture, you come across some delightful Art Nouveau-style villas with curving forms and balconies.
Among the few buildings of any significance that survived World War II (or were rebuilt afterwards) are the tall medieval brick belfry, the town’s chief landmark; the impressive, bullet-ridden fifteenth-century church of St-Éloi opposite, to which the belfry belonged; and, a few blocks north of the church on place Charles-Valentin, the early twentieth-century Hôtel de Ville, a giant Flemish fancy to rival that of Calais.