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Dunkirk Travel Guide

La Duchesse Anne, Dunkirk (© samuelwernain -
La Duchesse Anne, Dunkirk


Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French, Duinkerke(n) in Dutch, Dünkirche(n) in German, pop. 71,000, with suburbs 265,000) is a port on the North Sea, and the northenmost French city, at the border of (Belgian) Flanders. It has the third largest harbour in France, after those of Le Havre and Marseille. Dunkirk is famous for its carnival.

The city's name is derived from Dutch "duin" (dune) and "kerke" (church). Historically, the town belonged to the County of Flanders, like Lille. Until the middle of the 20th century the area was predominantly Dutch speaking. Nowadays, the local Dutch dialect (West Flemish) can still be heard, but has been largely replaced by French. A local French dialect, known as dunkerquois, borrows a lot from Dutch.



The legend has it that Dunkirk was first fortified by Allowin (589-654), the son of Pepin of Landen, who later became known as Saint Bavo. He is still depicted in the local carnival as "Reuze" (de reuzen in Flemish), the giant.

After the division of Charlemagne's Empire in 843, Dunkirk and the County of Flanders become part of West Francia, which became the Kingdom of France (as opposed to East Francia, which became the Holy Roman Empire). In 960, Baldwin III of Flanders built the first city wall.

In 1383, the city is pillaged by the English, the by the troops of the King of France, at war with his Flemish vassal. Flanders passes by marriage to the Dukes of Burgundy in 1425, then to the Habsburgs in 1477. The English took the city again in 1558, and returned it to the Spanish Netherlands in 1559.

During the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) opposing the Dutch to the Spaniards, Dunkirk came under Dutch control from 1577 to 1583, before being reconquered by the Duke of Parma. Spain then began issuing letters of Marque, authorising privateers to capture or destroy Dutch navy and fishing vessels. They were known as the "Dunkirk Raiders", operating across the North Sea as far as Denmark. and capturing on average 229 Dutch merchantmen and fishing vessels per year. The most famous of these privateers was Jean Bart. The Dutch retorted by declaring them pirates in 1587. As such, captains of the Dutch Navy had to swear an oath that they would throw or beat all prisoners from Dunkirk warships into the sea.

Under Louis XIV, Dunkirk was taken by the Prince of Condé in 1646, lost to the Spaniards in 1658 but retaken immediately by Turenne. France then cedes Dunkirk to Britain, but purchases it back in 1662. The Man in the Iron Mask, made famous by the movie of the same name, was arrested in Dunkirk in 1669.

The city suffered a lot during WWI. But it is during the Second World War than Dunkirk would leave its name in school history books. In 1940, Nazi Germany invades the Benelux heading for France and Britain. A Franco-British army advances to Belgium to contain the ennemy's progression, but they are routed and must retreat. They end up encircled in Dunkirk, from where they will be evacuated to England in one of the largest evacuation operation in military history. Only 50,000 or less were expected to escape but amazingly 338,226 men were evacuated amidst constant bombing. It took over 900 vessels to evacuate the British and French soldiers and more than 40,000 vehicles were abandoned. The British evacuation of Dunkirk through the English Channel was codenamed Operation Dynamo.


Town Hall, Dunkirk

It is hard to come to Dunkirk without strolling along its beach, or see its 10km dyke, its harbour, and maybe also its Port Museum.

The city's agitated military history has resulted in the destruction of a good part of its historical heritage. The town hall dates from the early 20th century, but is nevertheless listed as World Heritage by the UNESCO, along with the 15th-century belfry.

The Saint-Eloi Church has the particularity of being a hall church, with five naves of equal height instead of one. Founded by St-Eloi in the 7th century, the present edifice was errected from 1567, after the old church had been destroyed in 1558. The facade was reconstructed in the Gothic Revival style in the 19th century. Like mant Flemish churches, it does not have a bell tower.

Well before the Dunkirk Privateers became the terror of the North Sea, the Leughenaer Tower ("liar tower") fooled ships to run ashore on the numerous seabanks instead of leading them to the harbour, so that they could be plundered.

The local Fine Arts Museum, on Place du Général de Gaulle, has a large collection of Flemish, Italian and French paintings and sculptures.

How to get there

Dunkirk is located at the end of the E42 motorway from Lille (80km) and Brussels (160km), and on the E40 motorway between Calais (50km) and Brussels, via the Belgian seaside, Bruges and Ghent.

By train Dunkirk is about 45min away from Calais, 1h from Lille and 1h10min from Arras. Trains to Belgium all require a change at Lille.

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