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Visiting Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk, France: peaceful extremity of French Flanders on the North Sea, with a turbulent past

Updated on November 16, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Turenne Square, Malo-les-Bains
Turenne Square, Malo-les-Bains | Source
The beach at Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk
The beach at Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk | Source
Map location of Dunkirk
Map location of Dunkirk | Source

Peace and conflict in the wind

Malo-les-Bains (Dutch: Malo-aan-Zee ) is now a suburb of Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque ; Dutch: Duinkerken ), in France's Nord deparment, but between 1891 and 1970 it was a separate municipality in its own right.

Malo attracts many vacationers on account of its long beach on the North Sea (French: Mer du Nord ; Dutch: Noordzee), with its bracingly healthy winds; indeed, Malo is called the Queen of the Northern Beaches (French: la Reine des Plages du Nord).

Centrally located in Malo-les-Bains is Turenne Square (French: Place Turenne), named for the French General who, in 1658, won the Battle of the Dunes (French: la Bataille des Dunes ), by which the Dunkirk area was (albeit briefly) annexed to France. This Battle was less decisive that it may have seemed, because shortly afterwards King Louis XIV handed over Dunkirk to England (1); yet, as students of history will recall, 1658 was also the year in which Oliver Cromwell died, and upheavals leading to the Restoration in 1660 meant, in practical terms, that the attention span and sense of priority for the English government did not stretch to making a lot of effort to keep Dunkirk, which was returned to France in 1662.

Thus, Louis XIV's Mashall Turenne is hailed as the liberator (if this is the correct word) of the area; it might be added that the Dunkirk area was mainly Dutch- (or: Flemish-) speaking in the 17th century.

A prominent local figure, Gaspard Malo (1804-1884)(2) was instrumental in developing the beaches and an area of Rosendaël (Dutch: Rozendaal ), which subsequently became Malo-les-Bains, in his honour.

The bandstand in Turenne Square was built in 1893 on land set aside for a public square in 1891, the year of Malo-les-Bains's incorporation as a municipality.

In 1940, heavy, armed conflict again raged on the beaches of Malo-les-Bains. Historians refer to the Dunkirk Evacuations, and Malo is indeed now part of Dunkirk, but during World War Two it was administratively separate from the city, which, however, had its name applied to the Evacuations. In all, some 338,226 Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches in and around Dunkirk, including at Malo, of which 123,095 were French. Losses were also heavy; on the Allied side, there were 11,000 dead and 34,000 made prisoner, with 177 aircraft also shot down; on the Nazi German side, there were 20,000 killed or wounded, and 156 aircraft were shot down.

Thus, the present day, peaceful beach scenes at Malo-les-Bains belie a tumultuous past, in more than one period of its history.

This suburb of Dunkirk is noted for its participation in Carnival events with a Flemish flavour. Its former town hall (French: Mairie ), now used as Dunkirk municipal offices, is a striking building with ornate gables.

Disambiguation and a linguistic point

Malo-les-Bains should not be confused with Saint-Malo, which is another town in northern France, which attracts many vacationers. Saint-Malo is in Brittany (French: Bretagne ), while Malo-les-Bains is historically part of French Flanders; indeed, the Flemish Lion appears on its arms. Interestingly, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo are called les Malouins , and this word is also used to describe the people of Malo-les-Bains. Sailors from Saint-Malo were early visitors to the Falkland Islands (French: Îles Malouines ; Spanish: Islas Malvinas ); local inhabitants thus use about themselves a word that has also come to be used in relation to another location rather far afield also.

April 3, 2012


(1) Until the 16th century, Calais, along the coast from the Dunkirk area, had also been an English possession.

(2) Gaspard Malo was a former shipping magnate, who, as well as having served as a Member of the National Assembly (French: Assemblée nationale ), used his wealth to promote what, after his death became a town named for him, as a resort.

Also worth seeing

In Dunkirk itself, other significant structures include a belfry at the City Hall, a 15th century belfry, the Leughenaer Tower and a statue of former pirate Jean Bart.


How to get there: The nearest large international airport to Dunkirk is Belgium's Brussels Airport (Brussel-Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), where car rental is available (distance between Brussels Airport and Dunkirk: 168 kilometres). Some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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