Colours of Calais

With a rich past, vibrant present and shining future, Nord-Pas-de-Calais is an exciting place to be, says Vicky Leigh

There’s much more to Nord-Pas-de-Calais than first meets the eye. Just a short hop across the Channel, France’s northernmost region combines the names of the two constituent departments – Nord (literally meaning North’) and Pas-de-Calais (meaning Strait of Calais’, the French name for the Strait of Dover). It is a firm favourite with the British due to its proximity to the UK and the ease with which it can be reached by ferry via Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk or Eurostar via Calais Fr�thun and Lille.

However, not infrequently this popularity only extends as far as the hypermarket as part of a booze cruise’ flying visit, or to the many autoroutes providing convenient and easy access to holiday destinations elsewhere in France. If you delve a little deeper you’ll discover that, rather than merely being a place to stop briefly or pass through en route, this oft-overlooked region has an unusual history that has left its mark, not only on its past but also its present. With grand plans for the future, it is certainly worth a closer and longer look.

The past lives on

The heritage of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is so remarkable it is hardly surprising that the region is so culturally diverse, giving it a very different character from other parts of France. The northern part of the region was historically part of Flanders, a territory of the Netherlands also covering land in Belgium. During the latter part of the 16th century, Flanders came under Spanish rule adding to a growing list of nationalities to take control of the area.

However, during the reign of King Louis XIV, the south-western part was finally annexed by France and became known as French Flanders. Now the modern-day department of Nord, it forms the north-eastern section of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and this legacy continues to have an impact on countless aspects of its present make-up.

The Flemish influences are still very much in evidence, perhaps most noticeably in the Dutch dialect that is spoken by some of the population. The local cuisine is a m�lange of French and Flemish influences, offering gastronomic specialities such as flamiche (a Flemish tart), the intriguingly named potjevleesch (a three-meat terrine in case you were wondering) and the pungent Maroilles cheese. For a dining experience with a difference there is no better place to sample these delectable delights than in one of the numerous local estaminets, the small Flemish caf�s that were traditionally created in the front room of the owner’s house.

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In terms of industry, Nord-Pas-de-Calais is renowned for its long tradition of lace-making, and is still referred to as the capital of lace production today. The looms were illegally smuggled from England to France during the Industrial Revolution, and the first workshop was established in Calais in 1816.

The arrival of lace gave the town a much-needed economic boost and provided employment for thousands of residents. To celebrate this heritage, of which Calais is extremely proud, and to ensure it remains a part of modern-day life, the Cit� Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode museum was opened in 2009 on the site of a former lace factory. By incorporating parts of the original building into the new, contemporary design, which includes a stunning, ultra-modern curved fa�ade cleverly patterned to resemble the punch cards traditionally used in lace-making machines, and by creating interactive exhibits, the architects have succeeded in keeping an important part of the region’s history alive. The museum has also added another dimension to this coastal town, regularly attracting large numbers of visitors.

The landscape of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is characterised by sights that bear witness to the events of times gone by. The discovery of coal in Lens established a strong mining industry, and the terrils, or slagheaps, are a defining feature of the landscape here. Set against this distinctive backdrop, almost as if time has stood still, is what would have been miners’ accommodation; rows of small terraced houses in U-shapes around a church. Closer inspection reveals that the interiors have since been modernised to provide comfortable, affordable housing, but an overwhelming sense of history remains.

Towering purposefully across the region are no less than 38 belfries, built as watchtowers during the Middle Ages and commanding far-reaching views. Due to its geographical position, Nord-Pas-de-Calais has always been strategically important and thus one of the most fought-over parts of Europe, often paying a heavy price. During both World Wars it suffered devastating losses and the hundreds of military cemeteries throughout the region are poignant testaments to these terrible tragedies. Author Rudyard Kipling’s son fell during World War I and is now buried in a cemetery in Lens; his body finally discovered after a relentless 10-year search by his father.

Property market

There is an eclectic mix of properties throughout Nord-Pas-de-Calais, from the Flemish-style houses of Cassel to the eccentric’ villas of Malo-les-Bains, stretching along the street in a rainbow of colours and mixture of styles. It is a case of from one extreme to the other’, with understated, simple designs standing next to properties with fa�ades adorned with intricate carvings and golden sculptures.

Many of the properties here have bow windows on the upper floors extending out over the pavement below, which allowed owners to gain extra space and often increased the value as a result of the sea views these windows created. The main construction material used in the north of France is brick, so you’ll find an abundance of charming red or yellow brick properties dotted throughout the region.

The average house price in Nord-Pas-de-Calais today is €174,000, compared with the cheapest region, Limousin, at €119,100 and the most expensive, Provence-Alpes-C�te-d’Azur, at €384,000. At €181,800, average houses prices are higher in Nord than in Pas-de-Calais, where the average price is €158,100.

This is mainly due to Nord being the home of departmental capital Lille, one of France’s largest and most strategically significant cities in terms of its geography and transport infrastructure, with links to other important cities such as London, Paris and Brussels. Average house prices in the Lille secteur are in fact €214,000, compared with just €147,000 in the Calais secteur of the Pas-de-Calais department. House prices fell by 5.2% in Nord and by 4.5% in Pas-de-Calais in 2009/10, but as experts are predicting increases across the whole of France, now could be the time to find a bargain.

The region is still popular with British buyers who, according to Anne Mizrachi of estate agency Latitudes, are predominantly looking for second homes. “Easily accessed from the UK, they can go for long weekends or holidays, especially those living in London, Essex and Kent, thus making good use of their purchases,” Anne explains. “With lovely coastal resorts and countryside, traditional markets and good food, you have the French lifestyle on your doorstep.” Matthieu Cany, of Sextant French Properties, agrees. “Nord-Pas-de-Calais is very lively and welcoming, and properties are cheaper than most of the rest of France, as well as being only 30 minutes from the sea,” he says, adding that “Montreuil and Le Touquet are among the favourite places in the region.”

Modern attractions

Catering for a wide range of tastes, there is no shortage of things to do in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, so whatever you’re interested in there’s bound to be something to suit. As a port town, Dunkirk, on the northern tip, and site of the famous evacuation during World War II, has a reputation for being welcoming, so accustomed is it to receiving people from all over the world. It is well worth a visit, with its Mus�e Portuaire (maritime history museum) for keen historians, the vast sand dunes that are home to a host of rare plants and insects for nature lovers and, for the more adventurous, the home-grown watersport of longe-c�te, involving hiking’ into the sea with the aid of a canoe paddle. There is no easy translation and the explanation fails to do it justice, so let curiosity get the better of you and give it a go.

The vast expanse of sandy beach with views as far as Belgium offers plenty of other activities to enjoy and, despite being a popular spot with tourists and locals alike, its size means it doesn’t feel overcrowded.

Even car hire can be fun if you visit Les Belles �chapp�es in Clairmarais, where you can rent an authentic Citro�n 2CV to tour the surrounding countryside. Alternatively, if you’d rather travel on two wheels instead of four to feel the wind in your hair you could hop on an electric Solex bike for a leisurely ride along the canals of St-Omer.

While France is synonymous with fine wines, there’s a treat in store in B�nifontaine, just north of Lens, for those who prefer a cold beer. The Ch’ti brewery, where the specialist Ch’ti beer was first brewed in 1979, has become particularly famous in recent years due to the huge box office success of the 2008 film, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis. The brewery offers guided tours and the opportunity to sample the range of beers it produces.

The future is bright

While France’s most northern region may once have had a reputation for being bleak and miserable following the closure of the coal mines and the resulting decline in economic prosperity, it now has a bright future thanks to several large-scale investment projects.

In 2003, the French government decided to create a new branch of the Louvre museum outside Paris in order to decentralise culture and make it more accessible to a wider audience. One of six applicants, Lens was chosen in 2004 to be the site of the new ultra-modern museum, injecting some much-needed capital and creating employment in an area that is still overshadowed by the legacy of its mining history. The Louvre-Lens project marks a new chapter for Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and is a powerful symbol of how the past and the future are being brought together here to establish something rather extraordinary.

Due to open in 2012, the museum will display the main works of art from the Paris Louvre, although rumour has it that its most legendary exhibit, Da Vinci’s La Jaconde (the Mona Lisa) will remain in the capital.

Wherever you look in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, it seems that what were once considered as negatives are gradually being turned into positives and, if current impressions are anything to go by, things can only get even better in the future. With so much already on offer there is certainly no shortage of places to discover and activities to enjoy. So, the next time you’re planning a holiday across the Channel, or are preparing to set off in search of a property to buy in France, perhaps you’ll think of Nord-Pas-de-Calais in an altogether different light and consider lingering there a while longer.