A guide to Nord-Pas-de-Calais
Nord-Pas-de-Calais offers coastline, culture and countryside in one easily accessible package. Gillian Thornton crossed the Channel to find out more
Stand on the white cliffs of Dover on a clear day, and our nearest French neighbours seem almost within touching distance. Passengers on the ferries criss-cross the water in barely more time than it takes to eat lunch or read the newspaper, while dedicated landlubbers can take their vehicle beneath the waves with Eurotunnel or travel by train with Eurostar.
Getting there couldn’t be easier, and yet the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region is often overlooked by those in search of vineyards, medieval villages and southern sunshine. Fly down the region’s fast roads, however, and you will miss out on some gloriously rural countryside, beautiful sandy beaches and some of the most original cultural attractions to be had anywhere outside the capital.
Made up of just two departments – Nord and Pas-de-Calais – Nord-Pas-de-Calais is one of France’s smallest regions by area, nestled against Belgium to the north. But it is also one of the most vibrant; an area in a constant state of evolution as traditional industries like mining and textiles give way to 21st-century technology and ‘third sector’ industries. And with an average age of less than 40, the population of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is also the country’s second youngest after Île-de-France.
The region is currently enjoying a high international profile too. The opening of the Musée du Louvre-Lens – the first satellite of Paris’s famous Louvre – in December 2012 attracted widespread media attention, while the First World War centenary sees the start of four years of commemorative events that will resonate across the globe.
There’s lots to enjoy, whether you’re a short-break visitor or thinking of making a move, but don’t be too quick to rush through the ferry ports. Boulogne-sur-Mer’s old town, castle museum, and Nausicaa sea life centre make for a fascinating visit; stop off in Calais and admire the lace designs at the Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode de Calais; and tour the Musée Portuaire de Dunkerque and the new modern art museum, FRAC (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain).
Many first-time visitors are surprised at the countryside that lies just beyond the ferry ports; a billowing landscape of vast agricultural fields dotted with woodland and wind farms. Cap Gris Nez is the closest point to England and, along with Cap Blanc Nez, forms the Site des Deux Caps, one of an elite band of locations awarded the prestigious label of Grands Sites de France – a walk along the coastal path linking quiet coves and fishing villages such as Audresselles and Ambleteuse is a great way to take in the setting.
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While the beaches of southern England are largely shingle, the French side of the Channel boasts glorious sands – head for the dunes at Malo-les-Bains, the family-friendly beach at Wimereux, or the wide open beaches of Hardelot and Le Touquet for a bucket-and-spade day. Or, if you’re the more adventurous type, you can try your hand at high-octane water sports.
Le Touquet-Paris-Plage has long been a favourite destination for Brits looking for a quick French fix with its luxury woodland villas, art deco architecture, and an indecent amount of entertainment options ranging from tennis and horse riding, through to blackjack tables and bridge tournaments.
Just a few miles inland up the River Canche, Montreuil-sur-Mer hasn’t been ‘sur mer’ for many a long year, but this atmospheric small town is hugely popular with tourists for its rampart walks, quaint cobbled streets and association with Victor Hugo, who set part of Les Misérables here.
The Canche is one of seven small rivers which bisect the lush landscape of the Sept Vallées, a delightful – and lesser-known – area dotted with small towns and villages. Henry V may have decimated the French aristocracy at Azincourt (mispronounced ‘Agincourt’ by one of his noblemen), but the French are humble enough to offer an excellent small museum at the site of one of their greatest defeats.
The Sept Vallées lie in the south of Nord-Pas-de-Calais along the border with Picardy, but the northern fringes, though geographically not far away, have a very different feel. Visit the UNESCO-listed marshland and market gardens of the Audomarois, near Saint-Omer, and explore the villages of French Flanders with seemingly unpronounceable names like Volckerinckhove and Wormhout.
Don’t miss Bergues, an enchanting small town of cobbled streets, red brick houses and flower-fringed canals, just a short drive from Dunkerque. Little known outside the Nord, it became a household name in France after the success of the 2008 feel-good comedy movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, about a post office worker from Provence ‘exiled’ to the north after a misdemeanour at work.
The landscape is generally level, but the hilltop village of Cassel, and nearby Mont des Cats with its lofty abbey, are both worth a visit, especially for cheese lovers who can stock up on ecclesiastical fromage made by the monks. You’ll find more cheese at a stop at any estaminet – or Flemish pub – where local fare will include Maroilles cheese tart and beer from one of the area’s many micro-breweries. For those whose interest has been piqued, a visit to the Flanders Museum in Cassel is a must for more on local art and lifestyle.
On the doorstep of all this quiet countryside lies a portofolio of cultural attractions unrivalled outside the capital. Nord-Pas-de-Calais boasts 48 museums classified as Musées de France, the highest concentration of any French region, as well as six towns and communities awarded Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire by France’s Ministry of Culture.
Together, the museums cover everything from fine art through to modern art, and from lace through to sculpture. It’s not just the collections that are worth visiting, however. Many of the buildings themselves are works of art in themselves, some historic, others innovative new-builds to reflect the collections within. La Piscine in Roubaix is a much-cited favourite, standing as a former art deco swimming pool built on the plan of an abbey and now imaginatively transformed into the town’s Musée d’Art et d’Industrie.
Just as old buildings have been adapted to new purposes, so the people of Nord-Pas-de-Calais have adapted their lifestyles and industries to changing times. Roubaix was once a major textile town, and today it has reinvented itself as a key player in French fashion design. Snap up the work of young designers at Le Vestiaire, and bag a bargain in the town’s outlet shopping malls.
There’s more fashion just a métro ride away in Lille, the buzzing regional capital. Browse the work of upcoming young designers at Jardin de Mode, stroll the well-stocked shopping centre, and tap into the vibrant café culture at one of the city’s many themed cafes. The Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille has the country’s most important collection after the Louvre’s, and you’ll find the latest in modern art at Lille Métropole (LaM).
As the birthplace of Général de Gaulle, Lille is rich in historic sites: de Gaulle’s family home, the quaint buildings of the old town, and the Vauban citadel, listed by UNESCO for its World Heritage importance. The hub of the city is Place Général de Gaulle, or Grand’Place as it’s also known, home to the annual Christmas market.
The Tour de France visits Lille on 8 July this year, but there are high profile events in the city throughout the year, one of the most popular being the annual Braderie. The first weekend in September sees the city centre become a pedestrian zone as Europe’s largest flea market unfolds in streets and squares, with bargaining and bartering continuing non-stop from Saturday lunchtime to Monday morning.
Outdoor festivals and events are a way of life here, especially the tradition of flamboyant carnivals. Noisy but good-natured processions are led by each town’s own ‘family’ of giants in effigy form, kicking off in February with Dunkerque and continuing across towns throughout the Nord department. Music and art combine too at the captivating street arts festivals of Les Turbulentes in Vieux-Condé and Z’Arts’Up in Béthune, both held in May.
Eurostar was a major catalyst for the urban regeneration of Lille, putting the city firmly on the tourist map as a short break destination. But the prize for mega makeover must go to the nearby Lens-Liévin coalfield, which has been added to UNESCO’s humanitarian World Heritage list in recognition of its ‘evolving cultural regeneration’.
Lens was chosen above five other northern cities as home for the first out-of-town branch of the Louvre, but the whole area has been regenerated as a cultural and social hub. Former colliery buildings have been transformed into arts centres and mining museums, and slag heaps turned into artificial ski slopes and nature parks catering for locals and tourists alike.
Between Lens and Arras, the infamous Vimy Ridge overlooks the former mining basin. In 1917, Canadian troops captured the high ground from occupying German forces, their fallen commemorated today with a towering marble memorial, replica trenches, and a moving visitor centre.
On the opposite hillside, near the French National Cemetery of Notre-Dame de Lorette, a new elliptical monument – the Ring of Peace – will be inaugurated this year on 11 November. On it are inscribed the names of all the soldiers lost in the area, listed alphabetically with no distinction by nationality or rank.
The region saw some of the fiercest fighting of the First World War, and Arras and Vimy lie on one of the four self-drive Chemins de Mémoire; linking museums and memorials, battlefields and cemeteries of all nationalities. Remembrance tourism is popular here, and the centenary commemorations continue to bring visitors on the trail of their ancestors.
British Army HQ was set up in the ancient tunnels beneath the centre of Arras, and on the edge of town, 24,000 Allied troops lived below ground in Wellington Quarry in the days preceding the Battle of Arras in 1917.
The town offers more tranquil attractions too, however. Browse the colourful stalls of the Saturday market, held in the vast twin squares surrounded by gabled Flemish façades, and tour the treasures of the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Arras, which regularly hosts visiting exhibitions from Versailles.
There’s a fabulous panoramic view from the top of the belfry, one of several across the region listed by UNESCO. To the east, the Villes d’Art et d’Histoire, Douai and Cambrai, also boast beautiful bell towers. Listen out for the traditional sound of the carillon that marks the hours.
Visit the Musée de la Dentelle in Caudry, a town that produced lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress and for the blockbuster movie The Great Gatsby, winner of the best costume design award at this year’s Oscars. And don’t miss the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, birthplace of this popular 20th-century artist.
Just as Nord-Pas-de-Calais begins in the west with some glorious rural countryside, so it ends up in the east, although the landscape here is very different. In the Avesnois, around the town of Avesnes, small villages and traditional craft workshops dot an area of unspoilt forest and tranquil lakes, often overlooked by travellers in a hurry.
So slow down next time and take the quiet roads to appreciate the countryside and culture of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, a region that is just down the road but oh-so-very different from home.