A festive three-day trip to Nord-Pas-de-Calais
PUBLISHED: 13:45 07 December 2015 | UPDATED: 14:01 07 December 2015
Just a short hop across the Channel, Nord-Pas-de-Calais is the perfect destination for a short trip to France and the ideal place to stock up on Christmas food and presents. Carolyn Boyd suggests an itinerary for a three-day visit
Take the ferry or Eurotunnel to Calais mid-morning, and make a beeline down the Route des Anglais (A26/E15) to Arras. Arrive in time for lunch and (having booked ahead online), take a seat at Amarine (60-62 Place des Héros, menus from €13.50) for a delicious seafood meal. Oysters are, after all, the French entrée of choice at Christmas, so when in France, do as the French do.
The restaurant stands opposite the Hôtel de Ville, so climb the belfry – a UNESCO World Heritage site – to get a panoramic view of the square’s amazing Flemish architecture. The adjoining Grand’Place is where the town holds its Christmas market (27 November to 30 December), so browse the 90 chalets offering local delicacies and artisanal crafts while sipping the all-essential vin chaud. As the daylight begins to fade and Christmas lights twinkle ever brighter, head to your B&B to check in for the first of the two nights. With five beautifully decorated bedrooms, La Maison d’Hôtes La Corne d’Or (1 Place Guy Mollet, doubles from €125) is just three minutes’ walk from Grand’Place. It is owned by Australian Rodney Muir (and his partner Philippe Payet), who worked at his homeland’s embassy in Paris for 30 years. Latterly he was Representative for the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs, so he can share his knowledge of the remembrance trails in the area. Have dinner at La Faisanderie (45 Grand’Place, menus from €28).
After a gourmet breakfast, it’s time to explore the town, with the first stop being at the Wellington Quarry on Rue Arthur Delétoille. Descend 20 metres under the streets of Arras to discover how sappers from New Zealand dug out the town’s chalk extraction tunnels during World War I. They created underground barracks that could secretly hold 24,000 soldiers just a few metres from the front, before a surprise attack was launched on the Germans on 9 April 1917. After lunch at La Bulle d’O (1 Boulevard de Strasbourg, mains from €19) it’s time to get back in the car and head to Lille, 40 minutes away on the A1. Check into the Hôtel Barrière de Lille (777bis Pont de Flandres, doubles from €131), which has on-site parking and is a short walk from the city centre. With just enough of the afternoon left, head out for a spot of shopping – for which Lille is perfect. Make the most of the boutiques in the cobbled city centre, on streets such as Rue de la Monnaie. Browse for antiques and second handbooks in the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) and then head to the Meert tea room and shop (27 Rue Esquermoise) to indulge in its amazing confectionery and waffles. Lille’s Christmas market is close by, at the city’s own Grand’Place, but – if you can resist – save your euros for a festive blitz on day three. Return to the hotel, and then take a twilight stroll through Vieux Lille for dinner at Rouge Barre (50 Rue de la Halle, menus from €36). This lovely bistro is owned by young chef Steven Ramon, who came fourth in the 2014 edition of the French television programme Top Chef.
After breakfast, wrap up warm for a morning’s stroll around the Christmas market. Indulge in speculoos (spiced biscuits, native to the Netherlands and Belgium at Christmas, but commonly found in northern France) or a box of Bêtises de Cambrai, local sweets that legend states were discovered accidentally by a confectioner’s son (bêtise means ‘stupid mistake’ in French). After a typically Flemish lunch at the Estaminet Chez la Vieille (60 Rue de Gand), it’s time to head back to the hotel, but stop en route at Euralille, a large shopping centre with a Carrefour supermarket inside. Stock up on food for a picnic dinner later, and head back to collect your car and make tracks for Calais. Take the A25/E42 and then A16/E40 (1hr 20min) to Calais and stop at Le Bar à Vins (52 Place d’Armes) to make the most of owner Luc Gille’s incredible wine knowledge. Stock up on the best vintages for Christmas and head back to the ferry or shuttle for an early-evening crossing.