Aire-sur-la-Lys is a rather sleepy little town on the border between Nord and Pas de Calais, the two departments of Nord-Pas de Calais.
It wasn’t always so tranquil though the Lys River after which it is named still runs through the town as it has for centuries. Thanks to its strategic position between the mountains of Flanders and hills of Artois, Aire-sur-la-Lys has been coveted and fought over, and has been by turns Spanish, English, Dutch and Burgundian. It wasn’t until 1713 that it finally became French for good.
Aire-sur-la-Lys was created in the 9th Century by the counts of Flanders, it became a fortified town and is today sprinkled with reminders of its historic past.
Visit on a Friday morning and you’ll discover a vibrant little market in the cobble stone square under the watchful eye of the UNESCO listed Belfry clock which chimes every half an hour, surrounded by tall Flemish style buildings. The town hall is rather grand and reminiscent of Versailles in style. When Aire-sur-la-Lys finally became French under the Treaty of Utrecht, Louis XIV granted permission for the town hall to be built but he imposed conditions – it had to be in the French style. The architect was local, an ex-pupil of Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the chief architect of Louis XIV who influenced the re-design of Versailles. You can’t miss the pediment with its Sun God sculpture representing the King, the Fleur de Lys and an eagle on the pavement in front. The King wanted to make sure that the town’s people knew who they should be loyal to and the grand building was a brilliant reminder.
Ten years later an urban planning law was passed requiring houses built in the triangle shaped square around the town hall to be uniform. Three floors, the same width with tall columns decorating the front. The only gaps were made when bombs fell during WWII. Luckily most of the houses survived as did what is now the Tourist Office built in 1600.
Funded by a tax on wine and beer (nothing changes does it?!) it is an incredible monument to the masons of the 17th Century with friezes and sculptures, some of which depict shells, a nod to the fact that the town was on the pilgrim route from Canterbury to Santiago de Compostela. There’s what looks like a Romeo and Juliet balcony but it’s actually a military veranda as the building was originally a bailliage, (a military/fiscal building) where commanders of armies stood to speak to the troops assembled in the square. These days the balcony plays host to the Mayor once a year when, on the first weekend in September L’andouille d’Aire, (a local delicacy, a sausage), are tossed to the crowds gathered below for this fun festival.
There are plenty of signs of the past, old houses, statues in walls, including one of the Virgin Mary where women in the past would congregate to pray for an easy birth. To get the most of a visit, pick up a leaflet from the tourist office that lays out a 2km trail round the town with key buildings listed such as the Vauban designed barracks and La Collégiale Saint-Pierre church which houses a series of sixteenth century frescoes depicting the tale of Saint-Jacques visible in the old sacristy, one of the earliest cartoons ever.
It’s a comfortable town, typically French, historic and peaceful. There are lots of little cafes and bars. Further afield, the land of Aire is renowned for its beautiful natural landscape and popular for hiking, a land of hills and rivers and lush countryside brimming with flowers and fauna, the perfect place to unwind.
How to get there: Aire-sur-la-Lys is about 10km from St Omer; approximately 50 minutes from Calais. You can find more information about Aire-sur-la-Lys on the St Omer Tourism website tourisme-saint-omer.com