Saint Omer in the Nord Pas-de-Calais region offers an abundance of things to do for the visitor both in the town and the surrounding countryside.
The Fontinettes Boat Lift
The Ascenseur des Fontinettes was built in 1888 to connect the Canal de Neufosse to the River Aa and was capable of lifting vessels weighing up to 300 tons and facilitated a change in height from one waterway to another of 13 metres. Two barges could enter the Fontinettes lift together, each would go into one of the water-filled locks, set upon two enormous 90 ton pistons. The lift worked like a pair of hydraulic scales – one of the locks moved up with its barge inside while the second one was reaching the lower level of the canal. It took six men to operate the lift and took about 5 minutes to complete as opposed to the 90 minutes it took previously to get boats through 5 locks to change rivers and was in use until 1967.
Nowadays the Fontinettes engine room is opened to visitors and offers an animated model. A gigantic lock has been built upstream : it can house six barges that move up or down in only twenty minutes.
The Genièvre Distillery
The genièvre distillery in Houlle was founded in 1812 and is one of the last two still in existence in France producing this special blend of gin. Named after the genièvre – juniper berry, the gin is a blend of malted rye, oats and barley flavoured with juniper berries and is said to contain “the scents of the northern French countryside”. The genièvre is a powerful ‘eau-de-vie’ and was frequently drunk by 20th century miners summoning up ‘courage’ for another day in the pits. The distillery produces an award winning gin, loved by gourmets and you can tour the production area and have a tasting.
The Maison du Papier
The Aa valley is famous for its paper-making industry going back several centuries. Although the paper that’s produced here nowadays uses modern state of the art machinery there is also a centre of paper-making which uses traditional methods used in the 15th Century and powered by a water mill. The wonderful Maison du Papier in Esquerdes holds exhibitions and art workshops and offers a chance to make your own sheet of paper the way it was done hundreds of years ago in a lovely setting.
Le Picasso autorail
Take the retro looking autorail from Lumbres to Arques and back, on a red and ivory train called ‘Le Picasso’, travelling at 30 kph it’s a chance to take a trip back to the 1950’s and enjoy the scenery of the Aa valley as it rolls past. Run by a team of passionate volunteers who have recreated the route along the old St Omer to Boulogne railway line.
Taking in tourists sites such as the Fontinettes Ship Lift, La Coupole, Blendeques Station where there’s an exhibition of old railway equipment, the old train station at Arques where you’ll find a 1940’s steam train and taking in views of churches, mills and beautiful countryside – it’s a sweet, short trip to the past. Running on Sundays and May bank holidays throughout the Summer. Picasso Autorail
Rando-Rail is a form of pedal car running along the old railway line from Nielles-les-Bléquin. There are two different round trips, each 9 km long, taking in woodlands and the open countryside of the Artois hills. Active fun for the family or with a group of friends and you can also participate in two treasure hunts on foot (5 to 6 km) following a trail of clues and codes to solve. Highly recommended that you book in advance as this is a popular day out for the family. www.rando-rail.com
The Belles Echappées (or wonderful escapes) offers a different way of visiting the beautiful French country side around St Omer – they hire out iconic, timeless 2CV cars plus tandems, solex bikes, trikes and beach cruisers and can provide you with itineraries based on their intimate knowledge of the local area giving you a unique insight off the beaten track.
They also provide picnics on request with a selection of fresh, locally produced goodies and even supply the basket, rug, wine cooler and all accessories for a wonderful al fresco meal.
For more information of all their activities and to book see their website: Les-belles-echappees.com
Arc International, Arques
The famous Arc crystal factory in Arques is huge, like a town within a town and visitors cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer size if its production area. A two hour tour of the factory, accompanied by a guide includes a presentation of the history of glass and glassmaking secrets and then takes in a walk through the modern production workshop via a series of bridges above the huge machines. It’s an awesome sight to see the industrial processes take place, from the molten glass to the completed articles, champagne classes, vases, clear, coloured – you name it, this factory does it all.
After the tour you can visit the Arc factory shop and get a discount of 10-20%! For true glass lovers, a visit to the Arc factory is a must in mid-October when a tent is set up at the factory and a massive sale is held. www.visiteverreriearc.com
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