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Northern France | Off the beaten track

northern france

The Nord-Pas de Calais may surprise you with the sheer variety and richness of all that there is to experience here in one of the smallest regions of France. There are just two departments – the rather uninspiringly named Nord and Pas de Calais.

Unspoiled, largely undiscovered – it is a place of contrast, from the pastoral countryside to the ancient cities and towns. From winding little streams, green hills, richly canopied forests and meadow after meadow of wild flowers to the dynamic city of Lille and historic towns with cobble stoned squares and gothic cathedrals.

A place where the locals welcome guests with open arms and where street markets are a way of life and there is something to tempt everyone who wants a typically French break.

Dunkirk – Regional Capital of Culture 2013

northern France 15 kilometres of sandy beach, quirkily decorated beach huts, a huge choice of terrace cafés and restaurants which on the night we were there for dinner did a roaring trade – the place was teeming with families and couples out enjoying the sun and the warmth – it was absolutely reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Parasols, canopies and outdoor seating areas, metal chairs, immaculately dressed waiters, kids playing on the beach, the sky was blue as was the sea (I mean of course the  English Channel). It may have been only 46 miles from the English mainland but it felt like a thousand miles away.  We went to the LAAC, the museum of modern art, the museum Operation Dynamo, dedicated to the historic evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940 and saw the FRAC, the new art and exhibition centre being built on the site of an old industrial shipyard and due to open at the end of 2013 (More great things to do on a day trip to Dunkirk). After a good’s night sleep at the comfortable 4* Hotel Borrel, it was on to Lens.

Lens – home to the new wing of the Louvre

northern france

In this northern town coal mining was the main mode of employment until it all came to an end in 1990. The loss of jobs and money left this industrial town with its slag heaps and miners cottages in a quandary and for years it has been a depressed and frankly, in places, depressing area.

However the decision to locate a brand new wing of the Louvre, the most visited museum in the world and one of the most loved buildings of Paris, in this town has had a profound affect. The town has been busy reinventing itself and now boasts fabulous restaurants, two new hotels, the art deco facades of the shops have been cleaned up and the myriad of chocolate shops and the Philippe Olivier cheese shop have queues of customers intent on purchasing the most delicious goodies.

northern franceEven the slag heaps the mountains of debris left by digging out the coal, have had a makeover – they now host hiking trails, bushes and trees, one even has vines growing on it as the locals are attempting to make wine (wines of the mines – mmm it may have something) and offer spectacular views over the surrounding area as Lens has wholeheartedly embraced its new position as a major arts venue host.

The Louvre-Lens itself deserves a whole feature on its own (and here it is – Louvre-Lens, a museum with soul) – a strangely modest and discrete building despite its immensity and aluminium and glass design. There were thousands of people there to see the permanent exhibition and the temporary Rubens display the day I visited but this place can take it and then some – it is a magnificent achievement.

I thought my day couldn’t get any better – until we arrived at our hotel for the night. The stunning chateau of La Chartreuse du Val St-Esprit is a 4* hotel in Gosnay and offers guests a gastronomic experience! Three restaurants  in different buildings, two of them just a minute’s walk from the hotel– all top class, from the gourmet  Robert II,  The Distillery – a Brewery French cuisine or Vasco – modern brasserie cuisine.. With vegetables and fruit from their own wonderful kitchen garden and orchards, the food is fantastic and the sense of history is palpable – in fact it does have a rather wonderful and ghostly legend!

Bethune – a charming little French town

northern france

The next morning saw us hot foot it to nearby Bethune.  I’ve been this way before – to the big hypermarket on the outskirts usually but never quite made it into the centre of town. Imagine my surprise then to discover a lovely square with a 13th century Belfry – the oldest in the region, surrounded by quirky houses (including one of the skinniest I’ve seen to date in France), some great shops, cafés, restaurants and a beautiful church.

A sleepy place on a Sunday morning, the main square was just perfect for a coffee stop and an hour to wander and enjoy the ambience before we hit the remembrance trail.

Northern France Remembrance Trail

This area was of course the site of much action and tragedy in the First World War, what the French call the Great War, and again in the Second World War. You can hardly drive a few minutes without seeing a Commonwealth Graves Commission sign. We headed for the Le Touret Memorial and Military Cemetery, the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial (the only one of its kind in France) and the Portuguese National Cemetery in Richebourg (unique in France).

Le Touret Memorial and Military Cemetery is beautifully maintained, birds sing, flowers bloom amid row after row of white gravestones – a reminder of the terrible loss of lives. The Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial is extraordinary – like a miniature Taj Majal with its rounded domes and startling white walls, 4742 names are carved here, testament to the brave men who lost their lives in a cold part of Europe far from home. The Portugese National Cemetry is uniquely a little bit of Portugal in France. The material chosen for the grave stones hailed from Portugal – home – but is unsuitable for the colder and wetter climate of northern French and the stones are disintegrating adding to the terrible feeling of sadness.

We stopped for lunch in a fabulous estaminet called Le Plaisir d’Antan (appropriately located in Rue 11 Novembre in nearby Locon) which had a lovely vintage interior and a cheery chef and thus fortified, we headed an hour down the motorway to Arras.

Arras – spectacular architecture and history

In meticulously re-built Arras, which was all but destroyed in World War I, you can go below ground to Les Boves, 10th century tunnels also used as shelters during the World War II bombings and where each summer fantasy underground gardens are created. The town hall’s belfry tower, a UNESCO world heritage site, has marvellous views over the Grand Place and Place des Héros – it is not for those who have a fear of heights though!

The very pretty Palais des Beaux Arts was hosting a major international exhibition “Roulez Carrosses” – featuring carriages, sedan chairs and sledges from Versailles that were once the vehicles and toys of the great and the good from Marie Antoinette to Napoleon – a real show-stopper display.

All around and even underneath Arras are memorials, battlefields and cemeteries – Vimy Ridge and Wellington Quarry’s chilly and haunting tunnels  to name but a few.

After a very full day of sightseeing (I’d recommend a weekend in Arras) it was back to the main squares of the town and a difficult choice – which restaurant?  There are so many good quality restaurants here you’re spoiled for choice but we plumped for the Assiette au Boeuf on the Place Grande and it was a great choice. Full of locals tucking into beef and big plates of crispy frites!

The night was spent in the excellently located Hotel Univers, a former 17th Century monastery with huge rooms and a friendly service. Our destination in the morning and final stop on this three day tour was Lille, the fourth largest metropolitan area in France.

northern france

Old Lille – Fabulous art, architecture and shops

northern FranceI fell hook line and sinker in love with this vibrant and dynamic city. Marvellous architecture, gothic churches, Renaissance palaces – history oozing from the walls and streets – where you’ll also come across funky street art! Fabulous shops, museums, art galleries, art deco bakeries and centuries old chocolate shops that will have you swooning – at every corner there’s a photo opportunity  and something to “ooh and ah” over.  Of course there are also some wonderful restaurants – at Place aux Oignons, a stunningly pretty little square and once home to an onion market (of course) there are some great cafés that suit every budget from student to gastronomique but we decided to go to L’Huiterie because it was just so beautiful inside and out. Art deco tiles, informal atmosphere and the most amazing oysters ever – not surprising since they’ve been going since 1928.

We walked off lunch by shopping – Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Louis Vuitton and Hermès – all the big names are here it was like being in Paris – but all the great shops were in one walkable area – fabulous!

It might be just a short trip across the English Channel or underneath it but Nord-Pas de Calais on the doorstep of the UK is the real deal when it comes to a taste of France.

For great ideas on accommodation, things to do and see check out the website for Northern France

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