The far north of France, known as Hauts de France comprising the departments Picardy, Pas-de-Calais and Nord is the perfect road trip destination. A land of castles, seaside resorts, forests and lakes. There are ancient towns and cities, gorgeous countryside and picturesque villages and even Champagne vineyards! If you’re after a road trip that takes you to the heart of authentic France. Where you’ll enjoy delicious food, meet friendly folk and discover a historic land that’s full of surprises. Then hit the road and explore this unexpected and extraordinary region…
Unspoiled, uncrowded, rural tourism at it’s best.
Road Trip Pas de Calais, northern France
Our journey began on P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais on an early morning sailing. Turning left out of the port we headed for the D940 Opal Coast route, which I call the Route 66 of the north of France. It passes through a stream of small fishing towns, seaside resorts and some of the most beautiful scenery in France.
There are miles and miles of unspoiled and endless sandy beaches. There are huge dunes and pine forests; dramatic clifftop walks offer dizzying views across the Channel to the White Cliffs of Dover – clearly visible on a cloudless day. Some parts of the coast remind me of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. Massive boulders seem to spill out of the sea and up to the road. Fishermen sit silent and patient along the water’s edge with rods and nets. Out to sea you can see traditional wooden fishing boats bobbing on the calm water.
Secluded Bays and picnic dreams
The sky was blue, the English Channel was the colour of the Mediterranean Sea, a soft sort of turquoise. The air was scented with apples from orchards lining the country roads as we drifted off the main coastal route and into the beautiful countryside to hunt down a patisserie. Nothing says France more than a baguette with a chunk of cheese followed by a jewel like cake and a glass of chilled wine. We sat on a blanket overlooking the English Channel, rabbits hopping around us, birds swooping above. A moment of pure pleasure.
We found secret, secluded bays where seals frolicked. There are monuments and museums, and the remains of the Atlantic Wall built as protection against allied invasion during World War II.
Stop en route to discover secrets and surprises
It doesn’t take more than 45 minutes from Calais to Boulogne-sur-Mer. But, it’s far better to spend the entire day on this section of the road. Stop to enjoy a home-cooked lunch in a friendly, welcoming café and buy fish fresh from the fishermen who sell direct from their front rooms and garages in villages like Audresselles. Wander on the beach, admire the ancient fort at Ambleteuse (above) and the Belle Epoque villas at Wimereux.
This is a part of France that’s hardly known outside of the region despite being captured on canvas by J M Turner who loved the ”opal” quality of light, and Charles Dickens singing the praises of the area and moving his family there.
Boulogne-sur-Mer deserves a day of discovery. Head to the old town, so pretty it looks like a film set. Don’t miss the incredible decorated crypt of the Basillica Notre-Dame, the rue du Lille, lined with quirky boutiques and restaurants.
The 13th century Chateau Museum includes an Egyptian collection donated by renowned Egyptologist François Auguste Ferdinand Mariette, born in the town and the founder of the Cairo Museum of Egyptology. Nausicaa, the largest sea aquarium in Europe and heaps more will definitely fill a day right up…
From Boulogne, the D940 runs on through Neufchatel-Hardelot with its neo-Shakespearian Theatre and Castle with a cultural centre dedicated to Entente-Cordiale and glorious Hardelot beach. And on through charming Etaples, once a fishing port, neighbour to the swanky jet set seaside resort of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, and several lovely seaside towns before crossing the border into Picardy…
Road Trip Picardy, Northern France
Marquenterre nature reserve
Close to the border at Saint-Quentin-en-Tourmont, we followed the signs for Parc Marquenterre. I’m not a twitcher, but I love animals and this nature reserve on the Bay of the Somme has a reputation for being really special.
A dusty track ended in a huge car park where a surprisingly smart and large restaurant and bar tempted us in. Here in what feels like the middle of nowhere, they serve delicious dishes with heirloom vegetables, the freshest local fish and superb desserts, fitting fuel for explorers. 200 hectares of land covered in marshes, peppered with lakes and ponds, dunes and reed beds are an absolute magnet for birds of all types. From a hide, I spied on storks and herons. Birds tweeted above and around us. The air is fresh and unpolluted, you feel as if you have the whole area to yourself. Marquenterre is mesmerising, memorable and magical.
Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, steam trains and cobbled streets
From here it’s a short ride to the town of Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. This ancient and extremely photogenic little town on the Somme Estuary has absolutely oodles of charm. It’s easy to spend an entire day here.
Stroll the cobbled streets. Wander along the harbour and the long esplanade to ogle the mansion houses. And discover the colourful sailors district. You’ll know exactly what lured the artist Degas and writers Victor Hugo and Jules Verne to holiday here. Long before them, Joan of Arc was held captive here. The dungeon where she is said to have been imprisoned is still there. It’s a tiny stone tower and you can’t help but think how the poor girl must have felt cooped up in her claustrophobic prison.
William the Conqueror was here too, stopping off to collect soldiers before making history and conquering England in 1066. Standing on the ramparts looking out to sea in the medieval town I wondered if he too had stood there. Wondering, dreaming, daring to hope that his ambitious plans to quell his dastardly enemy across the water might come true. All that thinking makes you hungry. Luckily this little town is teeming with cafés, bistros and restaurants.
The stream train is an irresistible lure. It takes you, on authentic wooden seats, round the Bay of the Somme, classified as one of the most beautiful bays in the world. We spotted wild pigs, deer and all manner of birds en route. You can take a boat ride out on the bay where the largest colony of seals in France live. Join a walking or bike tour (you can rent bikes in the town), or simply sit back and enjoy the ambiance. Watching the sun set over the bay, is one of those unforgettably beautiful moments in life…
Take in the stunning medieval village of Gerberoy. Officially classified as a Plus Beaux Village, it has oodles of charm. Read about Gerberoy here: What to see and do in Gerberoy
Amiens Gothic Cathedral and astonishing floating gardens
The D940 runs all the way to Le Tréport in Normandy where the road then becomes the D925. It then runs around the coast through Dieppe before reverting to its original number to reach Le Havre. But stay in the Hauts de France region and head to the city of Amiens where you’ll discover Les Hortillonnages, one of the best kept secrets of France. These watery arteries give Amiens a unique atmosphere. You really have a feeling that you are in the most beautiful countryside – right in the centre of a busy metropolis.
The hortillonnages are a major heritage site. Marshland gardens, cultivated for centuries, created on man-made islands and on the land which lines the waterways. In fact the gardens are so old that no one knows when they began. But, legend has it that when the city’s Cathedral was built in the 13th century, it was on a field of artichokes managed by the gardeners of the hortillonnages.
All tours are by eco-friendly electric boats which glide silently across the tranquil waters. Steering the boat round islands, stopping off at jetties to look at artworks dotted around, enjoying a picnic on an island – it really brings out your inner happy. The only disturbance was the cooing and calling of birds and the croaking of frogs. You’d hardly even know you’re in a city if it wasn’t for the fact that you can see the spire of the great Gothic cathedral in the distance.
Chateau de Chantilly
At the stunning Chateau de Chantilly treating yourself to some Chantilly cream is de rigeur! Fling the diet plans out of the window and dig straight in. In the gorgeous gardens of this fairy tale castle is a hamlet that was allegedly the inspiration for Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles. Pretty little half-timbered buildings and sweet bridges over a bubbling stream. The restaurant serves great lunches including strawberries and Chantilly cream. It was whipped at our table, right in front of our eyes. I confess, my eyes were not bigger than my belly. I has no trouble getting through a very large dollop of utterly seductive cream.
Read more about Chantilly castle and its amazing stables here.
Chateau Thierry | Champagne Vineyards – in Picardy
Take a detour to the area of Chateau Thierry on the Champagne border. You might be amazed to discover that more than 10% of all the Champagne made, is actually produced from vines in this part of Picardy! I have to tell you, if you’re a fan of the fizz like me, it’ll make you effervescent with happiness to go here. You can enjoy a fabulous tasting at several Champagne Houses.
Thiepval Memorial is one of the most emotional memorials I’ve been to. Not just because of the 72,000 names etched into the white walls, or the row upon row of crosses.
The guides who work here offer free tours and they share anecdotes and stories of those whose names are forever remembered. As the guide told me about a man whose bravery at trying to save the lives of his comrades ended in his own death, I looked up on the walls. The names are familiar to us all, Davis, Smith, Roberts – and Cedric Dickens, great-grandson of Charles Dickens who’d loved the north of France so much. The absolute tragedy of the sacrifices made, the terrible losses, completely overwhelmed me. I burst into tears and thought how very grateful I am for all that I have.
Road Trip Nord, Northern France
Lille – historic and stunning
Lille, the capital of Hauts-de-France has the most beautiful old town. Wander it’s cobbled streets under colourful bunting, past boulangeries and cake shops where people wait patiently in queues – a small price to pay for the lushest of dishes. Dine at an authentic estaminet, the Flemish word for an inn. Visit a microbrewery. There are museums and art galleries galore. You’ll fall under the spell of this vibrant city that’s crammed with museums and cultural highlights and full of friendly folk, so that you can hardly bear to leave. There’s just so much to do: 10 things to do in Lille
And it’s a short journey to the Roubaix district. Here you’ll find the world class La Piscine museum and a whole load more art and culture. And not much further to Lens where you’ll find a branch of the Paris Louvre, the world’s most visited museum. The Lens Louvre is an extraordinary museum and a must-see for all lovers of art.
Saint Omer is about half an hour from Calais which makes it a great last stop on your way home to shop for supplies. But en route from Lens, make a stop at Bethune and discover the pretty town and Chef Marc Meurin’s fabulous hotel and Michelin starred restaurant. The sweet-toothed chef also has a sweet shop that would make Willy Wonka do cartwheels. Chef Meurin also offers cooking lessons. Even I, “Flop Chef”, learned how to create something marvellous! And he has a great, informal restaurant called Le Jardin d’Alice which the locals love.
Back to Saint Omer. It’s a quintessential French market town that has a massive historic footprint. Thomas a Becket AKA Saint Thomas Becket took refuge from Henry II of England in there in 1165. Centuries later, three of America’s Founding Fathers, Daniel, Charles and John Carroll, studied at the Jesuit Chapel.
Markets, Shakespeare and Flemish cafes
If you can, be there for the Saturday morning market. A riot of colour and scents and sounds fill the cobbled square in front of the neo-classic town hall. Stalls are piled high with produce, vegetables grown on the local marshes and farms or by green-fingered locals. This is one of the most authentic and friendly markets I’ve ever been to. And when you’re done, pop to the town library. It looks ordinary from outside, however – head to the old part of the building where books go back to the 7th century. A priceless First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was recently discovered on its heaving shelves! And stop to enjoy a local beer and Flemish dish at any number of cafés and watch the world go by and plan your return to this unforgettable part of France.
Once is never enough.
See my trip by video:
This region is a land of contrast, sea and country, history and culture, arts and crafts and gastronomy. Whether you stay for a weekend or a week, there’s so much to discover that one visit will never satisfy you…
Get my free road trip guide and discover more great things to do in northern France: french-weekendbreaks.co.uk. There are loads of tips for restaurants and things to do in and around the areas mentioned…