Saint Omer, France, is one of the most popular towns for visitors to the Nord-Pas de Calais region.
Easily accessible from Calais or Dunkirk it offers a taste of French charm and authenticity and provides much for visitors to do and see. It is the perfect French day trip destination from the UK, provides for a wonderful weekend for a taste of France and is a great base to tour the region of Nord-Pas de Calais.
I spent a day and a night in St Omer and kicked off with a visit to La Coupole, a dynamic history centre housed in a huge World War II domed bunker. I was absolutely thrilled by the mesmerising 3D planetarium space show and the exhibitions have been updated and given a new lease of life. Covering the history of early rockets designed to be used in World War II and create maximum destruction to today’s rockets and the path of space travel as well as an area devoted to the human cost of the war and the impact of war on the Pas de Calais area.
The gorgeous Chateau Tilques close by provided accommodation for the night (rooms start at €105 per night) and what a fabulous hotel it is. A 19th Century chateau once owned by the aristocratic Talleyrand family and built on the site of a medieval manor – it doesn’t get much better than that. Until that is, you eat in the gastronomic restaurant – we were made to feel like royalty ourselves! I found out later that a certain footballer who is used to the very best, one David Beckham, has stayed here too as have 14 world cup football teams – I can see why!
In the morning I visited the Musée Sandelin, the 18th Century former home of the Comtesse de Fruges. Some of the rooms are laid out as if the Comtesse still lived there, a table set for breakfast in the salle à manger, a sitting room and music room complete with instruments. The décor is all muted paintwork with gold embellishment, fabulous plaster carved detail, hidden doors, grand windows – it feels soft, romantic and feminine. Tapestries line the wall, pieces of chinoiserie furniture, paintings and ornaments give it an air of gentility and charm.
The museum hosts excellent temporary exhibitions as well as a permanent collection of eclectic items – a huge array of clay pipes of all shapes and sizes, a ceramics collection from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries; magnificent blue and white pottery and delicately created china animals, ornaments – some of them larger than life and beautifully painted. Old masters of the Flemish, French and Dutch schools from the 16th to the 19th Century, furniture, archeological artefacts in rooms with parquet floors and grand French windows.
It isn’t a big museum but it is in a beautiful chateau, has great charm and is well worth a visit.
From the Musée Sandelin I wandered down to the 13th Century Cathedral of Notre Dame whose grand tower dominates the St Omer skyline.
I’ve visited this church several times and there is always something new to discover. 800 years of history have left their mark in every corner of this building. An enormous astrological clock dating back to 16th Century shows the time, date, month, year, century, the position of the moon and astrological signs. Underneath the clock a grand wooden door states that Louis XIV entered the church via these doors when he visited the town in 1677. A Rubens painting hangs over a centuries old tiled wall fresco. Paintings, ornaments, grand marble chapels filled with elaborately painted statues, a labyrinth based on an ancient design previously in an even older cathedral now destroyed, an enormous organ on which you can hear a recital on certain days – this working cathedral is beautiful, fascinating and has a real air of mystery and ancient history. (You can pick up an audio guide from the Tourist Office nearby).
It was enough to give one an appetite so it was off to L’Envol, a traditional style restaurant at the Hippodrome of Saint Omer, the local race course. Chef Philippe Souny had prepared a medieval style menu and served a glass of vin de sauge. You may never have heard of this wine before and neither had I – the heady and aromatic scent of sage was unmistakable but had no taste of the herb whatsoever – not bad that medieval wine. A cosy restaurant with a reasonably priced menu and a welcoming chef left me feeling ready for more exploration.
A short drive followed – to the heart of the Marais – an area of marshlands and canals which is entirely man made and dates back to the 16th Century. Here you can hire a boat or take a guided tour with Isnor who also have a charming brasserie on the riverbank. I boarded a wooden boat, the captain started the motor and off we went on our very own wind in the willows river jaunt!
The Marais was an important area for Saint Omer, vegetables and plants thrived in the fertile marshlands and in fact they still do – there are some 40 families still growing top quality vegetables here to this day.
The Marais of St Omer is the only place in the whole of France where the postman delivers the post to the houses by boat on a daily basis!
It is an idyllic place, a grand nature reserve – home to 1700 different varieties of plant, 250 species of bird, 13 different types of dragonfly. Turning the engine off we drifted peacefully along, the only sound was that of woodpeckers and other wild birds and of fish jumping out of the water and causing ripples on the surface. A picnic on a sunny day on a boat here would be perfection.
Canals flow from the marais to Lille, Dunkirk, Bethune and to the south, carrying tons of produce produced in the fertile soil. Meanwhile we meandered along peacefully admiring the gardens, the fields and the beautiful landscape and simply enjoying the joie de vivre of this lovely area. Some of the houses have locally grown produce for sale at the side of the river, simply steer your boat over, tie up and shop!
Despite a packed agenda, I didn’t see all that Saint Omer has to offer – rest assured I’ll be returning to this pretty part of France soon – this time for a weekend – one day just isn’t enough,
Travel to Saint Omer: Calais to St Omer by car approximately 40 minutes; Dunkirk to St Omer approximately 30 minutes
Saint-Omer Tourist Office (Musée Sandelin details on the tourist office website)
Hotel Chateau de Tilques
Isnor – for boat trips on the Marais, St Omer