No wonder the ancient Dukedom of Flanders and the adjoining territories of Artois and Picardy are known to historians as ‘The Cockpit of Europe’. Straddling the borders between present day France and Belgium it’s a region that shaped two world wars and much more. The launching ports for the 1066 Norman invasion, Henry V’s Agincourt, the Duke of Marlborough’s battleground of Malplaquet, the horrors of the Great War trenches, the beaches of the Dunkirk evacuation – memories of these and other monumental moments in the turbulent history of Flanders resonate down the years.
Exploring Le Nord
Any tour of the region will go well with a stay at the outstanding La Charteuse du Val Saint-Esprit, in the village of Gosnay. It’s an estate that provides not one but two very good hotels. There’s the decidedly upmarket château-style La Chartreuse itself and the Best Western affiliated La Maitaire. Plus there are three restaurants on the one site, a beautifully restored and refurbished one-time convent and impressive outbuildings with roots back to the 1300s.
Also in Gosnay is the Cantiques de Gosnay Unité d’Art Sacré. It comprises an important collection of 70 religious paintings, 10 stained glass windows and sculptures, created by René Ducourant.
The close-by town of Béthune has connections with the British army which are recalled through the medium of a way-marked Bethune And The British’ walking trail.
Opened two years ago, the Lens 14-18 interpretation centre is a unique collection of dramatically displayed over-sized black and white photographs. Close by, the Ring of Remembrance International Memorial, inaugurated on November 11 (Armistice Day) 2014, the Centenary of the outbreak of World War is among the largest memorials in the world. It bears the names of 580,000 fallen soldiers, listed strictly alphabetically, without distinction by nationality, to unite the fallen, friend and foe alike. Also nearby is the massive Notre-Dame-de-Lorette – the largest French military cemetery. Numerous British and Empire troop burial grounds are dotted through the rolling poppy dotted hills.
From here you can take a tour through the mining districts around Lens, with their huge volcano-shaped slag heaps now covered in green vegetation.
The Charming town of Bergues
Don’t miss out on a visit to the fascinating fortified town of Bergues. Famed for its local hard cheese and plump white sausages and even more renowned for its role in the smash hit comedy movie ‘Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis, France’s most popular film.
It was the inspired military architect Sébastien Le Prestre Marshal de Vauban (1633 – 1707) who, at the behest of Louis XIV ‘The Sun King’, re-constructed the formidable encircling moats and walls over the 9th century foundations. They remain remarkably complete and run to 17,400-ft in length. It was said of the great man that none of the fortifications that he ever besieged managed to withstand his onslaught, while none of the bastions built in full accord with his carefully individually crafted plans ever fell to an attack. Allow 90 minutes for the four-kilometres Ramparts Walk.
Featuring a carillon of 50 bells that ring out on market and festival days, the town’s massive belfry has certainly had a chequered past. Begun in the 13th Century, it has been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions. Firstly in the wake of the 1383 French invasion of the then independent Flanders, then in the 16th Century and again in 1940 and 1944.
End your visit to this fascinating little French Flemish town on a culinary high spot. Enjoy an outstanding taste of traditional Flemish cuisine ‘A La façon de ma Mere’ (‘The way mother cooked it’) at the unashamedly traditional and rustic Le Bruegel. With its soft stone façade and pastel blue windows and a delightful wooden floor and bric a brac filled dining room it’s charming, authentic and delicious.
Brooding La Coupole
From here it’s a short drive to the must-see massive and broodingly sinister La Coupole. This concrete monstrosity is sunk into the chalk hillside near St. Omer and constructed by the Nazi’s as a site for launching V2 rockets aimed at London. Nowadays it contains not only a history and memorial centre to conflicts and events that are the common heritage of all Europeans but an impressive 360-degree planetarium.
French Flanders, like next-door Belgian Flanders, is focusing attention on its turbulent past. And that isn’t just its pivotal role in the two world wars but dating way back past the Napoleonic wars to the Hundred Years War.
October 24, 1415, the St. Crispin’s Day of Henry V, is commemorated at the fascinating Azincourt museum, tucked away deep in the delightful Seven Valleys countryside, between Hesdin and Fruges. Nearing completion it is a major redevelopment that ensures a far more hands-on digital-age experience of history. The English army was outnumbered almost two to one when the battle commenced. A hail-storm of arrows unleashed by Henry’s Welsh archers led to a panic and retreat. It spelled death or captivity for the cream of France’s knights, many of whom were crushed under-foot in the deep mud as the steep terrain funnelled them into an ever narrowing gap.
As you criss-cross the region, evocative memories of momentous historical events from history seemed to leap out from behind bushes, down secret lanes and suburban alleyways or showcased in majestic city squares. Walled and moated cities and towns; imposing memorials; preserved sections of trench and a host of museums are all part of the mix.
A great place to end your tour is with a relaxing overnight at the splendid Najeti St. Omer Hotel du Golf.
Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments.