Approach the town of Cassel in the department of Nord, Hauts-de-France, from the flat countryside passing field after field. Cars wind their way helter-skelter-like, up and around the Mont of Cassel until suddenly, they reach the cobbled roads that lead into the small town with big views at the top of this famous hill of French Flanders. Janine Marsh explores the award-winning favourite town of the French 2018.
Cassel – favourite village of the French 2018
The town took the first prize in the hugely popular “Le village préféré des Français” contest in 2018. When much-loved TV host Stéphane Bern announced that Cassel had beaten much more famous rivals to the title, including Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy and Roussillon in Provence, the locals were more than delighted. You may never have heard of this place but winning this coveted title almost guarantees that Cassel will become more well-known.
It’s a sleepy little place, not very large and easy to wander around. It’s not busy except on market day (Thursday morning), and with a population of less than 2,500, it’s certainly not overcrowded or greatly touristic. Except when the carnival is on. Then this town bursts into noisy, vibrant life. Giants walk the streets, thousands of visitors dress up, sing and dance in the streets. And this carnival starts early – at 6 am each Easter Monday, a drum roll heralds the impending spring and turns the whole town happy!
The charm of Cassel lies in the fact that it is typically Flemish. It it has outstanding views over the beautiful countryside. There are friendly folk and a strong sense of the authentic and of the past. It’s been likened to something out of a story from Père Castor, beloved French stories for children originating in the early 20th century with a fairy-tale, folklore vibe.
What to see and do in Cassel
It’s also where you’ll find the multi award winning garden known as the Jardins du Mont des Récollets. This rather unusual garden is famous in France, in fact it was voted favourite garden of the French in 2011. Though this is a quiet, rural corner of France, it has a lot to offer visitors.
Cassel is a small town with an excellent museum with a good collection of paintings and regular temporary exhibitions.
It’s a lovely place in which to take an amble. Enjoy the views from the ramparts, the castle having long gone. Or better still, from the gardens at the highest point of Mont Cassel, 176m up, where you’ll find a windmill on the site of the former castle. You can drive to the top but its much more fun to climb the quirky Alpine stairs. While you’re there, you should definitely take a break at the enchanting Estaminet Kasteelhof, a Flemish word for a tavern.
It’s the restaurant of famous local, Emmanuel de Quillacq of the Jardins de Mont des Récollets, and reflects his love for tradition and Flanders. There’s a fabulous rustic menu, local beers, home made lemonades and wonderful traditional décor. The terrace has stunning views and inside is atmospheric and fun. There’s also a little shop where you can buy local products (8 Rue Saint-Nicolas).
Don’t miss the Musée de Flandre which has a beautiful 16th Renaissance façade. It’s home to a rich collection of paintings, prints and sculptures and presents the history of French Flanders.
Enjoy the ambiance of Cassel
There are plenty of charming cafés and restaurants to lure you.
Locals love: Estaminet Kasteelhof (see above) and Le Kerelshof II at the heart of the Grand Place. It gets very lively at the weekends and is friendly, fun with a great range of beers and a good menu of local foods and specialities from carbonnade (beef stew with ale and brown sugar) to potjevleesch (cold meats in aspic) and sugar pie!
Take a break: Café aux Trois Moulins which looks like something out of Maigret story, authentic and atmospheric. It’s great for a coffee, beer and robust plates of food like steak frites. There are friendly staff and it’s very good value. (50 Grand’Place).
Wine and dine: Fenêtre sur Cour, this Michelin starred restaurant offers a fabulous menu at a non-Michelin price. With a 2-course lunch menu starting at Euros 23.50 or Chef Jean-Luc Paulhan’s 5 course choice with 3 wines at just €62.50, in beautiful surroundings. (5 Rue du Marechal Foch).
Local specialities and artisans
At La Ferme des Templiers, you’ll be tempted by Le Boulet de Cassel cheese, a mimolette made with milk from a local breed of cow, the Rouge Flamande. (1 Rue de Staple, 59670 Oxelaëre).
Ferme des Récollets is run by the Beun family, and you’ll receive a warm welcome before you fall in love with their cheeses which are mostly made from goats milk.
Try the local brew Bière du Reuze, named after the famous giants of the area.
You can buy local products in the town at shops in the town at 2 rue Bollaert and 32 Grand Place as well as at the Estaminet Kasteelhof.