My new friend Laura is moving to France soon, to a village near me in Nord-Pas de Calais.
I am sure that like me, most of her friends will have questioned her sanity in moving to the north instead of the south.
She is actually moving here because she read something I wrote in the UK newspaper The Telegraph about how I fell in love with this region – and why. She came to have a look and like me, she fell under the spell of this, one of the smallest regions in France.
Arriving at Calais you may be forgiven for thinking we are both a little crazy though it actually is a much nicer town that most people think. Over recent years it has undergone a huge renovation and clean-up programme and the days when UK news programmes seemed to constantly show streams of immigrants in the town waiting to get to bountiful Britain against a somewhat grey and industrial backdrop are long gone. Sangatte, the seaside town just outside Calais on the Opal Coast road, remains for many a symbol of those bad old days but I promise you it is nothing like it was portrayed on the news. It is a charming, peaceful resort with an immense golden sandy beach. It is also the location for a proposed golf course with spa, hotel and other fabulous facilities which will make it a most desirable place to live in and visit.
The majority of the 11 million or so visitors to France from the UK who arrive via the ports at Calais or Dunkirk or Eurotunnel each year hit the auto routes and drive off to the south. They see the motorway signs, a few trees, in the distance a church spire maybe, a little village but – they do not stop – they are determined to get to La Belle France of the south.
However, if they were to stop and look – like me and like Laura and like many of my expat friends who live here – they would be very surprised I am sure to find that they have in fact completely missed La Belle France. It is here to the left and right of the motorways.
Now, I must tell you, we do not get the same weather as they do in the south – but it’s still pretty good – we liken it to that of Cornwall or Devon.
What we do have is the most glorious countryside, splendid historic towns and cities, beautiful beaches and seaside resorts, gorgeous little villages, more museums than any other region in France (except for Ile de France/Paris). This is a region that is known as the party region – the people here love any excuse for a get together and they are the friendliest in France. This region recently came top of a poll for the “happiest people in France”. People have a strong sense of value for tradition, culture and heritage that is unsurpassed – it isn’t just major towns and cities and tourist organisations – it is in every village however small.
We have more than 3,200 brocantes a year here in Nord-Pas de Calais. Every brocante is a chance for a “repas” – a meal, party, barbecue; every event is a chance to show case local artists, talent – musicians, dancers, even vegetable sculptors. We have so many festivals each year I just can’t tell you how many – thousands and thousands. Markets selling local, seasonal produce are a way of life not a gourmet experience.
The history of this place is immense, from the Romans who invaded Britain from Boulogne, to the Hundred Years War battle sites of Agincourt and Crecy; from the Field of the Cloth of Gold where England’s King Henry VIII met the French King Francis I to Napoleon’s camp also at Boulogne from where he preapred to launch an invasion against Britain. From the tragedies of two world wars whose scars are still so evident on these lands.
Where I live (an hour from Calais) I am just two hours from Paris by train or car, three hours from London by train and car and an hour and a half from Belgium. Many of my neighbours actually commute to work in the UK but choose to live here for the quality of life and pollution free air. The rural country life reminds older people of what it was like in the UK 40 years ago, good healthcare, great schools, traffic free roads, lots of space – it is worth the journey.
Property although far cheaper than in the UK is not the cheapest in France – this region ranks about No. 12 out of 23 for pricing – so about mid way.
So are we mad all of us who’ve chosen to live here? Non, pas de tout, we’re happy and living the good life!
Janine Marsh is a freelance journalist, travel writer and editor of The Good Life France – she lives the beautiful Seven Valleys area of Pas de Calais with her dogs, cats, ducks, geese and chickens.