When conjuring up exotic holiday locations, you’re unlikely to light upon the north of France. Even among the French, the most enthusiastic tourists of their own country, it has few adherents. Largely flat Artois and Flanders include some of the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, while across the giant fields of sparsely populated Picardy, a few drops of rain are all that is required for total gloom to descend. Coming from Britain it’s probable, however, that you’ll arrive and leave France via this region, possibly through the busy ferry port of Calais, and there are several good reasons to stop off in the area. Dunkerque offers a bustling, university atmosphere and poignant war memorials, and just inland, the delightful village of Cassel is a rare example of a Flemish hill settlement. St-Omer – with its excellent war museum, La Coupole, nearby – and Montreuil-sur-Mer are also strong contenders in terms of charm and interest.
Northern France has always been on the path of various invaders into the country, from northern mainland Europe as well as from Britain, and the events that have taken place in Flanders, Artois and Picardy have shaped both French and world history. The bloodiest battles were those of World War I, above all the Battle of the Somme, which took place north of Amiens, and Vimy Ridge, near Arras, where the trenches have been preserved in perpetuity; a visit to any of these is highly recommended in order to understand the sacrifice and futility of war.
Picardy, meanwhile, boasts some of France’s finest cathedrals, including those at Amiens, Beauvais and Laon. Other attractions include the bird sanctuary of Marquenterre; industrial archeology in the Lewarde coalfields around Douai, where Zola’s Germinal was set; the great medieval castle of Coucy-le-Château; and the battle sites of the Middle Ages, Agincourt and Crécy, familiar names in the long history of Anglo–French rivalry. In city centres like Lille, you’ll find your fill of food, culture and entertainment.