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.Read More
St-Valéry-sur-Somme, on the opposite side of the bay from Le Crotoy, is where William, Duke of Normandy, set sail to conquer England in 1066. With its intact medieval citadelle and brightly painted quays, St-Valéry is the jewel of the coast. The main sight is the Écomusée Picarvie, with its interesting collection of tools and artefacts relating to vanished trades and ways of life. Otherwise, activities include boat trips, cycling and guided walks, led by the Maison des Guides. Digging for shellfish is also popular, but be extremely careful about the tide: when it’s high it reaches up to the quays, but withdraws 14km at low tide, creating a dangerous current; equally, it returns very suddenly, cutting off the unwary.
Regional food and drink
Regional food and drink
French Flanders has one of northern France’s richest regional cuisines. Especially on the coast, the seafood – oysters, shrimps, scallops and fish, and above all, sole and turbot – are outstanding, while in Lille moules-frites are appreciated every bit as much as in neighbouring Belgium. Here, too, beer is the favourite drink, with pale and brown Pelforth the local brew. Traditional estaminets or brasseries also serve a range of dishes cooked in beer, most famously carbonnade flamande, a kind of beef stew; rabbit, chicken, game and fish may also be prepared à la bière. Other pot–cooked dishes include hochepot (a meaty broth), waterzooi (chicken in a creamy sauce) and potjevlesch (white meats in a rich sauce). In addition to boulette d’Avesnes, the Flemish cheese par excellence is the strong-flavoured maroilles, used to make flamiche, a kind of open tart of cheese pastry also made with leeks (aux poireaux). For the sweet-toothed, crêpes à la cassonade (pancakes with muscovado sugar) are often on menus, but waffles (gaufres) are the local speciality and come in two basic varieties: the thick honeycomb type served with sugar or cream, or the wafer-like biscuit filled with jam or syrup. Game looms large on menus in the Ardennes, with pâté d’Ardennes being the most famous dish and juniper berries used to flavour food à l’Ardennaise.