When conjuring up exotic holiday locations, you’re unlikely to light upon the north of France. Largely flat Artois and Flanders include some of the most heavily industrialized parts of the country. However, there are many good reasons to explore the area, not least its strong associations with the most devastating battles of World War I, which recently marked its hundredth anniversary. Other big draws are the bustling port town of Calais, Dunkerque‘s university atmosphere and poignant war memorials, and the delightful village of Cassel, a rare example of a Flemish hill settlement. St-Omer, Le Touquet and Montreuil-sur-Mer are strong contenders in terms of charm and interest and the castle at Pierrefonds would make Walt Disney proud.

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 five-month-long Battle of the Somme; at Vimy Ridge, near Arras, the trenches have been preserved in perpetuity; a visit to either of these is highly recommended in order to understand the sacrifice involved and the futility of the 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 Lille, you’ll find your fill of food, culture and entertainment.

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