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, Beauvaisand Laon. Other attractions include the bird sanctuary of Marquenterre; industrial archeology in the Lewarde coalfields aroundDouai, where Zola’s Germinal was set; the great medieval castle of Coucy-le-Château; and the battle sites of the Middle Ages, Agincourtand Crécy, familiar names in the long history of Anglo–French rivalry. In Lille, you’ll find your fill of food, culture and entertainment.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is the smallest of the three main channel ports. The ville basse is pretty unprepossessing but rising above the lower town is a diminutive, cobbled medieval quarter, the ville haute, contained within the old town walls and dominated by a grand, domed basilica. The main tourist street in the ville haute is rue de Lille, where you’ll find the Hôtel de Ville, whose twelfth-century belfry is the most ancient monument in the old town (only accessible via guided tour arranged with the tourist office).
The most impressive sight in the ville haute is the medieval walls themselves, beautifully conserved and set out with rosebeds, gravel paths and benches, and providing panoramic views of the city below; it takes about 45 minutes to walk around them. Within the walls is the domed Basilique Notre-Dame, which is an odd building – raised in the nineteenth century by Father Haffreingue, the town’s priest, without any architectural knowledge or advice – yet it seems to work. The vast medieval crypt contains frescoed remains of the Romanesque building and various sacred objects.
Calais and around
Calais is less than 40km from Dover – the Channel’s shortest crossing – and is by far the busiest French passenger port. In World War II, the British destroyed Calais to prevent it being used as a base for a German invasion, but the French still refer to it as “the most English town in France”, an influence that began after the battle of Crécy in 1346, when Edward III seized it for use as a beachhead in the Hundred Years’ War. It remained in English hands for over two hundred years until 1558, when its loss caused Mary Tudor to say: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais lying in my heart.” The association has continued over the centuries, and today Calais welcomes more than nine million British travellers and day-trippers per year.
Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode de Calais
Housed in a former lace factory, the extensive Cité Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode guides visitors from the early days of handmade lace – when it was worn only by the aristocracy – to the Industrial Revolution, when machines were smuggled in from England, and up to the present day. The working machines are particularly engrossing, as are the interactive exhibits and videos showing off the complex lace-making process itself. Models display early seventeenth-century costumes, the elegant clothes of the twentieth century and the futuristic inspirations of tomorrow’s design names.
Drivers keen to avoid Calais should take a left out of the ferry terminal – the autoroute bypass begins almost immediately, leading to the A26 and the N1.
Eating and drinking
Calais has enough good restaurants to make eating here worthwhile, mainly on place d’Armes and rue Royale. Drinking establishments, ranging from Gaelic theme pubs to trendier offerings, are concentrated on rue Royale and rue de la Mer.
Crécy and Agincourt battlefields
Agincourt and Crécy, two of the bloodiest Anglo–French battles of the Middle Ages, took place near the attractive little town of Hesdin (familiar to Simenon fans from the TV series Inspector Maigret). Twenty kilometres southwest of Hesdin, at the Battle of Crécy, Edward III inflicted the first of his many defeats of the French in 1346. This was the first appearance on the continent of the new English weapon, the six-foot longbow, and reputedly the first use in European history of gunpowder. Today you just see the Moulin Édouard III (now an inconspicuous wooden watchtower), 1km northeast of Crécy-en-Ponthieu on the D111 to Wadicourt, site of the windmill from which Edward watched the hurly-burly of battle. Further south, on the D56 to Fontaine, the battered croix de Bohème marks the place where King John of Bohemia died fighting for the French, having insisted on leading his men into battle despite his blindness.
Ten thousand more died in the heaviest defeat ever of France’s feudal knighthood at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, the six hundredth anniversary of which was recently celebrated. Forced by muddy conditions to fight on foot in heavy armour, the French, though more than three times as numerous, were easy prey for the lighter, mobile English archers. The rout took place near present-day Azincourt, about 12km northeast of Hesdin off the D928. Agincourt Centre Historique Médiéval uses video and interactive facilities to bring the story to life and a map takes you for a circular drive around the English and French lines, including an orientation point by the crossroads of the D104 and the road to Maisoncelle.
Dunkerque and around
Less reliant than Boulogne-sur-Mer or Calais on the cross-channel ferry trade, Dunkerque is the liveliest of the three big Channel ports, a university town with an appealing, boat-filled inner harbour, the Bassin du Commerce. It was from the shores of Malo-les-Bains, an attractive beachfront suburb, that the evacuation of Allied troops took place in 1940. Dunkerque remains France’s third-largest cargo port (following Marseille and Le Havre) and is a massive industrial centre, its oil refineries and steelworks producing a significant proportion of the total French output. Devastated during World War II, central Dunkerque is largely the brick-built product of postwar reconstruction, slightly more ambitious and stylish than the rebuild of Calais or Boulogne-sur-Mer. But among the 1950s architecture, you come across some delightful Art Nouveau-style villas with curving forms and balconies.
Among the few buildings of any significance that survived World War II (or were rebuilt afterwards) are the tall medieval brick belfry, the town’s chief landmark; the impressive, bullet-ridden fifteenth-century church of St-Éloi opposite, to which the belfry belonged; and, a few blocks north of the church on place Charles-Valentin, the early twentieth-century Hôtel de Ville, a giant Flemish fancy to rival that of Calais.
The tiny hilltop town of Cassel is just 30km southeast of Dunkerque. Hills are rare in Flanders, so Cassel was fought over from Roman times onwards. It was supposedly to the top of Cassel’s hill that the “Grand Old Duke of York” marched his ten thousand men in 1793, though, as implied in the nursery rhyme, he failed to take the town. In more recent history, during World War I, Marshal Foch spent some of the “most distressing hours” of his life here.
The town was originally a Flemish-speaking community – until use of the language was suppressed by the authorities – and it still boasts a very Flemish Grand’Place, lined with some magnificent mansions, from which narrow cobbled streets fan out to the ramparts.
Dunkerque’s 1940 evacuation
The evacuation of nearly 350,000 Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkerque from May 27 to June 4, 1940, has become legendary, concealing the fact that the Allies, through their own incompetence, almost lost their entire armed forces in the first weeks of the war.
The German army had taken just ten days to reach the English Channel and could easily have cut off the Allied armies. Hitler, unable to believe the ease with which he had overcome a numerically superior enemy, ordered his generals to halt their advance, giving Allied forces trapped in the Pas-de-Calais time to organize Operation Dynamo, the largest wartime evacuation ever undertaken. Initially it was hoped that around 10,000 men would be saved, but thanks to low-lying cloud and more than 1750 vessels – including pleasure cruisers, fishing boats and river ferries – 140,000 French and more than 200,000 British soldiers were successfully shipped back to England. The heroism of the boatmen and the relief at saving so many British soldiers were the cause of national celebration.
In France, however, the ratio of British to French evacuees caused bitter resentment, since Churchill had promised that the two sides would go bras dessus, bras dessous (“arm in arm”). Meanwhile, the British media played up the “remarkable discipline” of the troops as they waited to embark, the “victory” of the RAF over the Luftwaffe and the “disintegration” of the French army all around. In fact, there was widespread indiscipline in the early stages as men fought for places on board; the battle for the skies was evenly matched; and the French fought long and hard to cover the whole operation, some 150,000 of them remaining behind to become prisoners of war. In addition, the Allies lost seven destroyers and 177 fighter planes and were forced to abandon more than 60,000 vehicles. After 1940, Dunkerque remained occupied by Germans until the bitter end of the war. It was the last French town to be liberated in 1945.
Malo-les-Bains is a pleasant nineteenth-century seaside suburb on the east side of Dunkerque, from whose vast sandy beach the Allied troops embarked in 1940. Digue des Alliés is the urban end of an extensive beachfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants, though things are rather nicer further east along Digue de Mer, away from Dunkerque’s industrial side. Much of the promenade’s attractive architecture survived wartime destruction; there’s more fin-de-siècle charm a few blocks inland, along avenue Faidherbe and its continuation avenue Kléber, and around leafy place Turenne with its dainty old-fashioned bandstand.
The Flemish cities
From the Middle Ages until the late twentieth century, great Flemish cities like Lille, Roubaix, Douai and Cambrai flourished, mainly thanks to their textile industries. The other dominating – but now virtually extinct – presence in this part of northern France was the coalfields and related industries, which, at their nineteenth-century peak stretched from Béthune in the west to Valenciennes in the east. At Lewarde you can visit one of the pits, while in the region’s big industrial cities you can see what the masters built with their profits: noble townhouses, magnificent city halls, ornate churches and some of the country’s finest art collections.
Despite the tank battle of November 1917 to the west of the town, and the fact that the heavily defended Hindenburg Line ran through the town centre for most of World War I, Cambrai has kept enough of its character and cobbled streets to make a fleeting visit worthwhile, though it is less attractive than either Douai or Arras. The large, cobbled, main place Aristide-Briand is dominated by the Neoclassical hôtel de ville. The imposing building hints at the town’s former wealth, which was based on textiles and agriculture. Cambrai’s chief ecclesiastical treasure is the church of St-Géry, off rue St-Aubert west of the main square, worth a visit for a celebrated Mise au Tombeau by Rubens.
At dawn on November 20, 1917, the first full-scale tank battle in history began at Cambrai, when more than four hundred British tanks poured over the Hindenburg Line. In just 24 hours, the Royal Tank Corps and British Third Army made the biggest advance by either side since the trenches were dug in 1914. A fortnight later, however, casualties had reached 50,000, and the armies were back where they’d started.
Although the tanks were ahead of their time, they still relied on cavalry and plodding infantry as backup. The primitive tanks were operated by a crew of eight who endured almost intolerable conditions – with no ventilation, the temperature inside could reach 48°C. The steering alone required three men, each on separate gearboxes, communicating by hand signals through the mechanical din. Maximum speed (6kph) dropped to barely 1kph over rough terrain, and refuelling was necessary every 55km. Of the 179 tanks lost at Cambrai, few were destroyed by the enemy; most broke down and were abandoned by their crews.
Right in the heart of mining country, 40km south of Lille, Douai is an unpretentious, surprisingly attractive town, despite being badly damaged in both world wars. Its handsome streets of eighteenth-century houses are cut through by the River Scarpe and a canal. Once a haven for English Catholics fleeing Protestant oppression in Tudor England, Douai later became the seat of Flemish local government under Louis XIV, an aristocratic past evoked in the novels of Balzac.
Lille (Rijsel in Flemish), northern France’s largest city, surprises many visitors with its impressive architecture, the winding streets of its tastefully restored old quarter (Vieux Lille), its plethora of excellent restaurants and its bustling nightlife. It boasts a large university, a modern métro system and a serious attitude to culture, with some great museums.
Historically the main stop on the rich trading route between Flanders and Paris, Lille was first and foremost a merchant city: instead of a soaring Gothic cathedral, taking pride of place are secular temples like the Flemish Renaissance gem, the Ancienne Bourse. The focal part of central Lille is the place du Général de Gaulle, always referred to as the Grand’Place, marking the southern boundary of Vieux Lille. South of this, the pedestrianized shopping area runs along rue de Béthune to the squares of place Béthune and place de la République. The city’s museums are a short walk from the centre and the top museums are outside the city limits: La Piscine in Roubaix and the Museum of Modern Art in Villeneuve d’Ascq. The city spreads far into the countryside in every direction, a jumble of suburbs and factories, and for the French it remains the symbol of the country’s heavy industry and working-class politics.
A Flemish flavour and a taste for mussels characterize the city’s traditional cuisine, with the main central concentration of cafés, brasseries and restaurants around place Rihour and along rue de Béthune. Vieux Lille has a reputation for gastronomic excellence, particularly on the eastern side towards and along rue de Gand, where you’ll find most of the worthwhile places. The student quarter along rue Solférino is good for ethnic eating – the former mostly Chinese or Japanese, the latter dominated by cheap kebab shops. The cafés around the Grand’Place and place Rihour buzz with life. Up near the cathedral in Vieux Lille, rue Royale, rue de la Barre, rue Basse and place Louise-de-Bettignies have trendier spots, with a few stretched out along rue de la Monnaie. West of the centre, Celtic-style pubs dominate in studenty rue Masséna, attracting a young crowd.
Accessible by métro (line 2 to Gare Jean Lebas) and just 15km northeast of Lille, right up against the Belgian border, Roubaix is a once-great Flemish textile city that fell into decline and is still striving to rejuvenate itself – but it’s worth a visit to see its showpiece museum, La Piscine. Opened in 2001 and home to the magnificent Musee d’Art et d’Industrie, it is the improbable setting of one of France’s most beautiful swimming pools and bath complexes, originally built in the early 1930s for the poor of the city. Architect Paul Philippon’s contemporary conversion retains various aspects of the baths – part of the pool (it can’t be swum in nowadays), the shower-cubicles, the changing rooms and the bathhouses – and uses each part to display a splendid collection of mostly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sculpture and painting, plus haute couture clothing, textiles and photographs of the pool in its heyday.
Nestled among dunes and wind-flattened tamarisks and pines, leafy Le Touquet (officially called Le Touquet-Paris-Plage) resembles some of the snootier places on the English south coast. This is no real surprise, given its interwar popularity with the British smart set: Noel Coward spent weekends here, while the author P.G. Wodehouse lived in the town from 1934 to 1940. He was captured here by the rapidly advancing Germans, then interned, later making his notorious wartime broadcasts from Berlin. Though the town’s seafront has been colonized by modern apartments, magnificent villas still hide behind the trees a few blocks inland.
Once a port, Montreuil-sur-Mer is now stranded 13km inland, after the River Canche silted up in the sixteenth century. Perched on a hilltop above the river and surrounded by ancient walls, it’s compact and easily walkable, with fine views from its hilltop ramparts. Laurence Sterne spent a night here on his Sentimental Journey, and it is the scene of much of the action in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, best evoked by the steep cobbled street of Cavée St-Firmin, first left after the Porte de Boulogne.
Two heavily damaged Gothic churches grace the main square: the church of St-Saulve and a tiny wood-panelled chapelle tucked into the side of the red-brick hospital. To the south cobbled lanes are lined with little artisan houses. In the northwestern corner of the walls lies Vauban’s Citadelle, ruined and overgrown, with subterranean gun emplacements and a fourteenth-century tower that records the coats of arms of the French noblemen killed at Agincourt. Don’t miss the World War I exhibition in the vaulted underground rooms of the tower.
Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre
The landscape at the Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre is beautiful and strange: all dunes, tamarisks and pine forest, full of salty meres and ponds, thick with water plants and birdlife. There’s a choice of walking itineraries – two longer, more interesting walks (2–3hr) and a shorter one (roughly 1hr 30min). On both you can see dozens of species – ducks, geese, oyster-catchers, terns, egrets, redshanks, greenshanks, spoonbills, herons, storks, godwits – most taking a breather from their epic migratory flights. In April and May they head north, returning from the end of August to October; in early summer the young chicks can be spotted. You can rent binoculars or talk to the guides at some of the observation huts, who set up portable telescopes and will tell you about the nesting birds.
To the southeast of the Somme, away from the coast and the main Paris through-routes, the often rainwashed province of Picardy becomes considerably more inviting. Amiens is a friendly city whose life revolves around its canals, while both the Amiens and Beauvais cathedrals are highlights of the region. In the départements of Aisne and Oise, where Picardy merges with neighbouring Champagne, there are some real attractions amid the lush wooded hills. Laon, Soissons and Noyon all have handsome Gothic cathedrals, while at Compiègne, Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoléon III enjoyed the luxury of a magnificent château. The most rewarding overnight stop is off the beaten track in the tiny fortified town of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, which is perched on a hill between Soissons and Laon.
Amiens was badly scarred during both world wars, but sensitively restored. Most people visit for the cathedral – the enormous Cathédrale Notre-Dame – but there’s much more to the city: QuartierSt-Leu, the renovated medieval artisans’ quarter north of the cathedral with its network of canals, is charming, while the hortillonnages transport you into a peaceful rural landscape. A sizeable student population ensures enough evening entertainment to make an overnight stay worthwhile.
Amiens' Cathédrale Notre-Dame dominates the city by sheer size – it’s the biggest Gothic building in France – but its appeal lies mainly in its unusual style. Begun in 1220 under architect Robert de Luzarches, it was effectively finished by 1269. The west front shows traces of the original polychrome exterior, in stark contrast to its sombre modern appearance. A spectacular summer evening sound and light show shows how the west front would have looked, with an explanation of the various statues on the facade in French and then in English. The interior, on the other hand, is a light, calm and unaffected space. Later embellishments, like the sixteenth-century choir stalls, are works of breathtaking virtuosity, as are the sculpted panels depicting the life of St Firmin, Amiens’ first bishop, on the choir screen. Visitors with strong legs can mount the cathedral’s front towers. One of the most atmospheric ways of seeing the cathedral is to attend a Sunday morning Mass (9am and 10.30am), which is accompanied by sublime Gregorian chants.
As you head south from Amiens towards Paris, the countryside becomes broad and flat; Beauvais, 60km from Amiens, seems to fit into this landscape. Rebuilt in tasteful but unexciting fashion after World War II, it’s not a town for aimless wandering – however, the audacious, eccentric Gothic cathedral is anything but boring.
Soaring above the town, it perfectly demonstrates the religious materialism of the Middle Ages – its main intention was to be taller and larger than its rivals. The choir, completed in 1272, briefly 5m higher than that of Amiens, collapsed in 1284. Its replacement also fell and, the authorities having overreached themselves financially, the church remained as it is today: unfinished, mutilated and rather odd. At over 155m high, the interior vaults are impressive, seemingly on a larger scale than at Amiens; though the props and brackets reinforcing the structure internally show its fragility. The building’s real beauty lies in its glass, its sculpted doorways and the remnants of the so-called Basse-Oeuvre, a ninth-century Carolingian church incorporated into (and dwarfed by) the Gothic structure. It also contains a couple of remarkable clocks: a 12m-high astronomical clock built in 1865, with figures mimicking scenes from the Last Judgement on the hour; and a medieval clock that’s been working for seven hundred years.
Château de Compiègne
Compiègne’s star attraction, the opulent Château de Compiègne, is an eighteenth-century château, two blocks east of the Hôtel de Ville along rue des Minimes. Despite its pompous excess, it inspires a certain fascination. Napoleon commissioned a renovation of the former royal palace in 1807, and the work was completed in time for the emperor to welcome his second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria – a relative of Marie-Antoinette – here in 1810. The ostentatious post-revolutionary apartments stand in marked contrast to the more sober Neoclassicism of the few surviving late royal interiors, a monument to the unseemly haste with which Napoleon I moved in, scarcely a dozen years after the Revolution. The Théâtre Impérial was first planned by Napoléon III in the historic apartments of the Second Empire. It was only completed with a restoration project in 1991 at a cost of some thirty million francs. Originally designed with just two seats for Napoleon and his wife, it now seats nine hundred and is used for concerts.
To see the Musée de la Voiture in another part of the vast palace, you have to join a one-hour guided tour. It contains a wonderful array of antique bicycles, tricycles and aristocratic carriages, as well as the world’s first steam coach.
You can visit the excellent palace gardens separately. Much of the original French-style garden was replanted on Napoleon’s orders after 1811. The result is monumental; the great avenue that extends 4.5km into the Forêt de Compiègne was inspired by the Austrian imperial summer residence at Schönbrunn on the outskirts of Vienna.
Château de Pierrefonds
Pierrefonds is home to an astonishing medieval château built in the twelfth century, dismantled in the seventeenth and restored by order of Napoléon III in the nineteenth to create a fantastic fairy-tale affair of turrets, towers and moat – one of the finest in the country. The nearby picturesque villages of Vieux-Moulin and St-Jean-aux-Bois are in the heart of the forest, the latter retaining part of its twelfth-century fortifications.
About 30km west of Laon and 15km north of Soissons, in hilly countryside on the far side of the forest of St-Gobain, lie the straggling ruins of one of the greatest castles of the Middle Ages, Coucy-le-Château. The castle’s walls still stand, encircling the attractive village of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique. In the past this was a seat of great power and the influence of its lords, the Sires de Coucy, rivalled and often even exceeded that of the king. The retreating Germans capped the destruction of World War I battles by blowing up the castle’s keep as they left in 1917, but enough remains, crowning a wooded spur, to be extremely evocative.
Looking out over the plains of Champagne and Picardy from the spine of a high narrow ridge, still protected by its gated medieval walls, Laon (pronounced “Lon”) is one of the highlights of the region. Dominating the town, and visible for miles around, are the five great towers of one of the earliest and finest Gothic cathedrals in the country. Of all the cathedral towns in the Aisne, Laon is the one to head for.
The magnificent Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built in the second half of the twelfth century, was a trendsetter in its day. Elements of its design, such as the gabled porches, the imposing towers and the gallery of arcades above the west front, were repeated at Chartres, Reims and – most famously – at Notre-Dame in Paris. The creatures craning from the uppermost ledges, looking like reckless mountain goats borrowed from a medieval bestiary, are reputed to have been carved in memory of the valiant horned steeds which lugged the cathedral’s masonry up from the plains below. Inside, the effects are no less dramatic – the high white nave is lit by the dense ruby, sapphire and emerald tones of the medieval stained glass. Crowded in the cathedral’s surrounds is a quiet jumble of grey stone streets. South of the cathedral on rue Ermant is the crumbly little twelfth-century octagonal Chapelle des Templiers – the Knights Templar chapel – set in a secluded garden. The rest of the ville haute, which rambles along the ridge to the west of the cathedral, is enjoyable to wander around, with sweeping views from the ramparts.
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 (mussels and chips) 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 around the Ardennes, with pâté d’Ardennes being the most famous dish and juniper berries used to flavour food à l’Ardennaise.
The Somme battlefields
Picardy, Artois and Flanders are littered with the monuments, battlefields and cemeteries of the two world wars, but they are nowhere as intensely concentrated as in the region northeast of Amiens, between Albert and the appealing market town of Arras. It was here, among the fields and villages of the Somme, that the main battle lines of World War I were drawn a hundred years ago. You can get a real feel of trench warfare at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, where the trenches have been left in situ. Lesser sites, often more poignant, dot the countryside around Albert along the Circuit de Souvenir.
Arras is one of the most architecturally striking towns in northern France, the cobblestoned squares of its old centre surrounded by ornate Baroque townhouses that hark back to its Flemish past. It was renowned for its tapestries in the Middle Ages, giving its name to the hangings behind which Shakespeare’s Polonius was killed by Hamlet. During World War I, British and New Zealand miners dug tunnels under the town to surprise the Germans to the northeast, while the Germans bombarded the town. Only a handful of the famous medieval Arras tapestries survived the conflict, including The Annunciation, now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Reconstruction after the war was meticulous, and the townhouses lining the grand arcaded Flemish- and Dutch-style squares in the central Grand’Place and the smaller place des Héros preserve the historic character.
The Battle of the Somme
On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Battle of the Somme to relieve pressure on the French army defending Verdun. The front ran roughly northwest–southeast, 6km east of Albert across the valley of the Ancre and over the almost treeless high ground north of the Somme. The windy terrain had no intrinsic value, nor was there any long-term strategic objective; the region around Albert was the battle site simply because it was where the two Allied armies met.
There were 57,000 British casualties on the first day alone, approximately 20,000 of them fatal, making it the costliest defeat the British army has ever suffered. Sir Douglas Haig is the usual scapegoat, yet he was only following the military thinking of the day, which is where the real problem lay. As historian A.J.P. Taylor put it, “Defence was mechanized: attack was not.” Machine guns were efficient, barbed wire effective, and, most important of all, the rail lines could move defensive reserves far faster than the attacking army could march. The often ineffective heavy bombardment before an advance only warned the enemy of an offensive and churned the trenches into a giant muddy quagmire.
Despite the bloody disaster of the first day, the battle wore on until bad weather in November made further attacks impossible. The cost of this futile struggle was roughly 415,000 British, 195,000 French and 600,000 German casualties.
The Circuit du Souvenir
The Circuit du Souvenir takes you from graveyard to mine crater, trench to memorial. There’s little to show the scale of the destruction nor do you get much sense of battle tactics. But you will find that, no matter what the level of your interest in the Great War, you have embarked on a sort of pilgrimage, as each successive step uncovers a more harrowing slice of history.
The cemeteries are deeply moving, with the grass perfectly mown and flowers by every gravestone. Tens of thousands of them stand in precise rows, all identical, with a man’s name – if it is known, as nearly half the British dead have never been found – along with his rank and regiment and, often, a personal message chosen by the bereaved family. In the lanes between Albert and Bapaume you’ll see cemeteries everywhere: at the angle of copses, halfway across a field, in the middle of a wood.
Getting around the Circuit de Souvenir
Perhaps not even the truly dedicated would try to see all four hundred Commonwealth cemeteries in the area. The easiest way to explore the circuit is by car, though the distances are short enough to do it by bicycle. Both Albert to the west and Péronne to the southeast make good starting points, their tourist offices and museums offering free maps of the circuit. The route is marked (somewhat intermittently) by arrows and poppy symbols, with Commonwealth graveyards also indicated in English.
Vimy Ridge, or Hill 145, was the scene of some of the fiercest trench warfare of World War I: almost two full years of battle, culminating in its capture by the Canadian Corps in April 1917. It’s a vast site, given in perpetuity by the French to the Canadian people out of respect for their sacrifices, and the churned land has been preserved, in part, as it was during the conflict. Of all the battlefields, this is the best place to gain an impression of the lie of the land, and to imagine how it may have felt to be part of a World War I battle.
Near the visitor centre, long veins of neat, sanitized trenches wind through the earth, still heavily pitted by shells beneath the planted pines. Under the ground lie countless rounds of unexploded ammunition – visitors are warned not to stray from the paths. Free guided tours of the trenches are run by friendly, bilingual Canadian students, who supervise the visitor centre. An exhibition in the centre illustrates the well-planned Canadian attack and its importance for the Canadians: this was the first time they were recognized as fighting separately from the British, which hugely influenced their growing sense of nationhood.
On the brow of the ridge to the north, overlooking the slag-heap-dotted plain of Artois, a great white monument reaches for the heavens, inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians and Newfoundlanders whose bodies were never found. Back from the ridge lies a memorial to the Moroccan Division who also fought at Vimy, and in the woods behind, on the headstones of another exquisitely maintained cemetery, you can read the names of half the counties of rural England.
St-Omer, a popular stop en route to or from the ports, is an attractive old Flemish town of yellow-brick houses, 44km southeast of Calais. The hôtel de ville on place Foch and the chapel of the former Jesuit college on rue du Lycée are genuine flights of architectural fancy, but for the most part the style is simple yet handsome. For a little greenery, head to the pleasant public gardens to the west of town or to the nearby marais, a network of Flemish waterways cut between plots of land on reclaimed marshes along the river.
A short distance southwest of St-Omer, La Coupole is the site of an outstanding World War II museum.
Of all the World War II museums in northern France, La Coupole, 5km southwest of St-Omer, is the best. As you walk around the site of the intended V2 rocket launch pad, individual, multilingual infrared headphones tell you the story of the occupation of northern France by the Nazis, the use of prisoners as slave labour, and the technology and ethics of the first liquid-fuelled rocket – advanced by Hitler and later developed for the space race by the Soviets, the French and the Americans. Four excellent films cover all aspects.
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.
Top image: City of Lille (north of France) - Main square with belfry © MisterStock/Shuttertock