4 Days in Nord Pas De Calais
At Road, Rail & Sea, our routes and recommendations are tried and tested. New French journeys and destinations are coming soon- and to get us in the mood, writer Periwinkle Jones (Twitter’s own @peachesanscream) reveals how she ate snails, viewed Napoleon’s magnificent vehicle and had a little cry, on her research trip through Northern France…
If the idea of Northern France dredges up memories of school trips, soggy baguettes and nudie playing cards, think again.
Northern France is far too often overlooked in favour of its flashier siblings, but the area is steeped in history, culture and gastronomic delights.
If you have time to explore and a car, the Northern region can offer all the wonders of a trip abroad, at the fraction of the usual price.
DAY ONE: LILLE AND DUNKIRK
London to Lille – by rail (From £69 return on Eurostar - 1:55 minutes)
Dover to Dunkirk by Ferry (From £29 each way - 2hrs)
Eurotunnel to Calais. (From £53 per car each way - 45mins)
There are three ways to embark on this trip: by Eurostar to Lille, where you then continue your journey by hire car - the drive takes about 45 minutes along the A25 and through quaint French villages, (where the Belgian hit movie – yes really - Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis was filmed), by ferry straight to Dunkirk or by car, through the Eurotunnel to Calais. Lille is around an hour's drive away.
While the ferry and Eurotunnel routes allow you to bring your own car and plenty of luggage, the Eurostar is an easy and relaxing option. Just make sure you don’t nod off (as I did) during the smooth trip: it’s so quick that you could miss your stop, and end up back in London. And as you’re going to finish the trip in Lille anyway, it’s a good place to pick up your hire car. (See our guide to Lille Europe, for car hire facilities).
When we reached Dunkirk (or Dunkerque, as the locals call it) we headed straight to the sandy beaches of Malo Les Bains – a seaside town of beautiful flowers, jewel-coloured beach huts and those gorgeous, shuttered houses you only seem to see on holidays.
The beachfront is overflowing with parasoled outdoor terraces and reasonably priced bars and restaurants. We stopped off at Comme Vous Voulez, a traditional French restaurant painted in tasteful greys, with a friendly (and talented), football shirt-clad chef, and an amazing wine list. Feeling brave, we tried the snails – they were delicious (if a little garlicky...)
From April 6 to December 28 this year, Dunkirk is the Regional Capital Of Culture. This means that there’s over 600 events – with plenty still to go- and 5,000 artists in the region.
A trip to the LAAC, the Museum of Modern Art is essential– the installations were interesting, (if occasionally a little baffling), and it is set on a wonderfully landscaped park area, covered in poppies and wildflowers. A perfect place to picnic.
No trip to Dunkirk is complete without a visit to the Museum Operation Dynamo, a self-funded museum built in the fortifications of France’s coastal defences in 1874. Here you’ll be shown around by the museum’s friendly and enthusiastic 93-year-old tour guide.
The museum tells the tale of the evacuation of more than 338,000 French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo. WARNING: bring tissues, some of the stories are heart-rending.
That night, we stayed at the 4* Hotel Borel, located by a pretty little square a short walk from the sea front- the rooms were colourful and comfortable, and several have views of the port.
"After you've finished eating, you can browse the walls and hallways for culture- it's like dining in a museum..."
DAY TWO: DUNKIRK TO LENS
– By road (about a 45 mile drive, which took an hour)
This former mining town has been given a cultural makeover with the introduction of the Louvre Lens, the Northern arm of the Musée du Louvre which apparently cost around €82 million to build.
The museum is stunning –a wonderfully eclectic mix of artefacts. The way the art is displayed makes all the difference to your viewing pleasure – instead of being grouped by artist or decade, it is grouped by themes such as “time.”
If art isn’t your thing (but how could it not be?) there’s the UNESCO-protected slagheaps to be visited (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1360) – the waste from years of coal mining has now formed into mountain-like peaks, topped with creeping vines. Perfect for those who like a hike (though a fun game to play is ‘spot the bored teen dragged here by their parents’).
For lunch, we went to Al Fosse - a traditional Northern French restaurant, themed to represent the mining town. Here, you can try local delights such as the Ch'ti beer, potvleesch (meats in jelly) and carbonade flamande (a beef dish served with fries). After you've finished eating, you can browse the walls and hallways for culture- it's like dining in a museum.
That night, we stayed at a beautiful château - the 4* La Chartreuse in Gosnay, a village near Bruay-en-Artois. It’s hard to believe that the château is only a 4* - it’s set amongst beautiful gardens (which provide the kitchen with fresh vegetables and honey) and looks like something out of a fairytale.
The rooms are bedecked with four poster beds and toile de jouy wallpaper and command spectacular views of the estate. When we arrived, a wedding was taking place, so the atmosphere was delightfully festive, with hundreds of twinkling lights everywhere.
The rooms themselves work out at a very reasonable £150 per night, which includes dinner in the hotel’s magnificent, panelled restaurant, Le Robert II.
If you upgrade to one of their gastronomic packages, you can enjoy a seven- course meal which will leave you stuffed - and very grateful for the ultra-comfy beds!
DAY THREE: LENS TO BETHUNE
– By road (about a 13 mile drive which took half an hour) then Béthune to Arras (about 23 miles and just over half an hour).
The picturesque town of Béthune looks like something out of Beauty and the Beast – all traditional architecture, tall, narrow buildings, a town hall and a 13th century Belfry in the middle. All of these can be seen as part of the Remembrance Trail.
On our route from Béthune, we stopped off at the Touret Memorial & Military Cemetery, The Neuve‐Chapelle Indian Memorial and the Portuguese National Cemetery in Richebourg.
The sombre beauty of these sites is well worth the trip, especially if you note that at the front of each is usually a little cupboard with an index book inside.
If you’re lucky, photos, printouts and stories will tumble out – little pieces of history left behind by tourists who have come to the cemeteries to look for their loved ones. But the most beautiful and heartbreaking site of all is the Wellington Quarries – an underground museum built in a section of the many miles of tunnels dug by the British Army and The New Zealand Tunneling Company during the war.
Bunks, mess rooms and latrines have all been faithfully recreated, so that you get a real sense of how life was for these men.
You’ll be in tears, as letters are read out by now-dead service men - and when you realise that the average age of these men (boys) was 19 and their expected lifespan was just three months in these trenches. Bring tissues and dark glasses – you’ll need them.
After we’d dried our eyes, we went to the The Musée des Beaux Arts – a museum built in the Benedictine Abbaye de Saint-Vaast). When we arrived, they were hosting an exhibition on travel and carriages- showcasing Napoléon and Josephine’s magnificent vehicles.
We slept at the lovely Hotel Univers in Arras – which was once a 17th Century monastery, and now has 38 stylish rooms and an excellent, traditional restaurant, Le Clusius, charmingly named after Arras’ foremost botanist, Carolus Clusius. (http://www.univers.najeti.fr/)
"Lille can certainly compete with Paris in terms of shops, style and swish-ness - but it’s less intimidating, and a little less busy..."
DAY FOUR: ARRAS TO LILLE
– By road (about 29 miles and a 40 minute trip)
After an emotionally exhausting, weepy day, it was fabulous to land in Lille with its amazing shops and stunning architecture.
You’ll want to leave Lille until last because of the sheer amount of shopping you’ll want to do – the streets are peppered with chocolate, cheese and wine shops as well as an amazing Salvation Army charity shop (7 Rue des Débris Saint-Etienne, 59000) packed with bargains.
Lille can certainly compete with Paris in terms of shops, style and swish-ness - but it’s less intimidating, and a little less busy.
We lunched in L’Huitriere, a fabulous fish and seafood restaurant, where we had world-class oysters (the perfect treat to end a perfect few days!) before boarding the Eurostar, to arrive back in London in under two hours.
EUROSTAR TO LILLE LEAVES FROM ST.PANCRAS AND TAKES AROUND 2 HOURS. CLICK HERE TO BOOK.
IF YOU WANT TO SPEAK TO A REAL PERSON, WHO WILL ARRANGE YOUR ENTIRE TRIP, CALL FFESTIONIOG TRAVEL ON 01766 772030 AND QUOTE "ROAD, RAIL AND SEA"
Book tickets as far in advance as you can, as they are often much cheaper.
Lille Europe has car hire at the far end of the station, on the right.
Allow extra time for arriving at your Channel Port if leaving Lille around rush-hour as the motorway network in that area can be busy.
Get in the mood for Lille with our choice of books, films and music. CLICK HERE