With its dis­tinctly Flem­ish towns and vil­lages, bu­colic pas­tures and an undis­cov­ered coast­line, Pas-de-Calais is fast be­com­ing a wor­thy ri­val to the sun-drenched south of France, says

Living France - - Contents - Peter Ste­wart

So much more than just part of the jour­ney, this depart­ment of north­ern France de­serves to be the des­ti­na­tion

Never in the field of hu­man tourism have so many trav­ellers passed through a place and so few stopped to visit.” These were the words of Sir Win­ston Churchill to de­scribe Calais and the sur­round­ing area, which sees a stag­ger­ing 30 mil­lion peo­ple pass through each year with pre­cious few de­cid­ing to stop.

Bor­dered on the north by the English Chan­nel and the North Sea, the dé­parte­ment of Pas-de-Calais has been over­looked by trav­ellers for far too long. Yet with its charm­ing mix of Flem­ish-style towns and vil­lages, un­spoilt coun­try­side plus an at­trac­tive and crowd-free coast­line home to el­e­gant re­sorts and vast sandy beaches that ri­val Corn­wall’s best, the area is qui­etly trans­form­ing into a world-class des­ti­na­tion. And with its close prox­im­ity to the UK, Calais be­ing less than 90 min­utes away by ferry from Dover, this idyl­lic cor­ner of north­ern France will make you won­der why you ever con­tem­plated ven­tur­ing any fur­ther.


The dé­parte­ment’s cap­i­tal is the pic­ture­post­card city of Ar­ras. The for­mer cap­i­tal of the Ar­tois re­gion, this un­ex­pected gem of a city is renowned first and fore­most for its Flem­ish-style squares lined with neatly ar­ranged, gin­ger­bread­like houses. Wan­der through the city cen­tre’s maze of cob­ble­stone streets to find La Grand’Place and La Place des Héros, the two squares re­spon­si­ble for the thou­sands of tourists who visit Ar­ras to marvel at its im­pres­sive ar­chi­tec­ture.

Sur­round­ing the two squares is an ensem­ble of 155 Flem­ish-Baroque-style ar­caded town­houses, which date back to the 17th and 18th cen­turies and were ini­tially con­structed from wood. Ex­ten­sive dam­age dur­ing the First World War meant that they had to be re­built us­ing bricks, and al­most 100 years later they are still as pop­u­lar as ever.

Stand­ing proudly over La Place des Héros is the city’s splen­did town hall and 75 me­tre-tall bel­fry, which to­day af­fords tourists panoramic views over the low­ly­ing Pas-de-Calais coun­try­side and is worth the calf-strain­ing climb to the top.

Mosey on fur­ther through the heart of the city and you’ll come across the for­mer Abbey of St-Vaast. The abbey’s church was re­built in clas­si­cal style in 1833 and to­day serves as Ar­ras’s cathe­dral while the for­mer Bene­dic­tine abbey houses the city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts. One of the city’s most im­por­tant at­trac­tions, it is home to an ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of me­dieval sculp­tures, 17th-cen­tury French paint­ings, 18th-cen­tury ceram­ics and a plan of the city dat­ing back to 1716.

Ar­ras is not just renowned for its ar­chi­tec­tural cre­den­tials. The city is also home to the ‘Boves’, a well-pre­served 22-kilo­me­tre net­work of un­der­ground tun­nels lo­cated 10 me­tres be­low the city, dat­ing back to the 10th cen­tury. This un­der­ground maze proved par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant in the Se­cond World War, serv­ing as a bunker to pro­tect res­i­dents and valu­able ob­jects from bombs fall­ing over­head.

It was the town’s rich his­tory which first brought Aus­tralian-born Rod­ney Muir here al­most 18 years ago. “I used to work for the Aus­tralian Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs and my role or­gan­is­ing com­mem­o­ra­tive events brought me many times to the bat­tle­fields of the First World War near to Ar­ras. I vis­ited the city and was struck by its charm­ing Flem­ish in­flu­ence and I quickly re­alised that this was the place for me,” he ex­plains. Rod­ney and his French part­ner Philippe Payet had al­ways wanted to run a B&B, and af­ter view­ing dozens of prop­er­ties in Ar­ras, fell in love with the 18th-cen­tury La Corne d’Or, which they have run to­gether hap­pily ever since.

Just 20 kilo­me­tres north of el­e­gant Ar­ras lies an­other of the re­gion’s high­lights – the city of Lens. Once a ma­jor coalmin­ing cen­tre, the city’s last col­liery was closed in 1990, with re­minders of the im­por­tance of coal here tak­ing the form of dozens of cone-shaped slag heaps dot­ting the city’s land­scape. Once deemed an eye­sore, these mini moun­tains are now part of a UNESCO World Her­itage Site with some open for vis­i­tors to climb.

It is any­thing but doom and gloom in this for­mer min­ing city where the ul­tra­mod­ern Musée Lou­vre-Lens opened to much fan­fare in 2012. The €150 mil­lion show-stop­per of a museum, oc­cu­py­ing the city’s old in­dus­trial heart­land, is home to a reg­u­larly chang­ing col­lec­tion of more than 200 ju­di­ciously cho­sen trea­sures from the grand dame of mu­se­ums, the Musée du Lou­vre in Paris.

Lens has also made a name for it­self in the world of foot­ball. Home to RC Lens, which plays at the 38,000-seater Stade Bol­laert-Delelis, the city was one of 10 French cities cho­sen to host Euro 2016 matches, with the Eng­land v Wales match hav­ing taken place there on 16 June.


A lit­tle fur­ther west and the low-ly­ing plains of cen­tral Pas-de-Calais give way to a dra­matic coast­line, one marked by lofty, chalk cliffs, grey-blue waves, glo­ri­ously wide beaches and re­fined sea­side towns. This is the Côte d’Opale, a 120-kilo­me­tre stretch of coast­line from Bray-Dunes near the border with Bel­gium right down to the Baie de Somme, which takes its name from the di­aphanous light that can be found here.

Among the nu­mer­ous de­light­ful coastal towns perched along this coast­line is Berck-sur-Mer. With its 12-kilo­me­tre-long sandy beaches, the re­sort of Berck is a haven for water sports lovers. Ac­tiv­i­ties here in­clude kite-fly­ing, sand-yachting, jet-ski­ing and wind­surf­ing, while an old­fash­ioned, seafront carousel and minigolf are sure to keep young vis­i­tors en­ter­tained.

A stroll through the streets of this sea­side re­sort will re­veal clus­ters of 19th-cen­tury vil­las, built by wealthy holidaymakers in­clud­ing La Baronne James de Roth­schild, who be­came a ma­jor bene­fac­tor to the town. Mean­while, the Berck’s mu­nic­i­pal museum houses works from such names as Manet, Boudin, Trigoulet and Lepic de­pict­ing the life of mariners from days gone by.

It is the glo­ri­ously wide beaches near Berck and the sur­round­ing coun­try­side that en­ticed for­mer free­lance jour­nal­ist Judy Gif­ford and cam­era­man Nick to move from Sand­wich in Kent to the tran­quil vil­lage of St-Rémy-au-Bois just 25 kilo­me­tres in­land from Berck.

“In the early 1990s while liv­ing in Sand­wich, Kent, we were look­ing for suit­able places for a short break with our three small chil­dren. We were in­trigued by the seem­ingly end­less stretches of beaches di­rectly op­po­site us on the map and de­cided to book into a small ho­tel in the lit­tle town of Mer­limont. And there it was – this beau­ti­ful, white-sanded, green­valleyed, force­fully French, undis­cov­ered Promised Land,” Judy re­mem­bers.

Soon af­ter Judy and Nick moved here, they found a recipe to make mar­malades to sell at a lo­cal mar­ket. One thing led to an­other, and they launched Tea To­gether, a busi­ness sup­ply­ing jams and mar­malades to some of the world’s most fa­mous ho­tels. “To­day our son Eli runs the busi­ness from a work­shop in Boulogne and we’re left to make the jams that the sea­son sug­gests,” Judy says. “And the longer we live in this area the more we love it,” she adds. Judy and Nick have now opened a tea room in the grounds of their fam­ily home and are hav­ing great fun in­tro­duc­ing French guests to the world of English-style after­noon tea.

Per­haps the most well-known of re­sorts on the Opal Coast is that of Le Tou­quetParis-Plage. A play­ground for wealthy Parisians and the Bri­tish smart set in the roar­ing 20s and 30s, this chic sea­side town has for a long time en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion as the most el­e­gant holiday re­sort in north­ern France. Le Tou­quet’s main call­ing cards are its grand casino and clus­ters of or­nate sea­side vil­las set among pine trees, once the sum­mer re­treat for the likes of H.G. Wells and Noel Coward. To­day vis­i­tors can re-imag­ine the splen­dour of this sea­side ar­chi­tec­ture from a by­gone era on one of the lo­cal tourist of­fice’s or­gan­ised trails.


Po­si­tioned a lit­tle fur­ther up the coast is the port city of Boulogne-sur-Mer. France’s most im­por­tant fish­ing port, Boulogne is made up of the haute-ville (up­per city) – char­ac­terised by tight cob­ble­stone lanes, cen­turies-old build­ings and an­cient stone walls, and the basse-ville, (lower city) home to an as­sort­ment of rec­tan­gu­lar-shaped, post-war struc­tures.

Boulogne’s haute-ville is the place to take in this gem of a city; a gen­tle stroll along the Prom­e­nade des Rem­parts will un­cover a host of im­pres­sive build­ings among which are the neo­clas­si­cal Hô­tel De­san­drouin, an 18th-cen­tury pri­vate man­sion once used by Napoléon, the roseate-hued brick Hô­tel de Ville with its square me­dieval bel­fry and the city’s

With its 12-kilo­me­tre-long sandy beaches, the re­sort of Berck-sur-Mer is a haven for water sports lovers

Ital­ianate basil­ica, its tow­er­ing dome vis­i­ble in all parts of the city.

Just a stone’s throw from the im­pos­ing basil­ica lies the city’s Château-Musée, one of few places in the world to house Egyp­tian an­tiq­ui­ties, which sit along­side an eclec­tic mix of arte­facts in­clud­ing Alaskan Inuit masks, pre-Colom­bian ceram­ics and rem­nants of a 4th-cen­tury Ro­man wall.

The jewel in Boulogne’s crown is Nau­si­caá, a world-class aquar­ium not far from the main port. High­lights in­clude the stun­ning Co­ral Lagoon, home to 3,500 species of an­i­mals, not to men­tion its Cal­i­for­nian sea lion pool and trop­i­cal lagoon, which is home to a vast col­lec­tion of sharks.

Leave be­hind this mar­itime city and the coastal land­scapes re­ally come into their own; as the D940 me­an­ders its way north along the coast, what un­folds be­fore you is a tableau of un­touched sand dunes, in­trigu­ing coves, and sea-hug­ging vil­lages such as Au­dres­selles, with its string of in­for­mal seafood restau­rants, and Wis­sant, renowned for its huge, sand dune beach pop­u­lar with surfers. Com­bine all of this with tow­er­ing cliffs set against a grey-blue hued sea, and you’ll soon re­alise why this is a coast­line long prized by the French.

Just south-west of Calais, wild dunes sud­denly give way to chalky-white cliffs cul­mi­nat­ing in the 134-me­tre-high Cap Blanc-Nez, a cliff-top van­tage point from where many a road-trip­per can soak up soul-stir­ring views over nearby coastal vil­lages and the ver­dant coun­try­side. Visit this spot on a bright day and the off-white cliffs of Kent will re­ally come into view, a re­minder of just how near this tran­quil cor­ner of France is to Blighty. Top­ping the cliffs is an obelisk com­mem­o­rat­ing the Dover Pa­trol, who led the Dover Pa­trol Move­ment, which suc­cess­fully man­aged to keep the Chan­nel free from U-boats dur­ing the First World War.

Jour­ney a lit­tle fur­ther on along this craggy coast­line and you’ll come to Calais. A by­word for the cross-Chan­nel booze cruise, Calais for many is noth­ing more than a glut of cut-price wine su­per­stores sell­ing their plonk to English day-trip­pers. Yet this much-ma­ligned town is a des­ti­na­tion in its own right.

Un­be­known to many, Calais has been a cen­tre for lace mak­ing for over 150 years.

The Côte d’Opale is a dra­matic coast­line marked by lofty, chalk cliffs, grey-blue waves, glo­ri­ously wide beaches and re­fined sea­side towns

The in­dus­try was in fact es­tab­lished by lace­mak­ers from Not­ting­ham who em­i­grated to the port town in the early 1800s and brought with them ma­chines built by English en­gi­neers to suc­cess­fully man­u­fac­ture lace. The fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory be­hind the town’s lace in­dus­try is vividly re­told in the Cité Den­telle Mode; set in an 1870s fac­tory build­ing, the museum boasts a col­lec­tion spread over 2,500m2 which fea­tures some 1,500 man-made lace sam­ples and ex­plores the use of lace in works by iconic fash­ion de­sign­ers such as Givenchy and Chanel.

One of the town’s finest land­marks is the im­pos­ing Hô­tel de Ville and ad­ja­cent bel­fry, which was awarded UNESCO World Her­itage sta­tus in 2005. Built in Flem­ish style and adorned with stained­glass win­dows, this mag­nif­i­cent struc­ture dom­i­nates the town’s main square, Place du Sol­dat In­connu. Look up to find gilded stat­ues glis­ten­ing in the sun­shine atop the 78-me­tre-tall bel­fry, where a lift will whizz vis­i­tors to the top for 360-de­gree views over Calais and the many large fer­ries which sail ma­jes­ti­cally to and from the town’s port.

Calais’s pièce de ré­sis­tance is the mas­ter­piece left by the sculptor Au­guste Rodin. Stand­ing in front of the or­nate town hall are the Burghers of Calais, a bronze statue ded­i­cated to six cit­i­zens of Calais, who in 1347, dur­ing the Hun­dred Years’ War with the English, vol­un­teered them­selves as cap­tives to King Ed­ward III to save their beloved town. This ex­quis­ite mon­u­ment to the brave, along with all the other hid­den gems in Pas-de-Calais, serve to show that this area is much more than a gate­way to the rest of France and re­minds us all to never judge a book by its cover.

This page from top: The chic sea­side town of Le Tou­quet; beach huts at Harde­lot; Wimereux is pop­u­lar with kite-surfers

Fac­ing page: Le Tou­quet

The marsh­lands around St-Omer The pretty town of Mon­treuil-sur-Mer

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