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
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.
PRETTY AS A PICTURE
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.
BESIDE THE SEASIDE
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