From the dramatic cliffs and sandy beaches of the Opal Coast to the department’s lush valleys and bucolic countryside, Janine Marsh explores the picturesque villages and historic towns of Pas-de-Calais
Discover the delights of northern France with a British writer who has lived there for the past 14 years
Many people think of Calais as a landing point for a holiday somewhere else in France. Visitors arrive in their millions every year, either by ferry or train, and then whizz straight onto the motorways, headed south.
But to do that is to miss out on the many attractions of Pas-de-Calais, and if you’re not after the extreme heat of the south, this is an area that has a huge amount to offer as I discovered when I bought a house in the little-known Sept Vallées area 14 years ago.
REAL FRANCE ON YOUR DOORSTEP
Pas-de-Calais is a bit of a secret part of France. Perhaps because it’s so easy to get to, there’s a tendency to dismiss it as not real France – but nothing could be further from the truth. This is authentic France at its best. A short drive from the busy port town of Calais, you’ll find enchanting fishing villages, verdant farming hamlets, ancient forests, historic towns and magnificent coastal resorts.
The weather is akin to that of Devon or Cornwall – generally without extremes and great for gardeners. Pas-de-Calais is the potager of France, and agriculture is one of the main industries. There are vast fields of vegetables, wheat and maize, sugar beet and chicory. The marshlands of St-Omer are famous for their vegetable-growing properties including their bumper crop of more than seven million cauliflowers a year. This is hops country rather than vineyards, but the Champagne region is easy to get to for those who like to buy direct from the source.
Pas-de-Calais is said to be one of the friendliest places in France and the locals have an enduring passion for their heritage.
The land is marked by a strong connection with England, which once ruled Calais, and by battles going back thousands of years. Julius Caesar launched his conquest of Britain from Boulogne, one of the most famous battles of the Hundred Years’ War took place at Agincourt and Henry VIII met his rival, French King Francis I, on the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold near Guînes. The scars of the First and Second World Wars will, of course, remain forever.
These days, the department is home to a cultural centre dedicated to Entente Cordiale, at Hardelot, the only one of its kind in France.
COAST TO COAST
The Opal Coast runs the length of the coastline of Pas-de-Calais from the border with Belgium round to the border with Picardy and is dotted with pretty and authentic fishing villages. From villas overlooking the sea, lock-up-andleave apartments, grand manoirs and pretty farmhouses, there’s a huge choice of homes.
With two entries in the top 10 beaches in France (according to TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travellers’ Choice Awards), you’ll discover varied coastal styles from golden sands to dramatic cliff tops, rocky outlets where you can fish for shrimp, and secret bays where seals frolic.
Le Touquet, voted the sixth best beach in France, seamlessly combines town and seaside living in a swish little resort known locally as the ‘Monaco of the North’. It has a fabulous Saturday market, coiffed avenues, Parisian-style shops, smart hotels and excellent restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Le Pavillon at Le Westminster Hotel.
Wissant, voted the 10th best beach, has immense golden sands that stretch along the bay between the Gris-Nez and Blanc-Nez cliffs from where you can see the white cliffs of Dover on a fine day.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire and the biggest fishing port in France, is brimming with attractions. “If this were but 300 miles further off, how the English would rave about it,” said Charles Dickens of the town where he spent a great deal of time. He would almost certainly recognise the old town today with its cobblestoned rue de Lille, edged with restaurants and bars, and the incredible basilica of Notre-Dame. It’s also home to Nausicaa, the French National Sea Centre, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world.
TOWN AND COUNTRY
Arras is the capital of Pas-de-Calais, an architecturally splendid town with huge squares bordered by tall houses with Flemish facades. It is home to a UNESCO-listed belfry, which was voted the people’s favourite monument in 2015 (on the France 2 television programme). The small city is like an urban oasis set in lush countryside, surrounded by pretty villages with easy access to Arras’s many charms and facilities.
Less than an hour from Calais lies the Sept Vallées, an area of tiny hamlets and charming towns, such as Montreuilsur-Mer with its cobbled squares and ancient ramparts. The scenery and life of the town inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and every year around 600 locals put on a fabulous show of the author’s famous story complete with horses, cannons and fireworks. The town is known as a ‘ destination gastronomique’ thanks to the number of excellent food outlets including two Michelin-starred restaurants, fabulous wine shops and a superb food market.
It was near here in a ville tranquille, a tiny hamlet of 142 people and 1,000 cows, that I fell in love with my old farmhouse. Costing around £66,000, I got 21 rooms and an acre of land (my neighbours say I paid 10 times its worth) and years of renovation – I have never regretted it.
WHY BUY HERE?
Pas-de-Calais is the eighth most populated department in France, but it’s certainly not overcrowded. Calais, with around 75,000 inhabitants is the largest city. EIght out of 10 properties in the region are detached houses, with a high proportion of second homes because of recreation and tourism – both French and foreign. There’s a great choice of town, country
or seaside living, fabulous street markets, local gastronomy and excellent transport links to the UK and Europe.
Tim Sage, regional manager of Leggett Immobilier, who lives in the Sept Vallées, says this is an area that’s really underestimated and offers terrific value. “It’s the closest French holiday destination for the UK which makes it easy for expats to still see friends and family and for second-home owners to spend more time on holiday and less travelling. It has the advantage of low-cost homes with average house prices at £140,000.”
Sitting in the Commerce Bar in Hesdin, sipping an espresso while watching the activity of the large weekly market, he enthuses, “I live in a beautiful area surrounded by open countryside in a home that would have been way beyond my dreams in the UK. For those wanting either a home or commercial base, Pas-de-Calais is at the heart of the transport network; the motorways all meet here giving access to anywhere in Europe and beyond.”
A REAL GOOD LIFE
Expats Donna Gavin and partner Nik Meergans moved to Pas-de-Calais 11 years ago with Donna’s daughter Ella, then aged 10. Coming from Sussex, they sought, as they put it, the “real good life” and like me chose to settle in the Sept Vallées.
They originally chose this area so that Ella could stay in touch with her father in the UK, and although she’s now grown up and working in France (and fully bilingual), they say they wouldn’t consider moving anywhere else.
“It’s completely unspoiled here, plus there’s a strong sense of community spirit that we really love,” they tell me. “People are more genuine and focused on family, friends and good living.”
The couple say they love how they have the best of all worlds – close to the coast and beautiful countryside while enjoying ease of travel to the UK and Europe, which, as Donna’s work takes her to both London (55 minutes from Calais to St Pancras) and Belgium (a mere hour by car) is ideal.
Donna says that the local people were so welcoming, she quickly felt that this was home. Their farmhouse needed a lot of renovation, including the stables that artist Nik has lovingly converted into what is now their charming B&B ( farmhouse.fr).
Relaxing in their beautiful cobbled courtyard, which features some of Nik’s fabulous sculptures, listening to birds sing, a goat bleating nearby and chickens clucking, you get a real sense of the true tranquillity and gentleness of the Sept Vallées.
“Shortly after we moved here, our 78-year-old neighbour watched us working on the house,” Donna says. “A menuisier himself, he was delighted to comment on our choice of timber and tools. We discovered that he had made all the wooden windows for our house, and his wife used to buy milk from here every day when it was still a working farm.”
Other neighbours bring gifts of vegetables and fruit, seedlings for the garden and advice to help the keen gardeners achieve their aim of becoming more self-sufficient.
“Friendly, idyllic and authentic,” is how Donna sums up life in Pas-de-Calais.
I certainly second that.
The anicent ramparts of Montreuil-sur-Mer
Exploring rue de Lille in Boulogne-sur-Mer
Below: The colourful Hesdin market
Le Touquet has been named as one of France’s best beaches
Above: Donna Gavin and her partner Nik Meergans