Peace among the pop­pies

A hun­dred years after WWI, north­ern France is a place of beauty and tran­quil­ity

French Property News - - Contents -

Ar­mistice Day will fall on Re­mem­brance Sun­day this year, mark­ing the cen­te­nary of the ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties of the First World War. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, church bells through­out the coun­try will ring out much in the same way as they did 100 years ago, com­mem­o­rat­ing the time de­creed to end the war to end all wars.

Around the world there was barely a fam­ily un­touched. Pho­tos are still dis­played by later gen­er­a­tions of loved fam­ily mem­bers who served, or were lost, along the Western Front.

One of the first houses I ever viewed in France had pho­tos of grand-père and grand­mère set in state in one of the bed­rooms – he in the dis­tinc­tive uni­form of a WWI French in­fantry­man, a poilu, with im­pres­sive mous­tache, she glow­er­ing with a sim­i­larly dour ex­pres­sion (and, it has to be said, only some­what less fa­cial hair!). Some years ago, with about 10 days to spare be­tween con­tracts, I took my­self off to spend time in the Pas-de-calais depart­ment and truly ex­plore it for the first time. I found lush, softly rolling coun­try­side, lovely towns, an­cient vil­lages clus­tered around bustling mar­ket squares with quaint names and an amaz­ing coast­line with stun­ning beaches. It was, quite sim­ply, a rev­e­la­tion!

As I drove along beau­ti­fully main­tained quiet coun­try roads with lus­cious views as far as the eye could see, it was hard to rec­on­cile the thought that this area once formed part of the Western Front. I saw sign­posts point­ing to vil­lages and towns with names with which to con­jure – for this land had been the bat­tle­ground of Europe for cen­turies.

Leav­ing Calais I saw a sign pro­mot­ing the lo­ca­tion of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, where Henry VIII and Fran­cis I had met in a clas­sic tale of royal one-up­man­ship – though for­tu­nately with no fight­ing! I passed the site of the bat­tle of Créçy fought in 1346 and, for any­one who stud­ied Shake­speare’s Henry V at school, the vil­lage of Az­in­court is just some 40km south of Calais. It is of, course, named after the Bat­tle of Agin­court, fought in 1415. But I di­gress…

Bat­tle­field beauty

The First World War started, of course, in Au­gust 1914, the as­sas­si­na­tion of an Aus­trian arch­duke in Ser­bia serv­ing as the trig­ger. What fol­lowed was one of the blood­i­est stale­mates in his­tory, leav­ing mil­lions dead, coun­tries and lives changed for­ever.

To­day, it’s hard to com­pre­hend, es­pe­cially as life now car­ries on as nor­mal in this coun­try­side and its towns and vil­lages.

I drove down to the Somme val­ley and was as­tounded by its beauty, then hopped across to the mag­i­cal sea­side – the Côte d’opale – with azure-coloured sea even in a late win­try Jan­uary. I skirted beau­ti­ful long golden sandy beaches and vis­ited re­sorts such as Le Tou­quet and Berck-sur-mer. I drove through Éta­ples – known to the Tom­mies as Eat Ap­ples – cross­ing the River Canche which emp­ties into the English Chan­nel here. I vis­ited the sea­port of Boulogne and dined at a fish restau­rant on the quay­side from lit­er­ally the fresh­est catch of the day after spend­ing time ex­plor­ing its an­cient up­per city and Un­esco-listed 12th-cen­tury bel­fry.

I fol­lowed the coastal road and found the sea­side town of Wimereux, just north of Boulogne, with its lovely col­lec­tion of Belle Époque build­ings. I also dis­cov­ered the charms of the town of Calais in­stead of driv­ing straight from the ferry to­wards the péage and on­wards to­wards Paris or scur­ry­ing im­me­di­ately south­wards. In­land I ex­plored vil­lages with quaint names such as Huc­que­liers and Desvres (the lat­ter famed for its faïence pot­tery). And

I found lush coun­try­side, lovely towns, an­cient vil­lages clus­tered around bustling mar­ket squares with quaint names and an amaz­ing coast­line with stun­ning beaches

on a bit­terly cold day I left red roses on the grave of an un­cle on my fa­ther’s side who’d fought in the High­landers reg­i­ment. It was a beau­ti­ful sunny place; it made me feel ‘con­nected’ to this land.

Roses of Pi­cardy

The vil­lages of Pi­cardy – the his­tor­i­cal prov­ince be­tween Paris and Pas de Calais in­cor­po­rat­ing the Somme and parts of Aisne and Oise – are dis­tinc­tive. Houses are made of red bricks of­ten fea­tur­ing a ‘lace’ frame­work of white stone and slate roofs. The area is the birth­place of Gothic ar­chi­tec­ture in its cathe­drals. Amiens, cap­i­tal of Somme, has the largest one in Europe and the tallest in France – Paris’ Notre-dame could fit into it twice over! Late last cen­tury it was dis­cov­ered that in the 13th cen­tury its western façade had ac­tu­ally been painted.

Elab­o­rate light­ing tech­niques have since been de­vel­oped to project the orig­i­nal colours onto its façade, now a high­light of son et lu­mière per­for­mances in sum­mer, dur­ing the Christ­mas mar­ket (the largest in north­ern France) and over New Year.

Of course the area has its own cui­sine. Fi­celle pi­carde – a crêpe stuffed with mush­rooms and lus­cious ham in béchamel sauce served en gratin – is de­li­ciously heart­warm­ing in the colder months. Or per­haps you might fancy a slice of flamiche aux poireaux, a quiche-like tart with leeks and cheese. Yum!

De­spite its easy ac­cess to the UK by ferry, Chan­nel tun­nel or Eurostar, this beau­ti­ful part of north­ern France has the air of a hid­den gem. Driv­ing around, it is hard to rec­on­cile the fact that the hor­rors of war once raged in a re­gion that is now so peace­ful and pleas­ant, which is why the Re­mem­brance Day com­mem­o­ra­tion is so im­por­tant. Lest we for­get.

Cap Blanc-nez on the Opal Coast

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