Fabulously French

French Regions: Hauts-de-France

Making up the north west of France, stretching as far as to reach the Belgian border, is Hauts-de-France. Its combination of busy cities, natural escapes and coastal location make it one of France’s most diverse regions.

Region Capital: Lille

The fourth largest city in France and home to a prestigious university, Lille is a bustling hub for creativity, ingenuity and innovation.

The old town captures precisely what one may imagine when picturing this Northern city: 17th century Flemish buildings in an array of sandstone and brick red lining narrow, cobbled lanes. The popular Grand Place is focalised around the Column of the Goddess, erected in 1845. The belfry, a striking terracotta tower, is visible from the main square and is built into the ornate town hall. The Palais des Beaux-Arts museum, an incredible, Belle Époque structure, houses a collection of art second only to Paris’s Louvre and inhabits the expansive Republic Square where you will also find expertly trimmed trees and a magnificent water fountain.

Once you’ve explored Lille’s grandiose sights, delve deeper into Vieux Lille, the old town. The architecture details the history of the city, from the 13th century Hospice Comtesse, now a museum, to the Notre Dame, completed only in 1999.

Cities

Quaint and colourful establishments make up the majority of Amiens, housing second hand bookstores, antiques and charming art galleries.

Amiens’ stunning cathedral, now a UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral, boasts an ornate and gothic façade that confronts sightseers with its trio of enormous pointed arch entrances and complex sculptures. Dating back to the 13th century, its interior is equally as captivating, and the Cathedral claims to contain the head of John the Baptist.

The hortillonnages are a collection of floating gardens which reside peacefully along the 65km of canals that weave their way through the city of Amiens. Also lining the waterways is the Saint Leu district which is made up of restaurants, cafés and bars serving local cuisine.

 

Cambrai is a small town with an impressive military history. It played a role during the Hundred Years’ War, was subject to the Terror of the French Revolution and was the Duke of Wellington’s headquarters during 1815 to 1818. It was also practically destroyed during both World Wars. As a result, the buildings often contrast with each other as medieval structures neighbour 19th century abodes and more.

Visit Cambrai’s 15th century Belfry which appears outcast by the more modern buildings sitting below its towering 62.5m height. The medieval Porte de Paris and Citadel serve as a reminder of the town’s martial past and the ancient Church of Saint-Géry dates back to the 500s.

Nature

14km of untouched shoreline beg to be explored at the Baie de Somme, from flat, pastoral land to imposing white cliffs to marshland.

At low tide, tiny fishing boats become beached and you can walk for miles before your toes are caught by the chilled Channel waters.

Wildlife lovers flock here for the birds, marine life and families of seals that sleep lazily on the sands at Hourdel Point.

Try the water sports, hire a bicycle, go horse riding or catch a birds-eye view from a hot air balloon. For some history of the area, head to the House of the Bay of the Somme.

 

Avesnois Regional Nature Park spans an almost incomprehensible 125,000 hectares, taking you all the way to the Belgian border.

On rolling meadows surrounded by rich foliage, herds of cows graze peacefully on lush, dew-covered grass. An occasional Gallic church spire peaking up over the bushel speaks of quiet French villages and echoes some of the symbolism captured in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Pass through them quietly and find yourself amongst dense thickets and trees, with hiking trails for all abilities. Mormal Forest, in fact, is the largest of its kind in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

Keep your ears pricked for the local fauna, be that the gentle sound of deer hooves against damp undergrowth, the beating wings of black storks and bats or the thrashing of pike, trout and chabot in Val-Joly Lake.

 

Photo credit: izsofast 

Activity

Established in only 2012, Louvre-Lens in Lens was a response to criticism that French artistic culture is mainly limited to Paris. The minimalist structure uses reflective glass and metal both inside and out and is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Indoors, the classical artwork juxtaposes the architectural modernism. The art is organised chronologically, then by geography, making the artwork, too, juxtaposed, rebelling against the rigidity of most galleries and museums which organise by category, style or epoch.

 

Bavay, at 2.5 hectares, is the largest Roman forum with its layout intact ever discovered in France. It is believed the town was originally founded around 20 BCE, under the rule of Emperor Augustus. Contained within the forum is a basilica, a temple and an underground gallery, among other structures. There is also a museum featuring 60,000 artefacts and a 3D film which recreates what life would have been like in contemporary France, or Gaul as it was then known.

 

Photo credit: Carole Raddato 

Gastronomy

When one thinks of French food, several things come to mind. Beside the unusual, yet don’t-knock-it-till-you’ve-tried-it options of escargot and frogs legs, there is, of course, cheese. Mimolette cheese is produced in the region’s capital, Lille. It is burnt orange in colour, encased in a thick rind. The real flavour of Mimolette comes with the after taste where you will experience wonderful, nutty elements. There are a number of lovely independent cheese shops in Lille where you can pick up an authentic Mimolette.

 

In the need for some comfort food? Find a restaurant with Carbonnade Flamande on the menu=, a Flemish stew made with beef and beer. Served with a freshly baked baguette for dipping, or frites if you’re going all in, it’s a delicious and filling option that gives you a taste of Northern France.

For Families

La Coupole Planetarium finds residence in a former WWII bunker. The attraction advertises the amalgamation of both history and science. It takes you on a journey through the Second World War, nuclear weaponary and space travel. Finally, watch history come to life at the 3D planetarium.

 

Parc Astérix offers rides the whole family can enjoy, as well as some just for little ones and a host of hair-raising rollercoasters that send you whirling through the spectacular setting of Oise-Pays de France Natural Regional Park. Head to Gaul Village to meet the park’s character, or check out the fantastic shows and animations.

 

For Couples

Ambling through Lille’s old town on a balmy summer’s eve, you may hear the faint reverberations of Latin music. Follow it all the way to the unlikely location of Vieille Bourse, an elaborate 17th century stock exchange. Continue down the passageway until you reach the opening of the baroque courtyard and you will find couples dancing the playful yet intricate tango. Entry is free and all levels are welcome, so why wouldn’t you?

 

Scattered across Picardy’s divine landscape are over 70 châteaux, and driving through, visiting as many as you fancy, makes for a wonderfully romantic day (or two) out.

The medieval Château de Pierrefonds elicits awe, with its soaring turrets and protective defence of thick trees. It sits on the outskirts of Compiègne Forest, proud and imposing above the humble town below. Contrarily, the lavish Château de Chantilly is delicate yet spellbinding. The estate’s gardens are modest, pruned in places but rural in others, with sporadic bursts of wildflowers, drooping willow trees and water features. It also holds one of the largest art collections in France. These are just two of the many you can explore.

 

Photo credit: David Becker 

Getting there

Take the short ferry crossing from Dover to either Dunkirk and Calais and you will find yourself solidly planted on the coast of the very region you’re looking for. That makes our Dunkirk and Calais ports the perfect starting point for any adventure in Hauts-de-France

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