Most British Tourists only stop a night in the Calais region, on their way to the South, but there’s enough here to merit a special visit. Rupert Parker finds that the 600th anniversary of the British defeat of the French, at Agincourt, is a good reason why you should make it this year.
If you live in London, or the South of England, it’s very easy to access the North of France and I’ve visited many times, on wine buying expeditions. It makes a great weekend destination and I’ve never understood why tourists stay as little time as possible. After all this part of France has a history of English occupation, with meetings between kings, both amiable and bloody. There’s good fish, meat and cheese and, apart memorials of the two wars, there’s lot to see, including the new Louvre annexe at Lens.
La Tour de l’Horloge, Guînes
In June 1520, Henry VIII, of England, and King Francis I, of France, met on a field between Guînes, which belonged to the English and Ardres, which was French. The event was to cement their friendship and it’s known as “Field of Cloth of Gold” as both monarchs tried to impress with tents decorated in expensive cloth. There’s nothing to see there now but, in Guines, next to the 18th century clock tower, an excellent museum delivers a history of the region. Much is interactive and it chronicles the period from 9th century Viking raids to this meeting of the monarchs.
Around an hour’s drive away is the sleepy village of Azincourt, and the site of the famous battle. These days it’s a ploughed field with trees to either side but the imposing Azincourt Medieval Centre gives you a good idea of what happened 600 years ago. This time it was Henry V against the French but their king, Charles VI, was not there, incapacitated by illness. Of course it was English archers who won the day and the French were hindered by a strange medieval concept of chivalry which demanded they fight hand to hand. The anniversary celebrations will include a renactment in July and a remembrance ceremony on the 25th of October with full military pomp.
Just nearby, the farm La Halte d’Autrefois, in Hesmond, produces organic goat cheese and traditional bread. Guests can learn how to make both products and actually milk the goats by hand. There are even a few basic rooms if you want to stay. In Loison-sur-Créquoise, Hubert Delobel of La Cave du Perlé produces sparkling wine from redcurrants, raspberries and cherries and welcomes visitors for tastings. He also has a luxurious gite on the site and can advise guests on hiking trails.
Get here on Saturday morning for the bustling market in the main square, full of local producers displaying their produce. The imposing cathedral of Notre Dame contains a beautifully restored Rubens, depicting Christ’s descent from the cross. and the town is situated next to an area of drained marshland. A brand new museum, La Maison du Marais explores the history and stories of the people who live here and offers boat trips on the channels criss-crossing the area. It’s an excellent way of viewing the extensive bird life as the vessels are electric and almost completely silent.
Further from the coast is the charming city of Arras, capital of the region. It was rebuilt after being destroyed in WW1 and they restored the imposing clock tower and Grand Place to their original state. Underground are an extensive network of tunnels and it’s also worth visiting the Musée des Beaux-arts, once a huge abbey. They’ve a temporary exhibition of selected pieces from the Château of Versailles’ collections, imaginatively laid out and it runs until March 2016.
Until recently coal mining was the main livelihood of this area, but now the pits are quiet and the huge slag heaps grassed over. It’s getting a new lease of life with the Louvre-Lens, a purpose built gallery displaying some of the treasures of the Louvre in a large airy space. Unlike its parent, over 200 artworks are arranged in chronological order from the birth of writing, around 3500 BC, to the middle of the 19th century. Even on a Sunday afternoon it’s not too crowded and an extra attraction is to go downstairs and see the restorers working behind the scenes through a huge glass window. In the centre of town, at 42 place Jean Jaurès, it’s worth visiting the Jeanson chocolate shop and its salon de thé.
Béthune was also completely destroyed during WW1 but unlike, Arras they choose to rebuild in a contemporary style. The result is a charming collection of Art Deco buildings best viewed from the top of the belfry in the main square. The tourist office can arrange guided visits and they also sell Saffron grown by a local producer, Safran des Collines d’Artois. Not to be missed is the La Prairie Fromagerie which specialises in unpasteurised cheeses, not just from France but other parts of Europe including the UK.
Pas de Calais Tourismhas information about the region.Tourisme Saint-Omer has information about the town.
Tourisme Lens has information about the town.
Visit Bethune has information about the town.
P&O Ferries offers a choice of 23 sailings in each direction a day between Dover and Calais with a fleet of 5 ships including the largest ferries ever to ply the route, the 49,000 tonne Spirit of France and Spirit of Britain. Fares start at £78 return for a car and up to 9 passengers.
La Sapinière is in Wisques, near St-Omer,
Hotel L’Univers is right in the centre of Arras.
La Maison Rouge is just outside Bethune and its inventive Restaurant Cercle punches above its weight.
La Chartreuse du Val St-Esprit, a converted convent complex, is set in extensive grounds outside Bethune with a number of excellent restaurants with produce from its gardens.
Le Sept de Coeur serves good tasty food in Saint-Omer.
Restaurant l’Anagram is worth a visit for its exquisite dishes.
Restaurant Al’Fosse 7 is themed like a coal mine and the food is what you’d need after a hard day down the pit.