NORD-PAS DE CALAIS
Standing as the northernmost region of France, Nord-Pas de Calais is bordered by the English Channel and the North Sea to the north and Belgium to the northeast. This is a region whose lands are fertile for agriculture and whose coast is lined with sandy beaches and whose inland is home to soft countryside. There are a few main destinations to stop by if you decide to visit this region — one of them would be Lille.
A place that first thrived and gained recognition in the 19th century, Lille developed a significant textile, mining, cotton and transportation industries, and has strong roots in the “Flanders” culture. As with many other French cities, Lille was first inhabited by the Gauls, and later was conquered by the Vikings, and saw the beginnings of its identity as the “cloth industry” heartland during the Middle Ages. There are many must-see sites to visit in Lille, among them the city cathedral; the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, a museum constructed under Napoleon and which stands today as the largest museum outside of Paris; and plenty of botanical gardens, parks as well as beautiful public squares. Equally intriguing is the city of Roubaix, located right next to Lille, a city known for its art history, culture and architecture, and one also once situated in the country’s textile heartland.
If you’re in the mood for visiting the seaside, head to Côte d’Opale, or the “opal coast,” known for its magnificent cliffs and dunes.
France’s refreshing Nord-Pas-de-Calais has been overlooked by travellers for too long. The region has embraced the jokes about chilly weather and yokel locals while quietly transforming into a world-class destination with a daring arts scene, clutch of historic sights and irresistibly rugged charm.
Here is a region that has developed an incredibly rich cultural history over the centuries — Picardy, or Picardie, as the French spell it, is a place where many medieval battles were fought, including the battle of Crécy, one of the most memorable battles of the Hundred Years’ War; as well as where many ruling dynasties have come to pass, including the Hapsburgs and English and Spanish rulers.
If you are interested in touring a majestic old, medieval city and its glorious remains, go to Amiens, in the north of the region, in the department of Somme. First inhabited by the Gauls, Amiens was besieged time and again by different peoples, including barbarian tribes and later by the Normans. It is perhaps most famous for being the site of the Cathedral of Amiens, which stands today as the tallest Gothic-styled cathedral in France. Also visit the Municipal Circus, which is one of the oldest remaining original circuses of the world today. Aside from the circus, there are other famous theaters in Amiens, as well as museums. For those who are planning to visit this region during the winter months, there will be a marvelous Christmas market in this city, which is famous for being the largest of its kind in northern France.
Other great places to visit in Picardy are Beauvais, home of an extremely tall and impressive cathedral; Laon, for those who are interested in seeing medieval walled cities and early cathedrals; and Chantilly, home to beautiful 19th-century castles and palaces of the nobility.
Get merry in Lille
Lille is no longer just a Eurostar stop between London and Brussels. The capital of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, this friendly city is winning visitors over with its charming old town, great eateries and yes, those much-maligned winter markets – all for a fraction of the price of Paris, bien sûr.
Start in the Grand Place, formerly a medieval marketplace and now home to the city’s most beautiful building, La Vieille Bourse. This 17th-century stock exchange ripples with cherubs, horns of plenty and carved lions. From there take rue de la Bourse into Vieux Lille, the old town home to some of Lille’s most interesting sights: Flemish buildings painted orange and dusky rose; the neo-gothic Notre Dame de la Treille cathedral (www.cathedralelille.com); and even a Masonic temple with burnished gold relief.