The Nord-Pas de Calais region in the north of France may not have the sun, the film stars or the ostentatious wealth of the Riviera but it does have plenty of Gallic charm and a rich culture. For those in the UK its other advantage is the fact that by making a short crossing over or under the English Channel – just 21 miles – you can have a taste of real France, real close.
Rather unimaginatively, the two departments of the region are Nord and Pas de Calais but don’t let that put you off checking out what’s on offer – this region is probably the friendliest and jolliest place in France!
Nord is the side that borders with Belgium and includes Lille as its jewel in the crown. There is a strong Flemish influence in the region from architecture and customs to cuisine and beer. Just 30 minutes from Calais Port you’ll find lovely towns such as St Omer with its unique marshland, great architecture and huge choice of restaurants and brasseries. Lille is a city of culture with its old town and cobbled square, its art galleries and museums including the Palais des Beaux-Arts, considered the second national collection of France after the Louvre in Paris. Lille is also a stop off point on the Eurotunnel route between Paris and London so has become a popular destination for both French and British weekenders resulting in a wealth of hotels and restaurants to cater to the visitors. With the opening of the Lens Louvre in 2012 there is set to be an influx of new visitors and tourism to a generally forgotten part of France.
Pas de Calais takes in the Opal Coast with 150kms of immaculate beaches and lovely seaside resorts including the ever popular Le Touquet. The Opal Coast or Côte d’Opale runs from the Belgian border to the edge of the River Somme and has some very charming and elegant resorts. The coast has attracted painters and artists over the years including Turner who loved to paint the boats and fishermen of Pas de Calais. There is gorgeous countryside like the Seven Valleys with its quaint villages and historic villes such as Montreuil-sur- Mer and Hesdin. It was a visit to Montreuil-sur-Mer in 1837 which inspired Victor Hugo’s famous book Les Miserables and with a new film of the book released in 2012, its bound to be a place that fans will want to visit.
The Nord-Pas de Calais is one of France’s smallest regions but it’s famous for its joie de vivre and has a reputation for being the merriest and friendliest region of France with its love of carnivals and parades with historic giant figures in attendance.
In days gone by the region was one of industrial and manufacturing output – coal, steel and textiles in particular. There are still signs of Nord-Pas de Calais’ industrial past from the Textile Museum in Calais to the coal slag heaps to be seen in the Nord. These days though the region’s main output is fishing, agriculture and tourism.
Boulogne in Pas de Calais is the location for France’s biggest fishing port; the fertile countryside with weather similar to the South of England and therefore wetter than most of France means that it’s perfect for growing many types of vegetable. The locals welcome tourists with open arms and much friendliness with many English speakers amongst them – indeed the history of Pas de Calais and England goes back many centuries. For a time Calais was under English rule and the region has always been popular with the British thanks to its close proximity and its charm. Charles Dickens once said that Boulogne was his “favourite French watering hole”, Nelson’s Lady Hamilton and Beau Brummel both lived in Calais and Noel Coward and Ian Fleming holidayed regularly at Le Touquet.
There’s always plenty to do and see in the region, from great street markets to fabulous brocantes - the second hand markets for which France is so famous; from great local cuisine to Michelin starred eateries; from museums and galleries to battlefields and war memorials; from parades and carnivals to Christmas markets.
Market Days in Calais town are:
Wednesday and Saturday, Place des Armes closes about 12.30
Thursday and Saturday, Place Crevecoeur closes about 12.30
There are hundreds of markets in the region – for information see our detailed guides to markets in Pas de Calais.
For lots of ideas to make your stay in Calais full of things to do and see and lots of fun see our sections on:
How to get to Calais
From the UK Calais is easy to reach
By Car –
from Ashford (Junction 11a on M20)
Or by Ferry – P&O from Dover to Calais, DFDS Seaways from Dover to Calais, or DFDS Seaways from Dover to Dunkirk
By Train – Eurostar from London to Calais
On Foot – P&O from Dover to Calais and then take the bus outside the ferry terminal to Calais Town Centre and railway station where you can take a train to major towns and villages in the region or to Paris.
By Air: from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet airport with Lydd Air.
Useful information and websites for Calais
The tourist office is located a two minute walk from the railway station and can provide lots of useful information and maps. While you’re there pick up a day pass which gives you discounts on transport and free entry to some museums.
See the Nord-Pas de Calais Tourist Information website.
If you’re interested in touring the battlefield sites of the region, a very good website is memoire.pas-de-calais.com.