There’s plenty do in and around St Omer in the Pas de Calais just a short drive from the ports of Dunkirk and Calais and here are just some of our favourite things. You can click here for more things to do in St Omer.
The Town of St Omer
The main square, Place Foch, is dominated by the splendid Mairie (Town Hall). Building was commenced in 1834 and completed in 1841 by Pierre Bernard Lefranc. The impressive façade with its columns also boasts an Italianate theatre. Surrounding Place Foch are streets which since the Middle Ages have been the home of shops and commercial activities.
Don’t miss the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, work commenced on this building in the 13th Century but took three centuries to complete. Considered by many to be the most beautiful intact vestige of gothic architecture to be found north of Paris, it houses a famous Rubens painting of Christ being removed from the cross as well as an incredible astrological clock, said to be one of the oldest clocks in France, dating from 1558. The clock shows days, months, signs of the Zodiac and, of course, the time. There is an extraordinary and vast organ which was built in 1717 by local sculptors and carpenter. There is a public park around the cathedral which includes a very pretty jardin d’Anglais (English style garden).
The imposing Musée Sandelin has an impressive collection of paintings, ceramics, religious art and archaeological items all held in a beautiful and imposing building.
There has been a thriving, busting market in Place Foch since medieval times, starting at 8.00 a.m. on Saturdays til lunchtime but don’t leave your car there on Friday night, it might well be removed. After a walk round the market indulge in something tasty there are loads of restaurants, cake shops, and chocolatiers all round the town. From relaxed brasseries to smart gourmet restaurants, from Flemish eateries – estaminets, to micro-breweries – you’re spoiled for choice in St Omer.
The Marshlands of St Omer – the Audomarois
The marshlands of St Omer are many things – protected wetlands, a haven for wildlife, an ancient community and a garden market paradise. People have lived and farmed in the 3730 hectares of land and water spread over 15 communities since time immemorial and it is one of a handful of places in France where the post is still delivered by boat.
In the mid-7th Century, King Dagobert of the Gauls decided he wanted the north of France to become Christian and he despatched four monks to carry out the job of evangelising his people. One of the Monks – Audomar (Omer in Latin), became a Bishop and gave his name to the area of St Omer. The other three monks settled in the forests and marshes around St Omer and made it their life’s work to cultivate the area. The work they began to drain the boggy land took almost three hundred years in total but at the end of this time, the waters of the River Aa were diverted to the sea and the area was drained and cleared. The Audomarois marshes are today the only cultivated wetlands left in France. They are worked by about forty market gardeners on 440 hectares of land and fifty types of vegetables are produced here including some 5 million cauliflowers a year.
The area has an amazing ecosystem, more than 400 species of plants have been recorded, 38 of which are protected; 490 species of mushrooms can be found; 220 species of birds including a colony of great cormorants. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, wildlife and plants. It is also a popular place for holidays – there are plenty of campsites and holiday homes – fishing and boating.
The best way to tour the area is by boat and there are plenty of options from canoes (if you’re feeling fit), row boats, motor boats and flat-bottomed punts with guided tours. For details of how to book the boats see the Isnor website below.
The boat trip enables visitors to spot fish, birds and plants. As the water meanders along the edge of St Omer town you can even spot the grand Station of St Omer through the trees – a strange feeling that you are in two worlds – one civilised and inhabited by man, the other ancient and ethereal.
Take your binoculars to get the best from this trip, a picnic on a gorgeous day and of course, sensible shoes for all that climbing in and out of boats!
For details of boating on the marshes see the Isnor France website.
La Coupole, St Omer
La Coupole was built as an underground fortress created as a base to manufacture Hitler’s secret weapon – the V2 rocket and created by the Todt organisation. A huge dome, camouflaged by the surrounding forests it is 5.5m think, used 55,000 tons of concrete and is 72m in diameter; it was built by Soviet slave labourers and German specialists. It was abandoned by the Germans after heavy bombing and left to rot before being cleaned up and opened to the public in 1997.
These days it’s a place of modern graphics, touch-sensitive screens and sound and light effects tracing the history of the war in France from invasion, everyday life, the resistance, collaboration and liberation. La Coupole also focuses on the cultural, historical and scientific analysis of the relationship between science and War. After the war the scientists and specialists employed at La Coupole and the Eperleques bunker nearby were captured and worked for US science teams in their space programmes.
With a 15 m diameter hemispherical screen, 134 seat auditorium and the latest audio-visual technology, the planetarium offers visitors a spectacular voyage to the far reaches of the universe and around our planet opening towards the end of 2012 (for firm details check the website below).
The Eperlecques bunker, St Omer
The Eperlecques Bunker, located on the edge of the forest of Eperlecques and 5 km from St Omer is an awesome sight and the biggest bunker in northern France. Construction began on this enormous underground building after Hitler approved a programme of secret weapons to be made – the V1 and V2 rockets. Created using 130,000 tons of materials, 22 metres high and covering 1 hectare the bunker is a feat of engineering brilliance and was designed to be the first launch base for the V2 rockets aimed at London and Amsterdam in World War II. After being bombed in 1943 it was used instead as a manufacturing plant for the liquid oxygen that powered the V2 rocket engines.
Opened to the public in 1973 the tour takes you in and around the bunker; there is an original launch pad with V1 rockets, lots of military paraphernalia and vehicles.
See our section on more things to do in St Omer.