A weekend in the Nord Pas de Calais gives you a short but very enjoyable taste of real France real close to home.
Nord Pas-de-Calais is the UK’s gateway to Europe and most people use it as such – they whizz straight through in search of the sun in the south, or Paris, or the Loire or somewhere else. But – for those who stop in one of the smallest regions in France and closer to London than Devon or Cornwall, there’s a wealth of fabulous villages, architecture, beaches, art, history, culture and great cuisine to discover.
There are beaches from the Belgian border right down to the edge of the Somme where Pas-de-Calais meets its neighbour Picardy. Vast, clean, sandy beaches, many with the French Blue Flag award for being super clean and safe. Some of our favourites are at Le Touquet, neighbouring Hardelot, Berck-sur-Mer and Sangatte – just outside Calais Port.
There’s plenty of sporting activity on beaches – from sand yachting to kite surfing or fly-surfing. Check at local tourist offices for activities and details of how to join in.
St Omer, a lovely rural town just 30 minutes from Calais Port offers some great boating opportunities on its lovely waterways. Or you could try Montreuil-sur-Mer which offers canoeing and white water rafting experience and most of the seaside resorts offer dinghy-sailing.
There are cycle routes everywhere and they are well sign-posted. Cycling in the region is hugely popular with routes ranging from flat to full out hills that will really be a challenge for most people. You can pick up cycle route maps from any of the Tourist Offices and if you need to hire a bike they will also help with this.
There are dozens of art galleries and museums but some are better than others. Our favourite destinations for art tours are Lille, Roubaix where you’ll find a wonderful art gallery in an art deco swimming pool and Arras. With the opening of the Lens Louvre in December 2012 with its long awaited fabulous exhibitions of material from the Louvre Paris, we will be spoiled for choice. In fact, Nord Pas-de-Calais has the highest concentration of museums in France – art lovers will find something to hold their attention in every major town.
Venture further inland to some famous historical sites such as Agincourt where the 5000 strong English army decimated the French army, which depending on who’s version you trust numbered from 30,000 to 100,000. Though there’s not very much to see there these days there is a museum and every year a fabulous re-enactment takes place see our Nord Pas-de-Calais events page for more details. Of course there are numerous war memorial sites, bunkers and cemeteries throughout the region such as the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques and La Coupole.
There are numerous opportunities for fishing in the region though trout fishing seems to be the most popular form. You can also find perch, black bass and carp. Tourist offices will carry details of where and when and how to get a permit and you can pick up tackle and bait from some supermarkets and from sports shops. Sea fishing is permitted from jetties and beaches and some seaside ports offer boat trips. Boulogne has the largest fishing port in France so you can always buy the fish and there are some great seafood restaurants in nearby Etaples where you will also find a museum dedicated to all things nautical and the largest commonwealth war cemetery in the region.
The weather in Nord Pas-de-Calais is very similar to that of South-east England and gardening is hugely popular in the region. There are some wonderful gardens such as at the Jardins de Valloires, Maizicourt and Séricourt. There are lots of smaller gardens and most big and medium sized towns will have a town park or public gardens such as the ever popular jardins public in St Omer.
If a game of golf is your thing then you’ll certainly be spoiled for choice here. There are numerous golf courses but the best are generally considered to be at Le Touquet and neighbouring Hardelot but also popular with visitors are the gold courses at Abbeville and Arras. In order to avoid disappointment book in advance – the website Golf en Cote D’Opale provides all the detail you need (and is available in English).
Lille, the 2004 European City of Culture is just 58ks from Calais and has become very popular with both French and foreign weekenders. Offering shops, restaurants, a magnificent cobbled square, numerous art galleries and a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere, it’s fast becoming the No. 2 choice for a weekend for visitors after Paris. Montreuil-sur-Mer just 45 minutes from Calais is the town where Victor Hugo stayed in 1812 and which inspired him to write Les Miserables, with its ancient houses and cobbled streets it presents the face of a rich culture of days gone by; Arras with its
For a real French feel for shopping try one of the local street markets – we have details of lots of markets in Pas-de-Calais including opening times, their specialities and helpful details of any interesting sites in the town they are held. We particularly like the Thursday morning market in Hesdin and the super Saturday morning market held in the under cover Art Deco building in Le Touquet.
There are supermarkets galore in the region selling French wines and food specialities and there are plenty of little shops in almost every town which offer a gourmet experience from the charcuterie with its cooked meats to the boulangeries and patisseries with their breads and wonderful cakes, from the fromageries with cheeses to suit every palate to the chocolatiers with the most amazing concoctions to tempt you.
Brocantes, Braderies, Vide Greniers and Trocs – the second hand, antique and bric-a-brac markets of France are a way of life and a national passion for the French. Held most weekends you should be able to find one not too far away and search for a bargain to take back as a souvenir of a wonderful French stay.
There’s a great choice of food and restaurants in the region and a strong Flemish influence makes this a unique tasting spot. The food is generally of the hearty variety and you’ll find “estaminets” in great numbers – restaurants that service Flemish food such as Carbonade à la flamande – a wonderful Flemish beef stew. It uses slices of beef already charcoal-grilled, then cooked with onions in strong local beer. Or Coq à la bière – “chicken stew”, cooked in beer with vegetables. Ideally made with free-range poultry from Licques in Pas-de-Calais, famous for its poultry production and scene of the wonderful Turkey Festival each year in December.
The coast of this region is on the migratory route for many bird species and in spring and autumn it becomes a twitcher’s paradise. Loon-Plage near Dunkirk is particularly good for seabird and at the Marquenterre Reserve near the Somme you will even see storks, spoonbills and egrets.
There’s no end of the activities, sites, sights and fun to be had in this region – give it a try and find out for yourself.
For more information see our features: