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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

The best places to visit in Hauts de France region

Hauts de France is the northernmost region in France and is made up of five departments, Aisne, Nord, Oise, Pas-de-Calais and Somme. The region has a reputation of being boring and miserable to French people from the south (and the weather isn’t that great either outside Summer) however for me, this is one of the best regions. I spent a lot of my early traveling days exploring the region, stayed with a French family, learnt the culture, language, food and of course, the beers (based on the styles of Belgium beers from across the border to the north), and even managed to get some work out here.

Château d'Olhain, Hauts-de-France
The Château d'Olhain is a 15th-century castle located in Olhain

I found the local people to be lovely and welcoming and after a while, they have a great sense of humour. The amount of laughs I have had here is amazing. I have been traveling to this region for over twenty years as I still have friends here, but I also come to see concerts and watch Lille football club in Ligue 1. I even still do the odd-booze cruise as I love certain beers from the region, more on that shortly. I highly recommend a visit to this region, there is lots to do from city breaks, World War I and II history (or if you want to find older history, the Battle of Agincourt can be visited), sporting activities and if lucky, on a warm summer's day, sunbathe on the sandy beaches of Calais or take in the sea breeze at Le Troquet.

Corbe, Somme, Hauts-de-France
Corbie located in the Somme department

I have divided this post into five sections, one on each department which makes up the Hauts-de-France region. I have written about the places I have visited and highly recommend and I am likely to keep updating this post as I am always finding something new to explore.

Hauts de France map by Google Maps
Map of Hauts-de-France region (c) Google

Places to visit in Hauts de France: Pas-de-Calais   

 

This department has the towns of Calais, Boulogne-sur-mer, Lens, Arras and Saint Omer (which is known for its beer) and has the most touristy things to do (that’s my own personal opinion). This is the part of France I fell in love with. I still can’t put my finger on it but after a few days checking out Calais and Dunkerque on my first visit, I was itching to return. They are not the most glamorous towns in the country but they are beautiful in a different way. As mentioned earlier, the people here are in bright spirits and will make visitors welcome. However the further inland I went from the coastline, the rolling hills which lead to other towns to the east and south all have their historic aspects. Also if I have to drive to France, it is this part of Hauts-de-France I will touch first. There is always a buzz of excitement when I drive the car of the ferry or car train in Calais, that great feeling of being in France always hits me. In all the traveling I have done in the world, I feel for this region more. Anyway, let's crack on and let me tell you about the Pas-de-Calais department.     

Eating out in Calais, Hauts-de-France
The Hauts-de-France has many places for eating out, we love it!

This part of France is easy to reach. If arriving by car, there are two autoroutes from Paris, one via Lille and Lens and the other via Amiens. There is one from the north via Dunkerque and Brugge in Belgium. Trains serve the main towns via regional routes however there are a few TGV high-speed trains a day which go to Pas-de-Calais from Paris and Lille. (As I write, Eurostar have stopped servicing Calais-Frethun station since Covid-19 and the service was shrunk in early 2020, no plans as yet to restart services from here). For people coming in from the UK, there is a ferry crossing from Dover to Calais and a car shuttle train which goes through the Channel Tunnel (le tunnel sous la manche) from Folkestone to Coquelles (near Calais). There is a ferry crossing from Dover to Dunkerque but not as many per day compared to Calais. The nearest airports are Paris Beauvais and Lille but for larger airports, there is Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly and nearby Brussels.

For me personally, Calais may not be the most beautiful place in France as it’s a port town and has had a bit of a reputation in recent years with immigrants making camps surrounding the town, waiting for a chance to get smuggled across to the UK. However, don't let that put you off. I felt a great feeling to step onto the shores or streets of Calais and explore. The town does have its good bits about it and I will start my post with Calais (and a bit of history, I sure do love my French history just to warn my readers).

Pidou near Calais, Hauts-de-France
Shopping in a wine/beer warehouse in Calais

Calais history steams back hundreds of years ago and grew into a major port with important trading links with England across the water. Eventually King Edward III of England got bored and annexed the city to which the town became known for its wool production. It took France over 200 years to get Calais back and then the biggest event came in the Second World War when the Nazi Germans bombed the town and was virtually razed to the ground. Since then the town has been rebuilt and the industrial area to the north of the centre was thriving over the last fifty years but has since been in decline.

Belfry tower of Calais, Hauts-de-France
Town Hall and the Belfry Tower of Calais

The centre itself has a few sights to see such as the Place d'Armes where there is a watchtower (known as the 'Tour du Guet') which has stood here since the 13th century and was used as a lighthouse until the 19th century (seems a bit odd as it is quite far from the coastline). Nearby is the church of Notre-Dame which was built when the English had the town and is the only church building built in the English perpendicular style in the whole of the country (that is France of course, not England, now that wouldn't have made sense!) In this church, one of France's former presidents Charles de Gaulle married his wife here.

The most important building and one which can be seen miles around due to its belfry is the Hotel de Ville (the town hall) which has stood here since the 16th century and has the famous 'Les Bourgeois de Calais' statue located in the gardens which was completed in 1889 by Auguste Rodin. The sculpture represents an event which happened in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years’ War when the port of Calais on the English Channel/La Manche was under siege by the English for over a year. According to legend, the king of England, Edward III, coming back from the Battle of Crecy laid siege to the town whilst King Philip VI of France gave orders to defend the city, which failed and the English army forced the king and the city to surrender as a lot of people were suffering from starvation.

King Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of the city's leaders would surrender themselves to him (which presumably would be killed). King Edward gave orders that they all should walk out wearing nooses (ropes) around their necks and carrying the keys to the city plus the castle. Eustache de Saint Pierre (one of the city's wealthiest leaders) volunteered first and five other burghers (wealthy middle class folk) followed him to the city gates. Although the burghers expected to be killed, their lives were spared by the Queen of England, Philippa of Hainault (King Edward’s wife who was French and came from the Hainault region of northern France) who persuaded him not to kill them because this would be a very bad omen for the their child to which she was carrying at the time.

Back in 1895 the city of Calais wanted a statue of the six burghers made and eventually the design by a French artist, Rodin, was chosen (after some debate). Soon after the first cast was made and placed in front of the city hall in the centre of Calais. After Rodin’s death, French law stated that no more than twelve casts of the statue can be made. The other casts can be found at the Glypototeket (Copenhagen), the Royal Museum in Mariemont (Belgium), Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament in London, the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, the gardens of the Musee Rodin in Paris, Kunstmuseum in Basel (Switzerland), the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Plateay in Seoul (South Korea). The one in Seoul is the twelfth and final cast and no more can be made.


I found the story very moving, interesting and somewhat dismayed about what my home country and our neighbours to the south were like in the past. The story of the six burghers of Calais is always one I will remember for a long time and take around with me on my travels.

The road from the centre towards Sangatte (just south of the city) runs alongside the beach. In the summer months the beach is quite popular and is one of the sandiest on the northern coast of France. Around the town, there are some good bars and restaurants.

Côte d'Opale, Hauts-de-France
Côte d'Opale - a beautiful piece of French coastline

The coastal road (the D940) along the Côte d'Opale heading south out of Calais towards Boulogne-sur-mer is a nice drive or cycle ride especially on sunny days. The road is bendy in places, up and down hills through beautiful valleys and there are numerous spots on the way to pull over and check out. First off is the ‘Deux Cap’s - Two Capes’, Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez. 

Cap Blanc-Nez, Hauts-de-France
Memorial at the top of Cap Blanc-Nez

Cap Blanc-Nez (in English means ‘Cape White Nose’) is known as a cape but it doesn’t stick out into the water. It is a large white cliff which is 134 meters high (similar to that on the other side of the channel at Dover), which has an obelisk at the top. The obelisk here commemorates the Dover patrol which kept the English Channel/La manche free of Nazi-German U-boats during the First World War. Looking around the area there are a lot of bunkers which were built and used during the Second World War along the coastline and looking inland, there are a lot of craters which can be seen in the fields from the bombardments.

Further south is Cap Gris-Nez which is a cape that juts out to the sea and is known for the grey colours of the rocks. Basically the English name for this place is ‘Cape Grey Nose’. Despite it not being a stunning place to visit like Cap Blanc-Nez, it is however the closest point of France to England and on a very clear day, the White Cliffs of Dover can be seen. Because of its closeness, over the centuries there have been various invasions on this part of the coastline. Nearby on top of a cliff there is the ruins of a tudor fortress built by England’s King Henry VIII but during the Second World War, the Nazi-Germans built a blockhouse on this site. This and hundreds of other sites along the coast formed the ‘Atlantic Wall’ which was supposed to stop the British invading Nazi-German occupied France. Even in 1940 Nazi-German leader Adolf Hilter visited the Cap Gris-Nez fortifications. However four years later the Canadians came in and kicked the Nazi’s out. These days, a few miles away in the village of Audinghen, there is a museum about the fortifications and the history of the area.

France has many amazing cities, towns, pretty little villages in the countryside and many of them are visited by the hordes of visitors which come to the country every year. One of them in the Hauts-de-France region is the fishing town of Boulogne-sur-mer. This sleepy town on La Manche (or to us British known as the English Channel) does have visitors coming here, mostly people from Netherlands and Belgium who travel on the nearby autoroute with their campervans and look for somewhere to relax for a few hours and Boulogne makes this a great pit stop. However in the last few decades, a lot of British people do not stop here compared to the dizzy heights of cross-channel tourism where a lot of people would day trip here, take a look at the markets, sample the food and walk the cobble streets of the old town. It was time  to check out why the town needs to be on anyone’s itinerary if just passing by the town for a few hours, a day trip over from England or on a road trip around Northern France.

Boulogne-sur-mer, Hauts-de-France

As mentioned, loads of Brits would flock here during the 1960’s and 1970’s, well in fact until the late 1990’s (when air travel became cheaper and package holidays with tour companies became the norm and off we would go to Spain or Greece leaving northern France a place not to visit unless a visit to the local supermarket or duty free shopping for a day trip was necessary as the goods were cheaper on mainland Europe back then). There would be ferries crossing the English Channel from here to Folkestone or Dover (Dovres) but these days, no ferries go to England. In fact the harbour looks very quiet, only fishing boats can be seen. For ferries these days, Brits would have to drive down from Calais or Dunkirk (Dunkerque). This is probably another reason for a decline in tourism from the United Kingdom. Another factor is that tourists would need a car. Coming over as a foot passenger on the ferry can be a struggle as there is no port bus at the ferry terminal at Calais (but visitors can bring a bike). Then there would have been a long walk into the centre of Calais from the ferry port due to some roads blocked off due to the crisis there with migrants and then the local trains don’t run as often between the towns. So, traveling can be a pain in the ass to get to Boulogne.


However, if owning a car, then the doom and gloom is lifted and the town is definitely worth a visit. Parking up on the outskirts of the old city (also known as ‘Haute Ville - High Town’ or ‘Ville Fortifiée - Fortified Town’), this area is a few minutes walk up the hillside from all the car parks (or about fifteen - twenty minutes from the seafront). A little hint: my favourite car parking spot is the secure underground car park called St Louis which is cheap as well and can be found on Rue Saint-Louis.


From the car park and walking up the hill, the first sight to see in this town is Square Auguste Mariette Pacha, a nice little garden area which has an Egyptian mini-pyramid as well as two sphinxes looking directly across from the western gates of the old city walls. Not quite sure what the connection is with Egypt and Boulogne-sur-mer, however it looks pretty in this park.

Boulogne-sur-mer, Hauts-de-France

Walking underneath the gate - Pont des Dunes - and turning right up a small staircase, this took me to the top of the walls to which I could walk all the way around, taking in views of the buildings in the new part of the town down below, the skyline of the old town and in parts, the sea. There is a huge walking path in places but it's best to walk this on a dry day as the ground is gravel and mud.

From the Pont des Dunes and walking eastwards along the cobbled street known as Place de la Résistance, this took me to the Belfry which has stood here since the 12th century and is one of fifty-six belfry towers dotted around Northern France and Belgium which has UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Belfry tower of Boulogne-sur-mer, Hauts-de-France
The belfry tower of Boulogne-sur-mer

At the end of the street is the main square of the old town where the town hall is located. In the heart of the square is the Jardin Ephémère on Place Godefroy de Bouillon where the locals take a seat on the bench, look at the pretty flowers and watch the world go by. Around the square there are cafes and restaurants which are also an ideal location to do one of France’s number one passtime, people watch. From the square heading north along Rue de Lille there are many restaurants to choose from and I decided to eat in ‘Le Swan’ where we found the price for a set menu (three-course meal) a fantastic deal and the food to be very tasty and feeling. The fish was fresh from the sea and the meat cooked how it should be. The excellent customer service and the decor was even more pleasing and we left feeling very satisfied.


On the Rue de Lille is also a scene, the cobbled street with the shops and the beautiful Notre-Dame cathedral in the background which is located at the end of the street. 

Notre-Dame, Boulogne-sur-mer, Hauts-de-France

The cathedral is located on top of the hill where the old town is situated and can be seen from all over town. The dome reminded me of the dome on top of St Paul’s cathedral back home in London. The full title of this cathedral is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Boulogne, however this basilica is not actually a cathedral but a church. The locals call it a cathedral and to be honest, a lot of tourist’s call it a cathedral and it has somehow stuck. The church has stood here since 1875 and took nearly fifty years to build.


However the history of this church is amazing, like there has been a church that has stood here since the days of the Roman Empire. Later on in the 12th century, a new church was built on the site of the old church and lots of changes happened over the year. Now, what interested me was that in the year 1308, the church was the location of a royal wedding! Yes, a royal wedding, between King Edward II of England and Isabella of France (one reason for this was to dampen down tensions between the two countries). After more research, Isabella gave birth to a son back in England (Edward III of course) and then was blamed for the murder of her husband (long story)!. Then she died in Hertford Castle which is located in the small historical town of Hertford in Hertfordshire (north of London) which is very close to my hometown of Stevenage. I  never knew this and found this really interesting to learn.    

The current church as previously mentioned started to get built in the early 19th century, however whilst workmen were digging the foundations, they discovered a crypt which had been laid unknown for many centuries. After the ‘clear’ out, the historians found out that the Romanesque columns are from the 11th century, the crypt itself is 128 meters long and is the longest crypt in the country. There are also many rooms inside this crypt which also includes the foundations of a Roman temple (yes, Roman!) and cannonballs from the siege of 1544 (where historians think this is when the crypt got buried).

After the fascination of walking around the church and discovering the crypt, I walked around the corner to the castle which has a fantastic wide moat going around it and the brickwork on the facade is immense. The courtyard is circular and probably could be a great venue to host a tennis tournament (if the nets were raised), however imagination aside, the castle hosts a museum on the history of the town. Just taking a walk around the courtyard and the castle walls did it for us. It has charm, it has beauty and blends in very well with the surrounding buildings.

Away from the old city, Boulogne’s seafront and ‘new town’ has plenty of restaurants and shops to look at and on some days, roads are shut off for a street market. Walking along the seafront is a great idea (but only when the sun is out, the rain and wind of the sea can be awful at times) and the beach north of the town is wide, sandy and golden and is a great place to go to when the sun is out. Also in the beach and harbour area is the NAUSICAA sea life aquarium which is also one of the region’s tourist attractions.


Outdoor activities are also highly popular on this part of the Cote d’Opale and cycling seems to be the number one sport. The number one ride to do is through the national park just north of the town and follow the coastal road or other cycle tracks through the pretty villages to Calais. Running is second around here and the nearby countryside is a great place to train on a Sunday morning if doing a long run.


Inland towards the eastern region of Pas-de-Calais is the town of Arras and Olga and I love this town. We came here during the Christmas market season but we managed to check out the town’s main attraction (more in a moment) and loved walking around the cobbled-streets of the centre with the Flemish-style buildings overlooking us. Like most towns and villages in this region of France, there is a lot of Dutch influence on the facades of buildings. Also the Belfry at the Town Hall is one of many belfry's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the most dominant feature of the area. The building has stood here since 1554 but had to be rebuilt after World War I. Now standing at 75 meters (246 feet) we had the perfect view. We could see for miles but the view overlooking La Place des Héros, a huge square which the Belfry is located on and is surrounded by some amazing buildings which houses shops, bars and cafes.

The Christmas market was a pleasant moment and we managed to look at all the stalls which sold food, drinks, wooden cats, honey and even Polish food. Wine tasting was to be had but we preferred to try the traditional hot mulled wine and also the local hot chocolate. There were also rides and entertainment for the children in the centre of the Grand Place square which is surrounded by many more buildings which could have placed us in a town like Bruges or Anvers over the Belgium border. 


(Fact: Unlike many French words, the final S in the name of the town, Arras, SHOULD be pronounced. Just thought I mentioned this).

Underneath the City Hall and the Belfry Tower is the entrance to the Boves'. This guided tour which can be booked up at the tourist information office in the same building takes visitors under the streets to discover the underground history of the town. Originally used as chalk quarries, the Boves were dug on this site from the 10th century and used for various purposes over the years like food storage and cellars of the above restaurants. Even one fishmonger/restaurant owner thought the hole in the ground going into the Boves was a rubbish bin and over time, down below a huge pile of fish bones and other bits piled up and the smell became unbearable!


The network of galleries which covers the size of the town and beyond was also used as a shelter and rallying point for the British troops in 1917 (World War I) as they awaited to attack the Germans in the Battle of Arras. The forty minute tour is worth going on, we were amazed how solid the walls were (despite a few leaks appearing making the ground slippery) and how easy it could be to get lost down there. The tour guides are very informative and they certainly know their history of the town. We would recommend this tour very highly for anyone visiting this area (and it is very cheap too).

Another sight to mention near Arras which is worth a visit lies a few kilometres north near the village of Vimy, where the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is located. This is dedicated to the memory of the Canadian army killed during World War I and also serves as a place of commemoration of soldiers killed or presumed dead in France who have no known grave.


Why did I stop here? I noticed the memorial on a postcard in a shop in Arras an hour earlier and it caught my eye. It looked impressive so I thought about coming here to check it out as I was in the area and I wasn't to be disappointed. The memorial is big and I strolled through much of the battlefield park which also overlooks a portion of the ground where the Canadians made their assault during the Battle of the Vimy Ridge, a military engagement fought as part of the Battle of Arras.The area is peaceful, trees blowing about in the cold wind, not a soul to be seen.


The memorial itself is located on Hill 145 (as it was known to Canadians and the British forces during the war) which is the highest point on the ridge. Whilst I was walking around, I was paying my respects in silence. Near here (on further research which needs to be done), I lost one of my Great, Great Uncles during the First World War and is remembered at a memorial in nearby Loos (on the outskirts of Lens). Maybe he fought in this battle? Who knows but for me personally and my family, it would be interesting to find out (for more, please read my personal-family-blog-post on the Battle of the Somme here).

Béthune, located between Arras and Calais is another town which is worth a visit, rich in architectural heritage and history. With its many cobbled streets, shops and cafes, I took in the belfry which has 133 steps. It was closed on the day I visited but I have been told if visitors go to the top for the views, the Belgium border can be seen to the north. There are not many sights to see in the town apart from the nearby large brick church but I came here for the Christmas market. A lot smaller than the one in Arras, there were still plenty of things to taste, smell and look at. Located in the square with the Belfry, once again amazing Dutch-style buildings surround the area with the town hall.

The other thing I love to do is try and spot as many Belfries as possible. This part of France and also Belgium, there are fifty-six belfrys and they are all on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several of them are located in Pas-de-Calais, in Aire-sur-la-Lys, Arras, Béthune, Boulogne-sur-mer, Calais and Hesdin. Most of the belfries are projected from larger buildings but there are a few standalone ones. For those who are not quite sure what a belfry is, it is a structure enclosing bells for ringing as part of a building, usually as part of a bell tower or steeple. A belfry encloses the bell chamber, which houses the bells. The walls are pierced by openings which allow the sound to escape. Underneath the chamber there is usually a room below to house the ringers (the guys who pull the rope to make the bells chime).

Belfry tower in Béthune, Hauts-de-France
The belfry tower (left) in Béthune

Places to visit in Hauts de France: Nord


This part of the post is about the department of Nord, the area, what to see and do and why I love coming to this part of the world. This department has the towns of Lille, Dunkerque (Dunkirk), Cambrai and Valenciennes, with Lille being the main administrative city for the department and the whole of Hauts de France (and also being the fourth largest city after Paris, Lyon and Marseille).

Watching LOSC (Lille FC), Hauts-de-France
Watching my favourite French team, LOSC (Lille FC)

History: I won’t go into too much detail but the way I see it, this area was settled by Belgae tribes (as well as settling south of Nord and all around Belgium. At some point they managed to get across the English Channel / La Manche and settled in Southern England. There is even a former settlement near my home town of Stevenage). Then the Romans came in and settled. They even made a road from the port of Bononia (Boulogne-sur-mer) to Colonia (Cologne) in Germany. Then the Saxons came in with their Dutch type language which kinda influenced the area and in cases, Dutch can be heard in some places in Nord (but not too often). At one point France (or the area known as County of Flanders) included the cities of Brugge, Gent and Antwerp and went into the southern part of the Netherlands. Then the area was sucked into Netherlands territory before the Spanish invaded the area and Nord became part of the Spanish Netherlands. That was short lived as the area became part of France and in recent history, had two wars with the Germans.


The area has been under so many influences but it seems since 1945 it has found its peace and the locals have moved on & made this a better place (ok, sometimes there is the odd squabble with politics and immigrants from Asia and Africa around the ferry ports who are trying to get to the UK but apart from that, life is good).

Lille, Hauts-de-France

Lille: the business city of France and one of the major crossroads in Europe (as it connects with Brussels, London, Paris, Western Germany and so fourth). I like Lille but it’s a bit misplaced with a lot of buildings and streets in the centre making me think that the city wouldn’t look out of place in Belgium (again, it's all down to history). However a lot of buildings are very modern and because of this, I love the mixture in architecture.

After some digs around the area, Lille seems to have had people living here since 2000 BC and as mentioned, the area has had several occupiers. However it was in 1667 saw a big changing moment for the city as King Louis XIV of France laid siege on Lille and became a part of France, which really pissed off the locals. It took some time for the locals to gain confidence with the French but it came. There was no attempt to wipe out the Picard language (more about that later) and the locals have always felt Flemish.   

  

A citadel was built in the 17th century near the centre of modern-day Lille however it didn’t stop France losing Lille to the Dutch. For five years from 1708 to 1713 the city was taken during the War of the Spanish Succession but eventually was back in France’s hands. The French Revolution came along and the city of Lille (which most of the citizens were Catholic) took little part in the event. However there were still riots and destruction of churches but the city picked itself up and held its first elections in 1790.

Lille, Hauts-de-France

Now you would think that would be it for Lille but no, even under French rule, the city was still being attacked by outsiders. 1792 saw the Austrians coming along and laying siege to Lille. That lasted several days but there is still evidence in the buildings near the Grand-Place (on modern day maps this is called Place du General-de-Gaulle), where there are black dots around windows (they are not decorative cartouches) which are cannonballs lodged in the facade! A lot of buildings and the main church were destroyed but the city picked itself up again. The 19th century came along and because of Napoleon continental blockade against the British (yup, he didn’t let us British come onto the European mainland, how many times have I heard this during history lessons!?!), the city became a leader in the textile industry. The city produced a lot of wool where the nearby cities of Tourcoing and Roubaix produced the wool.


By the 1860s the city grew even more and there were 80,000 people living here which meant a huge rise in ‘social’ activities for the locals. Taverns and cabarets popped up everywhere and it was worked out that for every three houses in the city, there was a tavern (not quite sure if this is true but sounds good to me!). At one point there were sixty three drinking clubs, thirty seven places for card players to gamble, twenty three places for people to go bowling, eighteen places for archery and thirteen places to play skittles. Sounds like a party town to me and the locals were very happy to be here. Into the twentieth century, more people came here to work due to the industrial revolution with railway lines being built and a lot of coal being mined in the area. 

Lille, Hauts-de-France

Then it all went downhill again, Lille was occupied by the Germans in October 1914 after a ten day siege on the city. The city was destroyed by heavy shelling and the Germans made Lille one of their bases. This lasted until October 1918 when the British came along and kicked the Germans out. The great depression came along and a lot of locals were living in poverty during the 1920s and then it just got worse for the locals when the Germans came back to the city after another siege at the start of the Second World War. However this time as the locals still had the First World War fresh in their minds, they left the city quickly and headed anywhere where they could escape the Nazi Germans. Lille was under Nazi Control until September 1944 when the British, Polish and Canadian armies came to the area and again, kicked the Germans into touch.

  

After the war life was normal and still is. Peace has come to the city and hopefully will stay that way. That’s the background of the city so what has the city got to offer for visitors? There is the citadel, the Grand Place (which General Charles de Gaulle was born nearby), the cathedral and beautiful buildings of Dutch style architecture.

Dunkerque (Dunkirk): the northernmost city in France and is 10km (6.2 miles) from the Belgian border on the North Sea coast and is the third largest French harbour. I have to admit I am not a big fan of the city itself but have stayed here several times as I cycle to and from Belgium from nearby Calais. I just find the place a little bit boring and I don’t like the looks of some areas. That's just my personal opinion. However the history here is what the city is worth visiting for. Similar to Lille because of the area, the city has had many occupants but it was during the Second World War that the Dunkerque came into the spotlight.


During 1940 in the Battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force were aiding the French and Belgian armies in the area but had to retreat as the Nazi Germans were going crazy and killing Allied forces left, right and centre. They were just too strong and well prepared. They all retreated to Dunkirk and at one point there were more than 400,000 soldiers trapped. However, at this point for several days, the Nazi Germans stopped the attack. Only Adolf Hilter knows why he did this and has taken this to his grave. But then the attacks started up again, this time sending in the Luftwaffe (Nazi German air force) and started bombing Dunkerque from above. An evacuation by sea was needed and this was called Operation Dynamo. Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister) ordered any ship or boat available, didn’t care what size it was, to get over La Manche and rescue as many soldiers as possible. In the end over 338,000 men were saved (which included 123,000 from France) using over 900 vessels.


Away from history, the most notable places and things I came across are the town hall and its belfry tower (more on that later on) and the beaches. Despite the beaches being well known due to the history they are quite wide and sandy, so when the hot summer days come along, it can be a fantastic place to get a tan.

However it’s the coastline south of Dunkerque heading towards Calais which caught my eye. The border line of Nord ends at the southern side of Gravelines and Grand-Fort-Philippe. Gravelines started out life during the 12th century when a canal was built to connect the sea with the town of Saint-Omer near Calais. During this period the town was on the western borders of the Spanish held Flanders region, so Gravelines became theirs as the English came along in 1383 and destroyed the fortress but after that the English had to retreat back towards Calais. Further battles between the English and Spanish happened in the area, on land and at sea and eventually after three hundred years, the French finally annexed the area and became a part of France. But it took another three hundred years for all the locals to speak French as they kept their Flemish roots and language alive. One of my favourite things to do when I stop off in the town during bike rides is to go to the local bakery just off the main square, get some fresh bread and croissants and take them to the main square and refill. Sunday mornings are pretty good here in Gravelines.

Right on the coastline is Grand Fort Phillippe at the mouth of the canal. Here there is a cavalry with a cross which is a good place to have a seat and admire the water nearby. The beaches are also great, big and sandy but again, needs the hot temperatures. Whilst here I just see a lot of people walking their dogs.

Heading inland and not too far away from Dunkerque, in a field between the villages of Wormhout and Esquelbecq, is the location of where the Wormhout massacre took place. The short story of it all was the British were in retreat heading back to Dunkerque as the Germans were advancing very quickly towards La Manche/English Channel in May 1940. The 144th Infantry Brigade of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division was holding the main road in the area to delay the German advance so the rest of the British army would get on the boat back to the island. However the troops were overrun by the Waffen-SS soldiers from the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hilter. The British tried to hold out but used up their ammunition supplies so they decided to surrender to the SS troops, thinking that they would be taken prisoner according to the Geneva Convention (like hell Hilter and his pals were going to go by that piece of paper as they bloody started the Second World War).  


After their surrender, they joined other British troops from other regiments as well as French soldiers in charge of a military depot in the area who were taken to a barn in La Plaine au Bois on the 28th May 1940. On the way to the barn the allied troops became a bit more alarmed at the brutal conduct of the SS en route to the barn, which included shooting a number of wounded stragglers who couldn’t keep up.


On arrival at the barn, the most senior British officer in the group, a guy named Captain James Lynn-Allen protested, but was rebuked by an SS soldier. One hundred men were now standing inside the small barn and then the SS threw stick grenades into the barn killing many of the POWs (Prisoner of War). However the grenades failed to kill everybody due to the bravery of two British troops, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Augustus Jennings who hurled themselves on top of the grenades using their bodies so they could suppress the force of the explosion and shield their fellow soldiers from the blast.


The SS found out what was going on so they called for two groups of five to come out. The survivors were shot. However one man who was shot, Brian Fahey survived (which was unknown to the SS at the time). Eventually Brian would become a composer back home and worked with the BBC (and died back in 2007 aged 87). Anyway, the SS saw this method too slow as well and just went into the barn shooting the rest of the surviving troops, all guns blazing! Several British prisoners were able to escape whilst others like Brain Fahey were left for dead. A total of eighty men were killed at the time and within a few days afterwards, some of the wounded died because of their wounds being so severe. A few days after that, Fahey and several others were found by medics of the German Army and were taken to hospital (not quite sure why when the Germans wanted to shoot them in the first place!). Once treated they were sent to prisoner of war camps around Europe (so I am not sure what was better, being shot in a bar or going to somewhere like Auschwitz or Dachau and having a bad time there but it ended up all good for Brian Fahey because as mentioned, he survived and had a wonderful career in music).

Belfries time again (as mentioned in Pas-de-Calais), Eleven of them are located in Armentières, Bailleul, Bergues, Cambrai, Comines, Douai, Dunkerque (there are two there), Gravelines, Lille and Loos. Go and check them out! 


Personal feeling and the local language of Ch’ti: I love going to the little villages in this part of Hauts-de-France and driving through the countryside. It maybe flat, full of fields and maybe the landscape is not as spectacular as the rest of the country but the area has charm about the place. The locals are friendly as well and don’t seem to mind speaking English (as this area is so close to home island) but also as I speak French, I love the roughness of the accent here which seems to have been mixed with the French spoken in Belgium. After a while I learnt the French-Picard dialect Ch’ti, which is also spoken in this region but mainly with elderly people (and I hope it doesn’t die out with them, I am for one a lover of languages and don’t want to see them die out. It's not just a language, it's the culture and the history which goes with it also). I totally recommend people to come to this region and embrace it. Everytime I come here, there is always something new to see.  

Final say: I learnt a phrase with the locals in a bar once. It was in the local Picard dialect so I had to translate it into French before into English and I totally agree with this. I have never forgotten. 


Picard: Quind un Ch'ti mi i'est à l'agonie, savez vous bin che qui li rind la vie? I bot un d'mi.


French: Quand un gars du Nord est à l'agonie, savez-vous bien ce qui lui rend la vie? Il boit un demi.


English: "When a northerner is dying, do you know what revives him? He drinks a pint."


Places to visit in Hauts de France: Somme


This part of the post is about the department of Somme, the area, what to see and do and why I love coming to this part of the world. This department is probably the smallest out of the five in Hauts de France with the major city being Amiens. The other town in the region is Abbeville but otherwise it's full of fields, small towns and quaint villages. However, don't let that disappoint you, there is a lot of history here. 


History: this is what the Somme is known for, for all the bad reasons. War and battles between armies from other countries took place in this area. The first major battle (which was a major defeat to the locals) was the Battle of Crécy which took place in August 1346 between the French (led by King Philip VI) and King Edward III. This happened during the Hundred Years War (a lot of battles going on in Europe around this time when Royal Families were fighting for more land in other people’s backyards), and to be frank, the English kicked ass that day. Before and after the battle, the English were going through France destroying and sacking many towns on the way. They nearly got to Paris (after traveling from the west in Normandy) but thought bugger it, there were more problems to deal with in Northern France, turned northwards, had a battle and sacked more towns before claiming Calais and holding it for a number of years.


However one of the worst ever battles took place here and claimed thousands and thousands of lives from both armies. The Battle of the Somme. This is also a personal matter for me as I lost two Great Great Uncles in the battle and a long distance cousin. This took place in the First World War and lasted from 1914 and 1918 (basically most of the First World War). Both armies (the Allied Forces and the Germans) were trying to push each other back but it didn’t work. It was just a mess. Eventually (somehow) the Germans lost the war however the land was badly bruised and the clean up operation was huge. There were 420,000 people killed in the Allied Forces and around 600,000 for the Germans. For the British however the 1st July 1916 saw the worst ever day in the army's history where there were 57,420 casualties and 19,240 dead. 


I have written a personal blog post about the Battle of the Somme and other First World War sites here. Please check it out, it was an amazing experience and I remembered my family members by laying wreaths on behalf of my family back home.

Thiepval, Hauts-de-France
Thiepval

Amiens is the only city in the Somme department and lies 120km north of Paris and 100km southwest of Lille. The main landmark of the city which can be seen for miles on the approach from the autoroutes (from all directions) is the cathedral, which is the tallest Gothic church to be built in the 13th century and is also one of the largest in France. The cathedral is also classed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site but my top tip is to see the cathedral at night where the facade on the main entrance is all lit up and has a pretty colourful display. 

Amiens cathedral, Hauts-de-France
Amiens Cathedral

The city was destroyed in the First World War (as it is so close to the Battle of the Somme battlefields), then got rebuilt, then the British bombed the hell out of Amiens to sort out the Nazi Germans when they held the city during the Second World War and then was rebuilt again (but this time with wider streets to ease traffic congestion, the locals were planning ahead in the late 1940s).

Another site to check out is the Hortillonnages (otherwise known as the floating gardens) and is known as the ‘Venice of the North’. I have to admit, how many times have I heard that phrase in Europe. Brugge (Belgium) and Maida Vale (London, UK) are also known as the ‘Venice of the North’. Sigh.  The area started out when they were just market gardens where vegetables were grown for the local people. These days only a few gardeners remain to earn a living off the land. During the summer months there are boat trips on offer to visitors who would like to get up close in the gardens. 

Statue de Pierre l'Ermite - Amiens, hauts-de-France
Statue of Peter the Hermit was possibly born in Amiens ca 1048-1053. A monk, then a hermit and preacher.

One of my favourite areas of the city (just north of the cathedral) is the Saint Leu quartier. There are houses as well as restaurants located next to the River Somme. Here is one of my favourite eating places in Northern France however, as well as the cathedral, all the buildings here are also lit up and makes the area even more beautiful, especially when doing an evening stroll alongside the river. Don’t forget to check the belfry tower here and also come in December as the city hosts the largest Christmas market in Northern France.

Away from Amiens, on the outskirts of the village known as La Boisselle is Le Grand Mine but in English it is known as the Lochnagar Mine. What the British army did was truly crazy, daring and brave, a plan which worked to stop the advancing Germans taking more of France during the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. The British secretly dug tunnels under a German field fortifications known as Schwabenhohe (Swabian Height) and on the 1st July 1916 at 07:28, the Brits pulled the trigger and kaboom! A lot of Germans went flying up into the air, lots lost their lives and ones who survived probably had arms and legs detached or blinded, and the fortification was gone. A crater of around thirty meters deep and one hundred meters wide remained. Most of the German army in this area were defeated, some survived and made a run for it, retreating. The British during the Battle of The Somme, did this nineteen times to the German army.

Le Grand Mine, Hauts-de-France
Le Grand Mine

Belfries time again, go and spot them on your journey through the Somme department.  Abbeville, Amiens, Doullens, Lucheux, Rue and Saint Riquier.


Places to visit in Hauts de France: Oise


Oise is the closest department to the French capital Paris and its border covers most of the northern border line of the capital region. From the border of the Hauts-de-France and the capital region, Paris itself is only 35 km away to the south. The department itself takes its name from the river which flows through the area, the Oise and the main towns are Beauvais and Compiègne. To be honest, despite being so close to Paris, not many people live in Oise with only 830,000 recorded in 2019. For a department this large, I  would have thought there would be a lot more people living here. However when I drove around Oise, there was a lot of woodland and nature to explore and not many large towns. 


The biggest town in the region is Beauvais and located 75 km north of Paris and was founded about 2000-2500 years ago, there is no exact date as Belge tribes lived here and Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire came through here around 50 BC. Olga and I (and the kids of course) didn’t see any evidence of Roman architecture, ruins or remains however the oldest building we went to was the cathedral which can be seen for miles around.

Dedicated to Saint Peter, this cathedral with its amazing Gothic architecture stands at forty-six meters tall, & frankly, we spent most of the time here looking at the facade. The detail is truly amazing and reminds me of the fine detail which went into the facade at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. To this very day, the cathedral has the highest Gothic choir in the world, however it did set a few other records. Back in 1573, the cathedral with its tower of 153 meters, was the tallest human construction in the world (now that record goes to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). When the cathedral was first built, the people behind it had plans to make this the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world and to make it bigger than the one in nearby Amiens, however parts of the building collapsed, once in the 13th century and the other in the 16th century, and because of this, the cathedral actually remains unfinished to this very day. Only the choir and transept have been completed but the nave was never constructed. 

Cathedral of Saint Pierre in Beauvais, Hauts-de-France
Cathedral of Saint Pierre in Beauvais with the entrance to MUDO - Oise Museum on the left.

In the last century, Beauvais was mostly destroyed in World War I and World War II by the German forces and much of the town needed to be rebuilt, however the Cathedral still stood but needed a lot of repairs to the damage afterwards. Whilst at the cathedral, check out the amazing gateway into the Bishops Palace, located to the western side of the square. Today the building hosts the MODO-Oise museum which has a collection of artwork from the 19th century.


Nearby to the north-west of Beauvais, is the village of Gerberoy and I would recommend a car for this visit. This village Olga and I came across whilst driving through the Hauts-de-France region after noticing signs for Gerberoy with a logo stating ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’. This means the village has membership with the group and is classed as one of the most beautiful villages in the country. That sold it for us, so we diverted from our route from Beauvais to Ameins and checked out Gerberoy.


Parking up wasn’t an issue when we arrived and found a small car park on the eastern end of the road which goes through the village (it's on the D95). This meant that all we had to do is walk into the village and check out a few of the side streets. The whole walking time we did was about an hour but as we were doing a road trip, this really was a great stop to stretch the legs.  


The village is known as the ‘village of a thousand rose bushes’ and we have to totally agree. All the charming cob houses with half-timbered frames (which dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries) had a lot of plants on the window sills or going up the side of the buildings. There were roses, daisies, wisteria, hydrangeas to name a few of them. Whilst walking down the cobbled lanes (and it had just finished raining when we arrived), the scent of the flowers we will never forget but it's the explosion of colours around us which made us feel like we were in heaven, let alone France. There are also some ramparts, a miniature vineyard and a Charlemagne Tower to check out also. If anyone is into flowers and charming little places, then Gerberoy is the place to come.

Also there are many castles to check out in Oise. Here are some of my favourites.


The castle ruins of Coucy are located on a hilltop in the commune of Coucy-le-Château-Auffrique, west of Laon. Built in the 13th century, the castle was in very good condition until the Germans in the First World War bloody blew up the four towers and the keep so that the French army couldn’t use the castle as a lookout post. This happened at the end of the First World War after the Germans were told to piss off or be shot (this after three years of occupying the region).


Whilst walking around, noticeably most of the outside walls still remain (to which goats climb all over the blocks and using the old windows as beds) and the bottom of the towers still remain. There are some great views of the Ailette Valley from here also. I  prefer castles which are still intact but this is one of my favourite ruined ones. Château de Coucy is located on the outskirts of the small town of Coucy, which is about a twenty-five minute drive north of the town of Soissons. The nearest train station is Gare de Soissons and takes an hour with regional trains from Gare du Nord in Paris. 

Château de Pierrefonds, Olga and I totally love this castle to bits. This is a truly magical fairytale castle and has been used in films and television drama series such as Great Britain’s BBC hit ‘Merlin’. Built in the 13th century and located in the town of Pierrefonds, the castle overlooks a huge forest from a hilltop. Most of the castle was rebuilt in the 19th century after it somehow got ruined but soon got rebuilt by the orders of that famous small man with the big nose, Napoleon. It is now a wonderful castle to explore with its tiny courtyard and fancy rooms with wonderful decor to look at.


The castle is located in the small village of Pierrefonds on the south-eastern outskirts of the Pierrefonds forest. It's about a fifteen-twenty drive from the nearest Autoroute A1 (Paris to Lille) and take junction 9 or 10 and follow signs or GPS from there. By train the nearest station is in Compiègne which is located on the northern side of the Pierrefonds forest. Trains depart from Paris Gare du Nord and take under an hour.

Château de Chantilly. This is more like a palace but this castle still has the glamour, the history and the art to check out. Located in the town of Chantilly, this castle was built in the 16th century but was destroyed in the French Revolution and was rebuilt in the late 19th century. Now owned by the Institut de France, the castle is now open to the public to explore plus its  houses, plus the Conde Museum which is one of the finest art galleries in the country. Also here there are some great gardens to walk away but just don’t stray onto the nearby racecourse. The castle and the racecourse are located on the outskirts of the small town of Chantilly and are easily signposted. By car the nearest Autoroute access is the A1 (Paris to Lille) at Junction 8. By train there are direct regional trains from Paris Gare du Nord to Gare de Chantilly-Gouvieux and takes about thirty minutes. There are also RER line D trains from here into central Paris and take a little bit longer.

Personal thoughts on the Hauts-de-France region


Again, I said it before, its rolling hills, laidback lifestyle and welcoming people make this region. A lot has gone on in the region over the last two thousand years (or maybe more) but it is a wonderful place to explore (or even just to take time out when driving towards Belgium or the UK from elsewhere in the country or Europe). I hope this post has inspired you to visit this region and take time to acknowledge what the north of France has to offer. It's not always raining you know!

Ferry crossing Calais-Dover, Hauts-de-France
The girls on board a ferry between Calais and Dover early one morning - October 2021

Essential information


How to get to Hauts-de-France: This is mentioned at the top of the post. 


Accommodation: There are a lot of accommodation options and a lot of websites which can do some great deals. My first point of call is always Booking.com and can offer a range of hostels, hotels, campsites, apartments, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and they can also be booked up on my website (just go to the right hand side of the screen). After that I always have a look through AirBnb for great deals on apartments and other lodgings especially when traveling as a family. 


Currency: France uses the Euro currency which is also widely used in most European countries. Currency can be exchanged at the airports and train stations (for a huge fee) so I would recommend either going to a currency exchange place downtown, to a bank (if they have good rates) or if you got a good bank account with fantastic exchange rates, then use an ATM machine (may incur a small fee but I always do this option as I got good bank accounts).

 

Language: It’s France, so it would be French. However at major tourist sites, a lot of staff do speak English.


Watch out for: Didn't have a problem here. Use common sense, like watch out for pickpockets etc. Whilst driving in the Calais area, be careful of migrants (who are staying in the area and trying to get across the sea to England by any means possible), who are crossing the roads. Also lock up your cars and make sure no valuables are left inside them, and that means anywhere in the towns of Calais and Dunkerque and places in between. Olga and I did have a migrant hiding in the boot of our car when we came out of the Cite Europe shopping centre once as I forgot to lock my car. He walked away after I threatened him and luckily nothing was damaged or taken. Another place to be wary off is around the beer warehouses in Marck and Calais, another place where migrants will see an opportunity to get into cars and vans. Police sometimes hang around the area to keep an eye on things. 

 

Flying into the area: Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. I sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking. 


Travel insurance: Need insurance? Safety Wing offers coverage for a lot of adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and so forth. I never travel without travel insurance. I highly recommend them for those who need travel insurance.


Need a visa for France? Always check if you need a visa when coming to France, especially for those who come from outside Europe.


If you would like to share my blog post via Pinterest, please share the pin below.

Voyager avec Danik - Pinterest - Hauts-de-France

Disclosure: Please note that while I was not working with any companies in the Hauts-de-France region, my review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support! There maybe some links above which are affiliate and are at no additional cost to you. If my readers use them, I earn a commission to buy their products and remember, I only mentioned products and companies I use. The income from this keeps this website going. Thank you.


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