And a huge part of the region, where Flanders, the Opal Coast and the Artois hills come together is the UNESCO-listed Audomarois marshes, a biosphere reserve of wetlands, reclaimed land and canals. It was originally dug by monks about 1,200 years ago and has grown over the years so that today it covers more than 22,000 hectares. With its market gardens and floating gardens, it is the only cultivated wetland in France. It’s also the protected home of hundreds of species of birds and mammals.
Amazingly, the town of Saint Omer sits right in the middle of its core marshland area. From Le Maison du Marais Saint-Omer, a newish interpretation center, you can board a traditional boat, a bacôve, and, for about 10€, spend an hour touring a few of the 700 km of canals.
3. A rebirth through art
The decline of heavy industry and mining hit Pas de Calais hard. But it is fighting back with art and culture. Ever since the selection of Lille as European Capital of Culture in 2004 revitalized that city, communities across the region have recognized the energetic boost a lively art scene can create.
Part of that includes cooperative efforts with some of France’s greatest cultural institutions. In 2012, the Fine Arts Museum in Arras began 10 years of cultural sharing with Versailles. The arrangement required the museum, located in the former Benedictine Saint-Vaast Abbey, to strengthen its floors with steel to support the huge marble sculptures from Louis XIV’s palace.
While in Lens, once a major mining center, the Louvre brought tons of glass and steel to the site of a former colliery to create its first provincial gallery, the Louvre Lens. And it’s wonderful. Cool, modern and spacious – the Grand Gallery is a single, 3000 square meter space – it houses a curated selection of Louvre treasures – a kind of Louvre-lite – that will change every five years. In its first year it attracted nearly a million visitors.
We just loved getting within touching distance of Roman statues; Indian and Islamic art, carving and calligraphy; Renaissance, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings, even an imposing statue of Napolean posing as a classical Caesar. I was especially taken with an amazing pietra dura table from 17th century Florence.
The museum is open every day except Tuesday, from 10am to 6pm and the Grand Gallery is free. If you are racing down to Paris on the A26, take a quick side trip from the motorway to see it.
4. History written in blood
There is no getting away from the fact that one European and British army after another marched across this northeastern corner of France, fighting for pieces of it. At the Centre Historique Médiéval d’Azincourt, you can pursue the story of the Battle of Agincourt and search for the battlefield (for enthusiasts only. Really).
Or you can visit La Coupole, a huge dome-covered bunker from which the Germans intended to launch a massive barrage of V2 rockets on England in WWII. The Allies took it in 1944 before it was operational. Now the dome is a 3D planetarium.
We were most moved after we donned WWI “Tommies” helmets and descended 20 meters underground into the La Carrière Wellington, or Wellington Quarry on the edge of Arras.
The quarries were underground military tunnels and living spaces – including kitchens, space for 700 hospital beds, an operating theater and sleeping quarters – carved out of Arras’s historic chalk quarries by the New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Companies, many of them Maori miners. It was here that almost 24,000 British and Dominion troops lived in hiding for ten days before emerging on April 9, 1917, Easter Sunday, for a surprise attack on the German front.
The site serves as a memorial to those who built the tunnels and those who lost their lives in the Battle of Arras, in the end a battle with little gain and hundreds of thousands of deaths. The name, by the way, comes from the street names of Wellington, New Zealand, that the tunnelers assigned to the different spaces and underground chambers.
Visits are by guided tour, with audioguides – available in English. The site is open from 10am to 12:30pm and from 1:30 to 6pm. The tour takes about an hour and is wheelchair accessible.
5. A feast of Medieval Flemish Architecture
Arras has two massive Flemish-Baroque squares, la Place des Héros and la Grand’ Place, and a late Medieval Gothic Hôtel de Ville (town hall) with a belfry tower known as the le Beffroi. They are all listed UNESCO World Heritage sites and were extensively reconstructed after WWI. But you’d never know it and it’s worth traveling across Pas de Calais just to see them.
Now I could bore you with lots more architectural and historic boilerplate that you can research as easily as I can. But, since this is my blog and these are my photographs, why don’t I just show you (click to enlarge gallery images).
Najeti operates several luxury hotels with nearby golf privileges. We stayed in several and particularly enjoyed the Najeti Hôtel Château Cléry. The 18th century country estate is set in a woodland park in Hesdin-l’Abbé, on the edge of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Rooms and suites spread across the chateau as well as several cottages and “fermettes”, or little farmhouses. Prices are relatively reasonable with the “demi-pension” option – or dinner, bed and breakfast – in a luxury room going for about 225€.