travel france's nord-pas de calais region
real france, real close
Want to take your car for a relaxing long weekend break in rural France but don't want to be driving all the time? The Nord-Pas de Calais region is the closest, the best and really the only option. Jonathan Crouch pointed his Audi R8 southwards.
Visiting France tends to be something that you allow a lot of time to do. The sunny south, the verdant wine regions in the centre, the border lands with Germany to the East. By air, you could consider them weekend break destinations. By car, you'd need a week and a thick road atlas.
No, only one region of France really makes sense as a mini-break destination for those wanting to drive themselves but spend the minimum amount of time at the wheel. It is of course the closest part and the closest region of that has a name: the Nord-Pas de Calais. It runs with the marketing slogan 'Real France, Real Close' and that about sums it up. This is the part of the country that most of us drive through on the way to European destinations somewhere else, including as it does major centres like Calais, Dunkerque, Boulogne, Arras, Lille and Valenciennes.
Perhaps we shouldn't. It is, after all, an area rich with history, right from the Battle of Agincourt to the major conflicts of the last century. It's also full, so the helpful tourist board lady told me, of little villages, fantastic shopping, unique places to stay and great food. But then every tourist board rep tells you that. We decided to put together a long weekend itinerary to see for ourselves.
What we couldn't argue with was the area's convenience. From most of the UK, you can be in the Pas-de-Calais area in just a few hours, especially if you use the handy Eurotunnel link from Folkestone. Which is exactly what we did. Whenever I use the 'Chunnel', I find it hard to understand why anyone still uses ferries. Travel off-peak taking advantage of Eurotunnel's special deals and it's not even particularly expensive. We splashed out a bit and tried the Flexi-Plus ticket that gives you priority boarding, plus food and newspapers for the journey just to make the whole experience that little bit more special.
"This is an area rich with history, pretty little villages, fantastic shopping, unique places to stay and great food.."
Once in France, arriving just after midday, we quickly determined to do what the French would do: have lunch. The Aquaraile restaurant in Calais was our first stop, an establishment specialising in seafood and with a dining room positioned high up with a commanding view of the Calais port entry so that as you sip your wine, you can see the ships coming to and fro. We could have spent hours there but with time ticking on and an Audi R8 supercar to drive, we set off along the D940 on the French coastline westward, past Cap Blanc-Nez, the fine sand beach at Wissant and Cap Gris-Nez, the frontier between the North Sea and the English Channel.
Had we had time, we'd have liked to have ambled around Audresselles and Ambleteuse, two traditional fishermens' villages that followed, or indeed the chic 19th Century beach resort of Wimereux. As it was, we had an appointment with chocolate. Choco-France in Beussent, not far from the medieval town of Montreuil-sur-Mer, is a small but proud family operation that makes chocolate the way they used to and welcomes visitors into its little factory to taste the difference in their products. The care taken over their product was also reflected by the hotel we chose that evening, La Cour de Remi, which stands in the grounds of a beautiful French chateau, a few miles East in the little town of Bermicourt. This is one of the only hotels in Europe where you can choose to spend the night in a (very luxurious) treehouse. We chose to keep our feet on the ground as steadily as we could after a bottle or two of the hotel's excellent house Beaujolais.
The next day, we headed North, stopping to check out the interesting medieval museum at Azincourt and the Notre Dame cathedral at Saint-Omer en route to the highlight of our second day, a boat tour on the marshes near the town of Salperwick. Here, at the Bon Accueil boatyard and restaurant, you can rent a boat powered by battery, motor or oars and head out into the marshlands to explore the myriad of little waterways that snake around the area. Take a picnic, find a shady tree to moor your boat and it's idyllic.
In the afternoon, we headed the Audi towards the town of Bergues, with lunch at the charismatic Le Bruegel restaurant, before driving on through the Monts des Flandres area to the beautiful Flanders castle town of Cassel. Set on top of a hill in the highest part of the region, the town is home to one of Northern France's most sought-after hotels, La Chatellerie de Schoebeque. From its balcony, you can see for miles, imagining the history, both good and bad, that unfolded across the carpet of green in front of you. When I'm in a place like this, I always try and find a local place to eat - somewhere the people would choose. 'Go to T'Kasteel'Hof', I was told, a small, unassuming restaurant to be found just below the town's highest lookout point. Here, from the highest tavern in Flanders, the owner Manu will entertain you with local stories while you eat specialities like his garden-grown courgettes and homemade pork and apple pie.
The next day, I must confess we had a lazy morning at La Chatellerie de Schoebeque. One of the pleasures of a trip to the Nord-Pas de Calais area is that it's so close to the UK that even on such a short 3/4-day trip as ours, you don't have to be on the road the whole time. We did rouse ourselves sufficiently to head 45 minutes up the road to the Compostelle restaurant in Lille for lunch however, and after a wander around the city's central Grand Place, we headed on a little further south to our last overnight stop in Valenciennes.
In contrast to the rural hotels we had tried previously, the Auberge du Bon Fermier is located directly near the centre of the city, within easy walking distance from a huge variety of fascinating shops. Yet, far from being the kind of modern establishment you would expect in such a place, it entertains its guests with the kind of setting that takes you a trip back several centuries.
Too soon, it was time to pack the Audi and once more head North for the trip home. Even at this, the southern-most point of our journey, we were only 90 minutes from the Calais Eurotunnel terminal. And from my home in Southern England, just a few hours from my front door. Now that I know just how much is so close, I'll be back.
Want to replicate this journey? Here's what you need to know...
The places to stay: La Cour de Remi - Bermicourt - www.lacourderemi.com
La Chatellerie de Schoebeque - www.schoebeque.com
Auberge du Bon Fermier - www.bonfermier.com
The places to visit: Chocolate factory in Beussent - www.choco-france.com
Azincourt (Agincourt) medieval museum -www.azincourt-medieval.com
Boating in the Salperwick marshes www.bonaccueil.com
The places to eat:Aquaraile restaurant Calais - www.aquaraile.com
Le Bruegel restaurant Bergues www.lebruegel.com
T'Kasteel'Hof restaurant Cassel - 03 28 40 59 29
General Information: www.realfrancerealclose.com / www.northernfrance-tourism.com