A stylish resort on the Canche Estuary with 12km of beautiful clean white sandy beaches, many surrounded by pine forests.
King Edward VIII, when he was Prince of Wales, entertained here and made Paris-Plage (Le Touquet’s nickname) fashionable. Full of Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings, with 2 casinos, horse racing, golf, thalassotherapy seawater treatments centre, lively nightlife and Paris boutiques, Le Touquet is a very sophisticated resort.
Its superb beaches have a variety of water and sand sports and seafront swimming complex. There is a full programme of summertime activities including the annual sand sculpture festival, each year featuring a different theme. For a wilder landscape, try the stunning North Beach. Le Touquet’s Thursday and Saturday markets (Mondays too in summer) are well worth a visit. ‘Bagatelle’ at nearby Merlimont is a great children’s amusement park.
On chalk cliffs facing the English Channel, Boulogne has been a cross-Channel port since before Emperor Claudius set sail from here to conquer Britain.
Boulogne owes its importance to fishing and is still one of the largest fishing ports in France. Discover lots of tempting seafood restaurants and buy fresh fish in the quayside market.
Explore the attractive medieval quarter - ‘ville haute’ - walk its old town walls and visit the cathedral of Notre Dame with the biggest dome in Europe. In the crypt are canon balls dating back to Henry VIII’s capture of Boulogne in 1544. The ‘ville basse’ has plenty of good shopping including some great patisseries and charcuteries.
Boulogne is also an attractive seaside resort and many visitors head to the Nausicaa Sea-life Centre containing 50 aquariums, terrariums and pools with over 35,000 sea animals. Outside the town, a huge monument and statue of Napoleon commemorate the gathering of his army here in 1803 ‘for an invasion of Britain which never took place’.
One of the prettiest towns in northern France renowned for its tapestries in the Middle Ages, which were sold to decorate the homes of the wealthy throughout France. The museum houses a beautiful tapestry fragment depicting St Vaast taming a wild bear. Almost destroyed during WWI, the departmental capital, was stylishly reconstructed. Visit the caves dug more than 1,000 years ago which have sheltered refugees from various conflicts including WWI. An important stop on any battlefield tour is the war cemetery, and the memorial outside the town designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens is a moving commemoration to missing soldiers.
Less than 40km from England across the Straits of Dover (Pas de Calais if you’re French), Calais is often referred to by the French as a very English town. In fact, it was occupied by the English for almost 200 years after being seized by Edward III in 1347 - commemorated in the town by Rodin’s famous statue of the 6 burghers.
Geography has ensured Calais’ place in history as an important port. Julius Caesar, Richard the Lion Heart, Henry VIII and the first cross-Channel Swimmer – Captain Web - have all embarked from or landed here. Place Bleriot commemorates pilot Louis Bleriot’s first cross-Channel flight in 1909 and there are panoramic views of the English coast from the lighthouse at place Henri-Barbusse.
WWII left the town in ruins and today it is best known for out-of-town shopping at places like Cite Europe with supermarkets, outlets and restaurants. Alternatively, re-built Calais-Nord offers traditional charcutiers, wine merchants, cheese shops and more near place d’Armes. Have fun wandering around the Wednesday and Saturday morning markets here which sell everything from traditional fish soup to flower bulbs watched over by medieval Tour du Guet.
Calais is an important producer of fine lace. Don’t miss the new Cite Internationale de la Dentelle et de la Mode lace museum in an old lace factory. Trace the fascinating history of how nineteenth century Nottingham lace makers risked death to smuggle industrial looms from England. Designer lace dresses and lingerie from the seventeenth century onwards are amongst many exhibits. Tel: (00 33) 3 21 00 42 30 and see www.cite-dentelle.fr
The WWII museum in a German ‘blockhaus’ in Parc St-Pierre provides a moving experience. 13km away in Bourbourg, British architect and sculptor Anthony Caro has created an uplifting Chapel of Light from ruins at Eglise Saint-Jean de Baptiste where a damaged English aircraft crash-landed on the church roof during the same conflict.
The urban architecture of Bethune’s Grand Place finds traditional redbrick Flemish rubbing shoulders with Art Deco. This thriving ex-mining town on the edge of the Artois hills was 90% destroyed during WWI. A period of rebuilding, mainly in the 1920s and 30s, resulted in this diverse mix. Bethune’s only important historic building to survive is its fourteenth century stone belfry with 32 bells which peal on the hour. The belfry is now listed and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Modern Bethune has acquired a name as a luxury shopping venue showcasing the best in interior design, designer fashion and gourmet food. December visitors will find Bethune transformed into Christmas town with markets, shows and animations for children.
Land around scarred by 150 years of heavy mining has been turned into green spaces with country parks and places for sporting activities including walking, mountain biking and horse riding. At Loisinord, Noeux-les-Mines, there are lake watersports and even two 300m dry ski slopes created from an old slag heap. Open all year. For details tel: (00 33) 3 21 26 84 84
This attractive market town beside the River Aa grew up around a Benedictine monastery founded by Bishop Omer, a seventh century missionary monk. (See Geography, Audomarois marshlands). Saint-Omer became a prosperous port in medieval times and work began on Notre Dame Cathedral worth a visit for its beautiful thirteenth – sixteenth century Gothic architecture, painting of Christ by Rubens and amazing sixteenth century astrological clock.
Listen to concerts in Saint-Omer’s 20 acre park and discover the history of local ceramics in the Sandelin Museum. An impressive nineteenth century town hall dominates central place Foch where Saint-Omer’s Saturday morning market offers an amazing array of wonderful freshly-picked vegetables, many brought in by flat-bottomed boat. There’s also an annual flower market in May and flea market in September.
Out of town trips should include the beautiful marshlands and amazing vertical boat lift, Les Fontinettes, built in 1887 on the Neufosse Canal at Arques. There has been a crystal glass factory in Arques since 1827. See how glass is produced on a tour ending with a visit to the factory shop.
Hesdin on the edge of the Crecy Forest boasts a magnificent town hall in Spanish style built originally as a home for Spanish Emperor Charles V’s sister. The original fortified French town was fought over by France and Spain during the Middle Ages and was completely destroyed in1553 by order of Charles V who had it rebuilt on its present site astride the River Canache.
Pretty bridges cross the river. On Thursdays, a bustling market is held in place d’Armes around Hesdin’s sixteenth century church of Notre Dame and spilling into surrounding cobbled streets; just the place to look for fresh farm produce or a hot snack.
Sites of 2 of the fiercest Anglo-French battles of the Middle Ages are located nearby.
The site of Crecy (south west of Hesdin and just across the border into Somme) only has a watchtower, Moulin Eduard III, to mark Edward III’s defeat of the French in 1346 using the new English longbow and gunpowder for the first time. The battle was the beginning of the Anglo-French Hundred Years War.
In 1415, Henry V routed a larger but less mobile army to the north east at Agincourt, close to the present day Azincourt. Discover more about the famous battle including a film at the museum in the village - open daily. Notices on the battle-site give strategic information.
The picturesque hill-top town of Montreuil was once a wealthy trading port. Now the town’s steep cobbled streets stand 14km from the sea due to silting up of the River Canache. After the port declined, Montreuil became a coaching stop en route from Paris to Calais.
Ask at the town’s Tourist Office about guided tours through the network of old half-timbered houses which inspired Victor Hugo as a setting for part of his famous novel, ‘Les Miserables’. Find terrific views from Montreuil’s medieval ramparts which date from its days as a frontier town with Spanish Flanders. Visit Vauban’s Citadel (open daily Mar – mid Dec) and the eleventh century Abbey Church of St-Saulve.
A statue of Sir Douglas Haig in place de Gaulle is a reminder that the British commander-in-chief made his headquarters here during WWI.
Enjoy the flowers, go kayaking on the river, sample excellent restaurants and have fun at summer festivals that include outdoor theatre, dance and cinema.