Essentially France

Ports are places to pass through, which is one good reason why Calais and the surrounding area have tended to lose out. Now, helped by the World War One commemorations, the full richness of which was once just Nord-Pas de Calais – but now along with Picardy forms Hauts de France – is gradually being recognised for its true worth.

What, for me, began with shopping visits plus a spin along the D940 coastal road for lunch in family-friendly Wimereux, led to more daring short breaks. Lille, Arras, Dunkirk and Le Touquet were more familiar starters – before heading for the rural bliss of the Seven Valleys in Pas de Calais or Godewaersvelde, a tongue twister of a village in Le Nord.

Ah yes, and Cassel: perched perkily on the top of Mont Cassel, this fortified town of cobbled streets and ridiculously ornate architecture was understandably voted France’s Favourite Village in 2018. And though a tall order, literally, Douai’s three day annual Giants Festival must surely rank as one of the most spectacular sights in France.

Despite all this, the ‘must sees’ of Picardy still remain relatively unsung, dominated understandably, but rather unfairly, by the Battle of the Somme. (See Essentially World War One Battlefields)

‘Saint Valery-sur- Somme on the edge of the Somme Estuary is where you will find arguably one of the most beautiful bays in the world “, says fellow travel writer Janine Marsh.

But then she shares my fascination for this delightfully bizarre slice of Northern France. Lille has shaken off its industrial decline to become not just European Capital of Culture in 2004 but a major centre for culture and festivals, while a former mining yard is home to the stunning Louvre Lens .

In sharp contrast the Audomarois Marshes of St Omer match the considerable chocolate box charm of Le Cateau- Cambrésis and the surrounding countryside beloved by the artist Matisse: his renovated 18th century lace museum contains the third largest collection of his works.

Top this off with some of the best in French and Flemish cuisine, including great beer, and you have the perfect cross-Channel cocktail.

Cheers …

(Header photograph – Grand ‘Place, Arras: home to gabled shops and cafes)