Nord-Pas de Calais is a border land, which has for neighbours Belgium and the French region of Picardy. The north coast of the region faces the English Channel and the North sea. Its geographical position, along with a very developed transport system, have certainly contributed to the fact that the region is a very industrious one. Locals are proud of its strength, cultures and they are open to all trade. The region has also a rich ethnic diversity which is marked by the use of regional languages such as the Ch’ti or Flemish.
The region was a land of invasion back in days, and there is a certain spirit of resistance which is still expressed on the ramparts of every fortified town and port, in the thirteen citadels in Vauban’s Square Field, in the immense First World War battlefields and in the giant blockhouses of the Second World War.
Nord-Pas de Calais has an undeniable pride which is marked by its belfries with giant spires of stone and brick dominating the towns and cities (more than 15 of them are listed as UNESCO World heritage site). Today more than thirty arts museums bear witness to the wealth of regional styles with their famous collections and works by no less famous local artists such as Rubens, Matisse and Carpeaux.
Nord-Pas de Calais is the ultimate destination to visit Northern France and discover its local festivals, belfries, beer, art, natural coastline and hospitable population. From Brussels, you can reach Lille, the gateway city of Nord-Pas de Calais, in just 35 minutes by train. From London or Paris, the train will take you there in about 1 hour.
With its trendy bars and contemporary exhibitions, Lille will offer you a new experience every time you visit it.
Train stations being the gateways to the city, you’ll either get off the train at Lille-Europe or Lille-Flandres, both of which have connections with the Lille metro system. A few metres away, you’ll find yourself in the fabulous Grand Place amidst buildings marked by the Flemish architecture. It is the ideal place to relax on a café terrace, bask yourself in the local atmosphere and absorb the buzz of this vibrant city. Have a look at the Vieille Bourse (Old stock exchange) which was built in 1652 and undoubtly the town’s finest building. From the Grand Place, you can succumb to the retail temptations of the boutiques located in the pedestrian district, a short stroll away.
Amateurs of fine arts will be delighted to visit the Palais des Beaux Arts, which is France most important museum after the Louvre and where you will have a panorama of Europe’s best artistic creations from the 12th to the 20th century. Afterwards, you can head to visit other equally interesting museums or one of Lille’s majestic churches.The best way to have a glimpse of everything in a day, is to buy a city card or take a minibus tour which will allow you to see other wonders such as the Hospice Comptesse Museum, Saint Maurice’s Church and the Citadel.
After a day’s visit, try the local gastronomy in a Estaminet where you’ll eat and drink heartily. If you want to have a treat, the L’Huitrière will suit you. On the menu, you will have the best fish, oysters and shellfish of the region. Don’t forget to taste the marouille cheese.
Our tip: Every year during the month of September, more than 2.5 million visitors flock in to the Braderie de Lille, Europe’s biggest flea market. Over a 100 km of stalls, 10,000 vendors and a yearly contest between them to see which one can build the highest pile of empty mussel shells, make this event an unavoidable event. Don’t forget to have a traditional dish of mussels and chips if you are there!
Lille > Roubaix
Take the metro line 2 to Roubaix, a shopping paradise located a few kilometres away from Lille. Spend the first half of the day there and you will find that Roubaix is a place where nothing is done in the same way as elsewhere. You’ll find a museum in a swimming pool, you’ll have lunch in a factory, and you will shop in designers boutiques and factory shops. Indeed, La Piscine – Museum of Roubaix Art and Industry, will allow you to plunge in the most beautiful swimming pool of France. As for the fashion addicts, they will find themselves in a shopper’s paradise. Don’t resist the discount stores of L’Usine or designer boutiques of Mac Arthur Glen. After your shopping spree, head back to Lille.
Lille > Calais > Boulogne sur Mer
Take the TER from Lille-Flandres to Calais (1h26 trip), a small but well known town tucked between the sea and the countryside. Due to its location, Calais is the privileged crossing point between the continental Europe and Britain. It is at the heart of a very dense transport network of motorways, sea links, high speed rail lines and the Channel Tunnel.
Have a look at the City hall and The Burghers of Calais, which are located in the heart of the city. The building of the City hall was designed by architect Louis Debrouwer, who pioneered the use of reinforced concrete. The general architecture of this monument is based on Flemish Neo-Renaissance style with Tudor details. Its 75-metre-high belfry is listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO. As for the The Burghers of Calais, it is one of the most famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin, completed in 1889 and which serves to recognize the sacrifice of a few braves at a time when Calais was under siege by the English for over a year.
On a much lighter note, you can visit the lighthouse of Calais. Built in 1845, the building has withstood the bombardments of World War II. Today, the 58-metre high structure towers over the town and offers a splendid panorama of the sea, the town itself and the countryside.
In the afternoon, take the train to Boulogne sur Mer (25 min trip), a town which has the power to astonish and seduce those who’ve never visited it before. Indeed Boulogne sur Mer is a town of art and history - The upper town is home to a 12th century belfry, superb 13th century ramparts, an imposing cathedral and a medieval crypt. You can also visit the Nausicaa, the National Sea Centre of France, where you will have an unforgettable look beneath the waves. End the day by a stroll on the harbour front and why not take your bag to buy smoked fish!
Boulogne sur Mer being a fishing port, you’ll be served fresh seafood in one of the restaurants of the town. So don’t miss out the opportunity to taste a delicious fish for diner.
Boulogne sur Mer > Arras
On the fourth day, head to the beautiful town of Arras (1h40 trip), famous for its architectural charm and recognised as a World Heritage by UNESCO. Its baroque squares encircled by typical Flemish houses reconstructed after the Second World War, its belfry that offers an exceptional view over the city and its pentagonal citadel are witness of its architectural charm.
There is a site worthy of a visit when in Arras – The Wellington Quarry. It is an underground site filled with memories and emotion. Visit it and share the experience of thousands of soldiers who were stationed below ground before the terrible 1917 offensive. You will discover how the soldiers lived 20 metres below ground and then, come out of this shelter to discover the shock that was the Battle of Arras.
Arras > Lens
In just 12 minutes from Arras, you’ll be in Lens, a town known for its Art Deco architecture as well as its enthusiastic football fans. Lens is a shining example of urban regeneration. The town was the hub of a major mining area for 150 years. Now former pit buildings have become cultural centres.
A major novelty awaits you in 2012. After the evergreen London and Paris, which are famed for their art galleries, 2012 will welcome a new kid on the block. The city of Lens will be home to the next Louvre Museum, sister of the famous Louvre in Paris. More than 300 objects will be on display at the new Louvre-Lens.
From Lens you take the train back to Lille or Paris to continue your visit in France.