Like the song by Pierre Bachelet goes, "In the North there were the miners' houses". This was once the case but since at least the middle of the 20th century it can no longer be said that this region is the place of mines, coal, greyness and poverty. Although Germinal is a splendid socialist novel by Zola, it should be pointed out that it dates to the late 19th century. Unfortunately, the image it conveys remains anchored in the minds of many people who have never visited the region.
However, contrary to what one might think, Nord-Pas-de-Calais is one of the most visited regions in France. Although some of the French like to make fun of the 'ch'tis' and their accent, there are many who eagerly come here to attend the famous carnivals of Lille and Dunkirk. What's more, it's true that the people of the North "hold in their hearts the sun that is missing outside" and this really shows during these great festivals. Despite living in a climate which is not exactly forgiving, the people of this region give a sense of welcome and friendship unlike any other.
Lille, the capital of Flanders, and Arras are a concentration of this spirit alone but also of the architectural wealth of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Between the Flemish houses (155 in Arras), the belfries, and the lively squares, the principle cities of the North offer a breath of fresh air with their youth, energy, culture and conviviality right across the region.
Indeed, this is demonstrated in their 'Belle Epoque' resorts which border the English Channel, like Touquet or Merlimont, with their casinos, their villas and their luxury hotels, but also by their large port cities (Calais and Dunkirk).
In fact, the entire coast in this northern area of France is magnificent. Between the Flemish dunes, the Côte d'Opale, the Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez capes, and Platier d'Oye, the landscape offers striking scenery with a blend of sea, white sand, marine birds and lighting that has fascinated many painters.
Surface area : 12414.0 km2
Population : 4089000 inhabitants
Maroilles cheese is believed to have been invented by the monks at Maroilles Abbey in 960. A decree dating back to 1245 ordered farmers to transform the milk produced by their livestock into cheese on the 24th of June (St. John the Baptist's day) and then to hand over the cheese to the Abbey's clerk on the 1st of October (St. Rémy's day). The result, which came to be known as 'La Merveille de Maroilles' (the 'Marvel of Maroilles'), was enjoyed by Charles V and Henry IV, and is considered to be one of the best strong cheeses. This soft cheese made from cows' milk is covered with a rind that is brushed and washed, and then matured for up to 4 months in the cellars of Thiérache (whose specific atmosphere are ideal for producing a unique type of flora) where 'Brevibacterium linens' (or 'red smear') bacterai grow, modifying the flavour and aroma of the cheese. In 1955, Maroilles was given its own 'Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée', a controlled designation of origin restricting the manufacture of the cheese to one area of Thiérache (from the Avesnes district in the south to the Vervins district in the north). It can be enjoyed hot, in a Flamiche pie, or in a sauce to accompany meat, poultry, and fish, but it is of course best enjoyed as the star addition to any cheeseboard. Indeed, as the old Maroilles brotherhood saying goes: "Evil unto he who claims to lay an honest table without Maroilles".
The Belgian endive was discovered quite by chance a century and a half ago in the Brussels region. It was introduced to France around 1920 by Belgian seasonal workers, and since then the Nord-Pas de Calais region has become the world's leading endive-producing region. With 190,000 tons grown annually, it provides 83% of France's Belgian endive crop and 50% of its worldwide production. The roots of the endive, which are also known as 'carrots', are grown in the fields from May to November. They are then kept in a cold room, before being moved into a warm and humid atmosphere that triggers the growth of the endive. Endives can be eaten raw (in a salad) or cooked (in a gratin, quiche, or soup), and feature in many recipes, including pan-fried endives, scallops with endive and barley, autumn endive pie caramelised with soft brown sugar, etc.
Garlic from the north
In Arleux, near Douai, garlic production is a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Locon, which is located between Béthune and Merville, is the second centre of production. The garlic is planted in winter and harvested in August. The bulbs are pulled out of the ground and left to dry in the fields for a few days before being collected, cleaned, plaited into bunches, and hung up to dry. This is done by smoking them over a fire of sawdust, marsh peat, and straw. The garlic is mainly used as a condiment, and is also used as an ingredient in a number of regional dishes, for example, fried zander fillet with smoked garlic cream and garlic soup.
Waffles are a speciality shared by the Nord-Pas de Calais region and Belgium. They come in many shapes and sizes, including: stroopwafels, Liège waffles (thick and made using lumps of pearl sugar), waffles with holes, Belgian waffles, and hard waffles (small, dry, circular waffles made by pressing little balls of waffle dough in an iron with a fine honeycomb pattern). This wide range is matched only by the great variety of toppings and fillings, for example, sugar, chocolate, preserves, whipped cream, maple syrup, etc.
This 'prince of fish', or even 'king of fish', is an essential part of the northern European diet. In the Middle Ages, its absence from the fishmonger's stalls was a sign of hard times, and it was long used as a form of currency or given as a gift. The salting, smoking, and drying techniques used to transform the herring in Boulogne-sur-Mer are ancient, and the combinations produced offer an impressive range of products: salted herring stored in special barrels; smoked herring - salted, soaked, and smoked; 'gendarme' herring (because of its stiffness) - salted for at least 9 days; 'bouffi' or 'craquelot' herring - a whole, lightly smoked herring; kippers - whole herrings, salted and lightly smoked; rollmops - marinated in vinegar and served on a cocktail stick, rolled around onion rings; buckling herring - salted for a few hours then hot-smoked; and small herrings - served as pilchards in tomato sauce. Thanks to these many different types of preparation, chefs can concoct dishes like sweet herring fillets on potatoes, cream of split pea soup with sweet-smoked herring, and even herring cakes. The importance this fish has in the region is illustrated in February, during the carnival, when it is traditional for kippers to be thrown from the town hall out into the crowd.
One shouldn't put too much trust in preconceived notions. Nord-Pas-de-Calais is not exactly the grey region that others would have you believe.
Although you may be advised to take an umbrella with you if you are going on holiday in Nord-Pas-De-Calais, that doesn't mean you have to avoid France's northern region like the plague. The climate may not always be mild (because no, it isn't the south either), but that doesn't mean that all it ever does is rain.
It is also far from the idea of a region where the mines are responsible for the atmosphere. Plenty of tourists have already found this out and do not hesitate to come on holiday here, but unfortunately this idea is still quite widespread.
Although any time of the year is good for visiting Lille, the best might be during carnival or its "Grande Braderie" (an annual street market). During these events, (the Dunkirk Carnival included), the welcoming, convivial and festive spirit of the people in the North really reaches its climax.
To best take advantage of these events, we recommend that you book your accommodation early. With every passing year, these festive periods attract more and more tourists from all over France (and even from bordering countries), meaning that the hotels are fully booked at these times.
Located an hour and twenty minutes from London, the capital of Flanders has increasingly become a weekend destination. It is true that this city's ambiance, cultural heritage and sites have what it takes to charm visitors. From London we recommend you take the Eurostar and leave your car behind for a few days. Lille can easily, and pleasantly, be discovered on foot, which means you don't have to worry about finding a parking space.
They may be less popular than their neighbours in Normandy, but the small coastal resorts here (Touquet, Merlimont, etc.) have just as much charm. Less urbane, more affordable and with fewer tourists, they are good places to spend a pleasant weekend by the sea in a "Belle Epoque" setting, with their vast beaches ideal for invigorating walks all while avoiding the crowds of rich Parisians who flock to Deauville.