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Touring Nord-Pas de Calais - the Land behind the Channel Ports

on 07 June 2012.

Alastair McKenzie explores the historic region of France closest to Britain.

Fruites de mer

You have to feel a bit sorry for Nord-Pas de Calais. It's a region that feels a little un-loved and quite abused.

Actually, it's not so much a 'region' as a 'route' because throughout history, people and armies have mostly passed through. Nobody stops there, unless it's a pause 'en route' or to prevent somebody else's army from passing through!

I too, have only passed through - rushing from the cross-channel ports onto the autoroute and heading off for Paris, or the Loire, or elsewhere - and I realised that I know of only three people who have actually spent any time in Nord-Pas de Calais. The main reason for that was, they all live or lived in Kent and viewed a visit to Nord-Pas de Calais as a simple excusion to the next county.

Of course it helps that the county next door has cuisine from a different world! One of my friends used to work for a ferry company in Dover and had a staff concession, so he would finish work in the evening, hop over to Calais or Boulogne for his dinner and be back at home at 11.00pm. "It's a frame of mind" he told me. Another, John Ruler, was so concerned that most Brits pass straight through Nord-Pas de Calais and have little or no idea what treasures are right there "on our doorstep", he decided to write the definitive guide - Cross Channel France, Nord-Pas de Calais: The Land Beyond the Ports (Bradt).

"Am I the only travel writer", he writes in the opening, "to recognise that Calais is not Nord-Pas de Calais any more than Dover is representative of the whole of Kent?"

So, I stopped for a few days, and explored a little.

Villa in Le TouquetI've always wanted to visit Le Touquet ever since I heard it described as an elegant seaside town in the 1920s and 30s, and so easy to get to. Turn right off the ferry at Calais and 40 mins later you are crossing over the estuary bridge from Etaples and driving down the long fir tree lined road into town with open-lawned summer houses and the smell of sand in the air. It reminds me of the Bournemouth chines or Poole's Sandybanks.

This year Le Touquet, or as it is known more formerly 'Le Touquet - Paris Plage', is celebrating its 100th anniversary (of being signed as a municipality) so there is much sprucing up going on. Sadly not along the long seafront promenade which is lined with huge 1960s style holiday apartment blocks that, shuttered for the winter months, looked a little bleak in late Jan. However the town centre on the Sunday afternoon when we arrived was very much open for business and busy with families strolling down to the beach.

The beach at Le Touquet landscaped for the EnduropaleLe Touquet is on the promontory at the mouth of the river Canche. So the huge sandy beach actually wraps itself around the town with one stretch lining the estuary bank and the other running along the coast. The coastal stretch at the end of January looks more like the Somme with miles of gullies, hills and tracks JCB'd into shape for one of Le Touquet's biggest annual events, the Enduropale race meeting for Motocross and Quad bikes. Up to a quarter of a million spectators line the promenade to watch hundreds of riders slide, jump and spray sand everywhere as they race furiously over the beach.

It's funny how these things start. In the sixties young bikers, no doubt to extreme annoyance of the locals & visitors, started noisily tearing about on the sand - I bet the council launched a frenzy of 'interdit' notice posting - and now it's their biggest money-spinning event! The guy who in 1975 persuaded them to allow a proper racing event out of season, Thierry Sabine (he died in a helicopter crash in 1986), now has several streets and buildings name after him!

Le Touquet's traditional activities - golf, horse-riding & yachting - belie its more refined heritage. This is where Parisien and British high society used to stay in stylish holiday villas and gamble in the grand casino.

"You know why it's called the Westminster Hotel don't you?", asked the third of my 'Nord-Pas de Calais'-familiar friends, as we stood in the lobby of Le Touquet's grandest hotel. "When the Duke of Westminster was having his discreet liaison with Coco Chanel he would sail over on his yacht, moor it just there in the estuary, and meet her here".

Photos of past celebrities at the Westminster hotel, Le TouquetRoyal patronage has always worked wonders for business. The corridor to the breakfast room is lined with signed photos of the great, the good and the wealthy, from royalty to film stars, who have stayed here... and shunned the grand staircase, to step, looking no doubt sweetly innocent, into the wonderful wooden cabins of the elegantly gated lifts that quietly lifted them to their amorous assignations upstairs.

There's something else rather interesting in the corridor of photos. My dad used to say "it's always a good sign if a restaurant lets you see into the kitchen". The Westminster has a Michelin 1-star restaurant run by Champérard Chef of the Year 2009, William Elliot, with a large viewing window from that corridor.

Up the coast, pretty much halfway between Le Touquet and Calais, lies the other Channel gateway, Boulonge. Only these days it's not much of a gateway. Last year the only remaining service between Dover-Boulogne closed, leaving the town looking a little bereft. It's a big blow too for Boulogne's key attraction, Nausicaa. Of the well over 12 million visitors to Nausicaa since it opened in 1991, 11.8% were Brits. In one fell swoop that revenue stream has dried to a trickle.

This was my second visit to Nausicaa and I was pleased to return. You can't call it an aquarium - it's the "National Sea Centre" - but TBH that's essentially what it is! Big and labyrinthine, it's easy to lose your sense of direction and certain to make you feel, when you come to leave, that you've probably missed a third of it. Nevertheless it's stuffed full with 35,000 interesting marine life exhibits from stunning tropical fish to mini sharks & sea lions, and has plenty of worthy displays on man's interaction, benign and malign, with the oceans. The strong message at every turn is green and sustainable, and sustainability even makes its way into the restaurants where somehow it seems appropriate, in an in-appropriate sort of way, to eat excellent tasty fish!

Furthermore the fish on those menus is selected 'appropriately' too because one of Nausicaa's long-running campaigns is Mr Goodfish, whose purpose is to teach young French enfants which fish can be sustainably caught for their dinner. If there is one species most definitely not endangered it is, les enfants. Great shoals of them sweep through the dark tank-lined spaces of Nausicaa continuously - with their schools in the weekdays, and with their families on weekends and holidays. That's exactly as it should be (there's nothing more satisfying than the enraptured faces of youngsters who've just discovered that they can step up to the glass domes mounted in the ceiling of one room and peer out under the water of the lagoon above), but if you want a quiet moment to study the marine life at Nausicaa, it would be best to get there first or last thing.

V2 rocket at La CoupoleHaving a quiet moment to study exhibits was exactly what I enjoyed (we just happened to hit a quiet moment) at another popular site, La Coupole.

La Coupole is the huge V2 rocket factory and would-be launch site built by the Germans during World War 2 in a quarry and capped off with a huge reinforced concrete dome ceiling 5.5m thick, designed to shrug off even the biggest bombs. You can see where Ian Fleming and Cubby Broccoli got their inspiration. This is exactly the sort of place you might expect to find Donald Pleasance sitting in an egg chair stroking a white cat. Only the reality was a lot less glamorous for the forced labourers who worked and died here. In the end, under continuous allied bombing, the Germans had to give up. Not one rocket was completely assembled, fuelled, wheeled out on tracks and launched from here.

Now La Coupole serves as a museum with space given over to technical exhibits of aerospace & rocketry, life & death in the concentration camps, life & death for French civilians under German occupation, and the history of the site itself. I'm a geek, so I loved having plenty of time to study everything there. Including a reconstruction of a V2 rocket motor and a really good video explanation of how it worked. Look at the engine of any rocket on a launch pad today and it will look pretty much the same.

Five kilometres away, across the flat plains where the Luftwaffe bombers took off from their airfields to bomb England (fighter ace, Adolf Galland's squadron was based here too) and perched on a small hill is the old town of St Omer.

During the medieval age it was a rich and successful trading town making good use of its access to the sea along a few miles of dredged river. Given its location, it is amazing how many buildings, especially 17-18th century, survived the attentions of the First & Second World Wars. The slightly neglected building that most caught my eye after it was pointed out to me was the former WW2 hospital, down whose walls the tin-legged Sdn Ldr Douglas Bader climbed using knotted bedsheets in an attempt to escape.

 former hospital in St Omer that Douglas Bader escaped fromUsually a famous moment like that (well, for the Brits!) is enough to turn an unused building into a museum. There's not much for WW2-interested tourists in St Omer. They could use a museum to tell the story of the nearby Luftwaffe airfields, which are just agricultural land now, not least because Douglas Bader was entertained by Adolf Galland's squadron while he was recovering in St Omer. Failing that, the tourist office in St Omer might consider a Douglas Bader walking tour tracing the (painful) steps of his attempted escape, or at the very least a mural of him climbing down the wall! (Somebody phone Banksy!)

A few miles north of St Omer and close to the Belgian border is the village of Esquelbecq. In a field on its outskirts is a memorial to approximately 80 British soldiers who were captured by an SS regiment while trying to defend the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the beaches at Dunkerque, and then slaughtered. They had been put in a cow shed at a place called La Plaine au Bois. Grenades were thrown in, and those who didn't die were taken outside and shot. The massacre was witnessed by two survivors and the daughter of the farmer whose land it was on.

The site is now a memorial, kept by the locals and British veterans. The original barn was destroyed in 1960 but an identical replica was built on the spot in 2001. Forty oak trees were planted by the veterans of Birmingham and a belvedere (mound) was built from the mud excavated from a nearby pond while searching for the body of one attempted escapee. The landscape is flat and hedge-less so the view from the belvedere is quite extensive and explained with an orientation map.

Chapel of Light, Bourbourg. Before & after photosFollowing the retreat of the BEF to Dunkerque, we stopped for lunch in the ancient town of Bourbourg. It's 11th century church Saint-Jean-Baptiste was a French historic monument until three days before the Plaine au Bois massacre, when a downed Luftwaffe plane crashed nearby spilling aviation fuel over the church and setting it on fire. The nave was restored in 1955, but the choir area was sealed off by a brick wall and left derelict.

In 1997 the British artist, Sir Anthony Caro, was commissioned to restore the eastern end of the church as a work of creative art - the Chapel of Light. The resulting modernist alters, baptismal font, tableaux and towering pulpits pieces, are dramatic and stuffed with symbolism. Visiting the Chapel of Light is a bit like an act of worship. You have to put special cloth covers over your shoes to protect the floor and are pretty much expected to gap in awe and wonderment. I certainly like the Chapel of Light, but I'm not sure the local congregation have gained much - it is still separated from the nave, now by a frosted glass wall!

Dunkirk beachTo say the beach at Dunkerque is large is an understatement. At low water it is vast and even at highwater it stretches for miles along the coast into Belgium. Of course there's nothing to see of the conflict here in May 1940 during Operation Dynamo, except the almost disappeared wreck of one of the ships involved at low water, and a few bullet holes in old buildings.

I was struck by how fine the sand is, especially up in the dunes where is is less compacted and really tiring to walk through. Pity the bedraggled and exhausted remnants of the BEF who were trying to hide from the German aircraft bombing and straffing the beach. 400,000 soldiers ended up in the port of Dunkerque and on its beach. Over 9 days, 340,000 were rescued by around 1,400 British and French vessels.

Wrecked Merlin aero engine at Dunkirk MuseumThere's an excellent museum in the 19th century harbour fortifications, with a rich collection of photographs, maps, models, weapons, equipment and other items. It's very much worth visiting if you are interested in the events of 1940.

For Brits, Dunkerque is inextricably associated with those events, but the port city is worth visiting just for itself. It may not be the prettiest in France - remember, it was bombed relentlessly during Operation Dynamo - but it is a university town and it has a real buzz about it. Take a stroll around the dock area where the tall ship 'Duchesse Anne' and 'Le Sandettie' light ship are moored as permanent floating exhibits of the Maritime Museum, and enjoy a meal in the cafe's, restaurants and bars in the area.

Just don't ask who the large statue of a dashing pirate is, in the centre of town. With great glee they'll tell you he is a local hero, Jean Beart, - scourge of English navy!

Factbox *

The Region: Nord-Pas-de-Calais is one of the 27 'Regions' of France and it comprises two 'Departments': Nord (literally 'North', the northernmost department of France) and Pas-de-Calais ('Strait of Calais', IE. the Strait of Dover ...from a French perspective). Clearly the concatenation brings about a hyphen overload, so the official name has just one hyphen: Nord-Pas de Calais

Tourist Offices

Accommodation

On my trip I stayed at...
  • Westminster Hotel, Le Touquet. The town's grandest hotel comes with a Michelin starred restaurant.
  • Hotel Château Tilques, Tilques nr St Omer. Traditional chateau with modern blocks for families and conventions in the grounds. Part of the Najeti group.
  • All Suites Appart Hôtel, Dunkirk. A new appart hotel right on the quayside in the middle of the university.

More photos from the trip here

* Normally the 'Factbox' is not sponsored. (I commission journalists to write travel articles and supply a factbox because I think it is useful information.) In this case though, it is me writing it and I should declare that I was on a press trip although under no obligation to publish.

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