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Photo of Douai : Click to enlarge picture
Right at the heart of mining country, 40km south of Lille, and badly damaged in both world wars, DOUAI is a surprisingly attractive and lively town, its handsome streets of eighteenth-century houses cut through by both the River Scarpe and a canal. Once a haven for English Catholics fleeing Protestant oppression in Tudor England, Douai later became the seat of Flemish local government under Louis XIV, an aristocratic past evoked in the novels of Balzac.

Centre of activity is the nondescript place d'Armes, while rue de la Mairie, leading west, is overlooked by the massive Gothic belfry of the Hôtel de Ville, popularized by Victor Hugo and renowned for its carillon of 62 bells – the largest single collection in Europe. It rings every 15 minutes, and there are hour-long concerts every Saturday at 10.45am, on public holidays at 11am, and in summer on Monday at 9pm (hourly guided tours: July & Aug daily 10–11am & 2–5pm; Sept–June Mon–Sat 2–5pm, Sun 10am, 11am, 3pm & 5pm; €3.50).

One block north of the town hall, on rue Bellegambe, is an outrageous Art Nouveau facade fronting a very ordinary haberdashery store. At the end of the street, rising above the old town, are the Baroque dome and tower of the church of St-Pierre, an immense, mainly eighteenth-century church with – among other treasures – a spectacular carved Baroque organ case. East of the place d'Armes, Douai's oldest church, the twelfth-century church of Notre-Dame, suffered badly in the last war but has been refreshingly modernized inside. Beyond the church is the better of the town's two surviving medieval gateways, the Porte Valenciennes, now the centre of a triumphal roundabout. With the exception of the 1970s extension to the old Flemish Parliament building, the riverfront west of the town hall is pleasant to wander along. Between the river and the canal to the west, on rue de Chartreux, the Ancienne Chartreuse has been converted into a wonderful museum (Mon & Wed–Sat 10am–noon & 2–5pm, Sun 10am–noon & 3–6pm; €3), with a fine collection of paintings by Flemish, Dutch and French masters, including Van Dyck, Jordaens, Rubens and Douai's own Jean Bellegambe. The adjacent chapel, magnificently converted in 2001, shows off to full effect an array of sculptures including a poignant Enfant prodige by Rodin.

The gare SNCF is a five-minute walk from the centre – from the station head left down avenue Maréchal Leclerc, then right onto the place d'Armes. The tourist office (May–Oct Mon–Sat 10am–1pm & 2–7pm, Sun 3–6pm; Nov–April Mon–Sat 10am–12.30pm & 2–6.30pm; tel, is within the fifteenth-century Hôtel du Dauphin, on the square. For accommodation there's the Hôtel au Grand Balcon, on place Carnot (tel; €30–40), or the better Le Grand Cerf, 46 rue St-Jacques (tel, fax; €40–55). A far classier option is La Terrasse, a swanky four-star in the narrow terrasse St-Pierre (tel, fax; €55–70), to one side of the church of St-Pierre; its restaurant is well regarded, with menus from €24.

Just northeast of the place d'Armes is the post office, from where buses leave for Lewarde (Line #1 orange).

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