France for visitors

The North
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Northeast
Map of Northeast

Church of Montagny Sainte Félicité in Picardie : Click to enlarge picture
Montagny
When conjuring up exotic holiday locations, you're unlikely to light upon the north of France. Even among the French, the most enthusiastic tourists of their own country, it has few adherents. Largely flat Artois and Flanders include the most heavily industrialized parts of the country, these days hit by post-industrial depression, while across the wheat fields of the more sparsely populated regions of Picardy and Champagne a few drops of rain are all that is required for total gloom to descend. Coming from Britain it's likely, however, that you'll arrive and leave France via this region, and there are good reasons to stop within easy reach of Calais and the Channel Tunnel, even at Boulogne, by far the most appealing of the northern Channel ports. Just inland the delightful village of Cassel is a rare example of a Flemish hill settlement, while St-Omer is another strong contender in terms of charm and interest.

Northern France has been on the path of various invaders into the country, from northern Europe as well as from Britain, and the events that have taken place in Flanders, Artois and Picardy have shaped French history. The bloodiest battles were those of World War I, above all the Battle of the Somme, which took place north of Amiens, and Vimy Ridge, near Arras, where the trenches have been preserved in perpetuity.

On a more cheerful note Picardy boasts two of France's finest cathedrals, at Amiens and Laon. Further south, the wineries, vineyards and world-famous produce of the Champagne region are the main draw, for which the best bases are Épernay and Reims, the latter with another fine cathedral. Other attractions include the bird sanctuary of Marquenterre; the wooded wilderness of the Ardennes; industrial archeology in the coalfields around Douai, where Zola's Germinal was set; the great medieval castle of Coucy-le-Château; and the battle sites of the Middle Ages – Agincourt and Crécy – familiar names in the long history of Anglo-French rivalry.

Though the past is not forgotten, the present life of the region does not feed on it. In city centres from Lille to Troyes, you'll find your fill of food, culture and entertainment in the company of locals similarly intent on having a good time; and in addition to the more obvious pleasures of the Champagne region, there's the possibility of finding relatively lucrative employment during the harvest season towards the end of September.


Pages in section ‘North’: Champagne and the Ardennes, Aisne and Oise, Flemish cities, Channel ports, Food and drink, Travel details.

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