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travel : North France


Intro
France is both loved and hated. The Freedom Fries set in the USA took an independant stance by Jacques Chirac (who had an approval rating in France at that time of 98%) as a mortal insult but the great international diplomat that is G.W. Bush is now a lame duck president on his way out the door. Freedom Fries people, nevertheless, won't be travelling beyond their next town anytime soon. The following guide, by our editor, John Littler, is for "les autres".

This is being written on a French high speed train (TGV) after almost two weeks of strike action - an unlikely time for tourists! Still, if you'd flown in to a minor city and hired a car, and stayed away from Paris, you would have been fine.

The political scene is worth having a look at first, as it will affect how things work (or not) over the next months and longer. "Sarko" was elected to bring about some change to the French system and to make life friendlier for business. The big "but" is that he was elected by a little over half the voters so, first of all, there was no mandate whatsoever for sweeping change. The second thing is that at least some proportion of the people voting for him did so with the thought that "the little monster will be kept in line by the unions". And so, if Monsieur S persists in his ideas, there could well be blood on the streets at some stage. I don't say that in jest: Some people in Paris who are only slightly extreme, say it is a promise. Bear in mind also that, amongst the announced changes, were the abandonment of workers rights won in the time of Louis XIV! Such is the way of the feral side of modern capitalism ... and so it is easy to see why emotions will continue to run high.

Let's Go!
Now to the travel! The main cities in the general area are Lille and Amiens, and both of these places are about an hour from Paris by TGV.

Lille

Lille is practically on the border with Belgium and has only been French since Louis XIV brought the area under French control. Vauban built a huge citadel to keep it that way and part of the place is still used as a military base. It is quite an interesting spot to have a wander - great battlements and moats, pretty paths, grass and trees.

If you arrive by high-speed train you will come into the very modern station called Lille Europe. This was designed by the famous architect Rem Koolhaas and is a very interesting statement about utilitarianism for people who are interested in such things (note to station operators: the water feature was designed for a reason - fix it! Your parsimony is insulting to everyone who passes through the place.)

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Around the station are a number of hotels and there is also a large mall called Euro Lille which is just as bland and boring as shopping malls everywhere. The action is elsewhere!

In most French towns there is an old section (Vielle Ville) which has the charms you are most likely, as a tourist, after. The old town in Lille is not far away - approximately due west - past St. Maurice the church, through some pedestrianised shopping streets (where you can find the likes of Gallerie Lafayete), through the Grand Place, and then you are in the winding maze that is the old town. Here there is a mix of fashion shops, restaurants, and various odds and ends including a graphic novel and manga bookshop with a cafe. It's almost impossible not to get lost, so do! Finding a local who speaks English who will make you unlost is fun as well.

There are other things to see such as the Opera (close to the Grand Place) which has a clever programme which features both modern and ancient works. In January 08 there is Purcell's Dido and Aeneus (hardly ever performed in England for goodness sake!) and I think a Lully item appears in March.

There is also a fine Musee des beaux arts.

Accommodation: There are hotels aplenty around Lille Europe and the neighbouring old station, Lille Flandres. These cover the four star to one star range and are not noteworthy. There is also an Auberge de Jeunesse (Youth Hostel) which is a bit of a hike from the station.

Eating: Well, this is France! Having said that, there are many restaurants with Paris prices and quite ordinary food. For those on a budget, there's always Flunch, which has ordinary food at very low prices and is sneered at by French people.

Amiens

The most noteworthy features of Amiens are its Gothic cathedral, which is the largest in Europe, and really is a wonder, and the collection of restaurants and bars along the Somme - five minutes or so walk from the cathedral.

They discovered, some years ago, that the statuary on the front of the cathedral had, in ancient times, been painted in bright colours. Nowadays, there is a show at night where a system of projectors shows the cathedral front as it once looked. Quite large crowds turn out to see this but I have a feeling it is not on during the winter.

Jules Verne lived in Amiens for part of his life and there is some sort of musee somewhere. There are also some interesting gardens.

Accommodation: There is a reasonable Accor near the cathedral and a nice-looking Chambres d'hotes called the Priory right beside the cathedral.

Eating: There are nice restaurants close to the cathedral. For atmosphere, the ones along the Somme are hard to beat in the summer. The food can be variable.

Arras

Possibly the most friendly town in the area and maybe even in the whole of France! It has a wonderful Flemish square in the centre which is fairly much as it was. There is an impressive Beffroi (belfry) with views out over the surrounding countryside. This stands in a second, smaller square just by the big one. Troops were billeted in spaces under the square during the great slaughter of WWI. In fact, battle grounds such as the infamous Vimy Ridge, are quite close.

There is a fine Louis XIV era abbey in town that is now, unusually for France, a free art gallery, and with quite a nice collection as well. Nearby is the cathedral, which must be the most unlucky in France. It was completely wrecked during the revolution, rebuilt, wrecked again in WWI, restored, and then took another pasting during WWII. It is now in full working order again.

The mass murderer and head of the Jacobin party during the revolution, Robespierre, was from here and his house can be gone through.

Accommodation: It is a smallish town so there isn't that much available. A search on the web might find a nice Chamber d'hotes and there is an Auberge de Jeuness right in the main square.

Eating: The two squares provide all you want. There is a very nice bistro in one corner of the main square and the smaller square provides a very nice steak restaurant with good helpings and nice prices. There are numerous other alternatives as well.

Boulogne-sur-mer

With its lovely old town up the hill and a seaside section as well, this has quite a lot going for it. There is a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes and there are a number of places worth a sightseeing visit such as the Chateau Musee, which used to be home to the powerful Counts of Boulogne (and seen on the Bayeux tapestry), the cathedral, Napoleon's HQ for his failed invasion of Britain, the battlements, and just the general charm of the winding old streets. There used to be a fair-sized English community and the famous Victorian explorer (and translator of the Kama Sutra), Richard Burton, met his rather Puritan wife here. The Duke of Buckingham passed through frequently during his intrigues with Louis XIII's wife and Queen, Anne of Austria. The locals make nothing of this though, so don't expect any signs.

Lately there has been quite a lot of work done to make the river and seaside area less tacky. There is a large fishing port, a fast ferry to Dover (no foot passengers), a large aquarium, indoor swimming pool, and beach.

Accomodation: There is lots on offer including a couple from the Ibis chain, the Metropole in the main shopping mall, The Matelote by the aquarium, and L'Enclos d'Eveche in the old town. There is also an Auberge de Jeunesse close to the main train station.

Eating: There is quite a range here. In Boulogne itself, La Matelote, Le Welsh Pub, and Pecheurs d'Etaples in the low town are all good as is Le Comptoir. In the old village La Petite Auberge provides nice home cooking. La Belle Barbu adds a little more in the way of sauces and choice and is very pleasant. The newish Swan is also pleasant. There is a creperie as well which has a supply of a very nice Bordeaux. Terrace des Enclos looks as if it could be nice as well but I haven't been there.

Calais

A French guidebook recently described this place as "that most English of French cities". Gosh! There have been recent efforts to clean up this most unpleasant of French cities, complete with it's random street muggers and with a rail station where you could be attacked in broad daylight. People from surrounding towns say that the people here are "triste!" (sad). Hopefully, they will be happier in the future.

Douai

A nice old abbey made into an art gallery; a spectacular restored belfry, and cute old streets suffer somewhat from a fairly clueless modernisation effort which plops asphalt roads and awful looking streetlights in unlikely places. This place and St. Omer have old ties to English Catholicism as during the times of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and on, many English monks and nuns came here.

Montreuil-sur-mer and others

Not "on the sea" at all! The river Canche which flows out to sea at Etaples, used to be very wide and M-s-m was the only crossing point if you were going to Calais or Boulogne from the Ile de France (Paris). It is an ancient fortified town dating from 1200 or so and was originally an abbey. Today it is a very pretty place where you can wander the ramparts and the old fortress and eat in one of a few nice restaurants.

Accomodation and Eating: This is an expensive little town that has been favoured by a discerning kind of tourist for some years. Just walk around and you will see a variety of upscale hotels and restaurants which aren't trying to impress you too much with their outward looks (always a good sign!). There is a budget alternative though: Stay at the local Auberge de Jeunesse, which is actually in the old fort, buy some local produce, and cook up something yummy. And wash it down with a nice French wine.

Le Touquet

This was originally a beach resort for upscale Anglais but these days is more populated by Parisians. There are equestrian events here, polo, classic car concours and the like. There is a lovely forest with nice (and expensive) houses, a little town with numerous boutiques and cafes, then a great barrier of ridiculous and ugly high-rise apartments, and then a rather nice sand beach.

Accomodation and eating: If you're posh and flush, just stay at the grande luxe Westminster, and eat there as well. Pictures of famous visitors adorn the downstairs hallway to further enhance your self-esteem. The atmosphere is comfy and restrained. They also have a Christmas 07 deal of three nights and meals without drinks for 440 Euros.

If you're not feeling either of these things, stay somewhere else and just visit.

Saint Omer

Worth going to to see the wonderful old church with all its fittings seemingly intact. Jesuit missionaries for England including Edward Campion were trained in this town and there was a school for English Catholic gentry here. It also gets a mention in biographies of Admiral Nelson.

It is interesting that the revolution of 1789 and on affected the churches differently in different towns - Boulogne and Arras had the main ones completely destroyed whereas here and in Montreuil-sur-mer and other places, they seem to have been hardly touched.

Accomodation and Eating: I haven't a clue.

Wimereux

A mere half to three quarters of an hour walk from Boulogne, this was one of Queen Victoria's favourite spots. Unlike many French seaside spots, where greed has spoilt the beachfronts as in Le Touquet, there is a nice wide promenade with older style buildings along it. Wind-surfing is popular here and there is a small peak break populated by hardy surfers when the tide and wind and waves are right. The town itself is charming but is not a place you'd go for le shopping. Actually, Boulogne is better but Lille is the nearest place for serious shopping.

Accommodation and Eating: Mostly aimed at English people and therefore over-priced by local standards. I haven't eaten here but there are three quite obvious good quality choices. You will see if you walk around.

Conclusion: The old France of live and let live and possible sinful pleasures is not dead yet but it has been whittled away over the last years by pursed-mouth puritans, eurocrats, and other despicable weenies. "Sarko" is just the latest chapter of this and so coming to France sooner rather than later is probably quite a good idea.

Next: Paris

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