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Top Attractions in North France

What to See in Nord Pas-de-Calais

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There are many great attractions in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. But too often, people get to the autoroute and don't stop, missing fortified, walled cities, attractions and great museums. So turn off the motorway and see some of my recommended sights. Some are well known; others are well-hidden secrets; all are worth the detour.

1. The Louvre-Lens Museum

louvrelensmosaic
© Mary Anne Evans, licensed to about.com

The Louvre-Lens, opened on December 12th, 2012, is one of France's latest, impressively grand schemes. The aim is both to send great art from Paris to other regions of France, and also, it's hoped, to revive the fortunes of Lens. The former mining town fell on hard times after the mines closed and the area has had a fairly bleak few decades. But being so close to Lille, to Belgium, to the Netherlands and to the U.K. the hope is to revitalise the area much as the Pompidou Center did in Metz in Lorraine.

The museum is housed in a striking low building with different galleries fanning out from the main building. Inside, you're offered works of art from 3,500BC to the mid-19th century, which is an ambitious scheme. The main exhibition shows you masterpieces from each era; there's a second exhibition hall and a temporary exhibition.

Allow at least half a day if you can to see both exhibitions. Lens itself is a town with some surprisingly good Art Deco buildings, and worth a stroll through. Otherwise there's plenty in the area to see.

Where to Stay

Either stay in Lille or drive a few miles to this hotel near St. Quentin.

The Chateau de Neuville-St-Amand, just outside St. Quentin to the south of Lens sits peacefully in its own park. It's not really a chateau, but a delightful, comfortable country house with fairly standard rooms, but large bathrooms. The restaurant is good, with menus starting at 32 euros.

Chateau de Neuville-St-Amand
11 rue de la Fontaine
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 23 68 41 82
Hotel website

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2. The Lace Museum in Calais, Pas-de-Calais

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© F. Kleinefenn

The past comes to life in this museum which is as much about fashion as it is about lace making. You start with the delicate hand-made lace worn only by the aristocracy, then move onto the 18th-century Industrial Revolution when looms had to be smuggled into France from neighboring England to escape the punishing laws on industrial espionage.

The story goes onto the present day with designers like Christian Dior and the ‘New Look’. Lace-making machines, videos showing you the long and complex process, and a series of beautiful dresses and accessories fill the former collective lace factory in Calais.

Where to Stay

The Meurice is a delightfully old-fashioned hotel with good sized rooms, a well-regarded restaurant and a friendly, late-night bar. It’s in a quiet side street just off Rue Royale which is full of restaurants.

Le Meurice
5 E-Roche
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 34 57 03
Hotel website

Price of rooms $-$$
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3. Museum of Flanders, Cassel, Pas-de-Calais

musflandersext
© Philippe Houze

Charming little Cassel stands high on the flat plain that stretches up to Belgium. The pretty village has a large, imposing square, a great hotel and a charming windmill and local estaminet, and is well worth an overnight stop. But the blockbuster here is the Museum of Flanders. The museum highlights the depth, richness and variety of Flanders’ cultural and artistic identity. It’s housed in the splendid Hôtel de la Noble-Cour and apart from the interesting permanent collection, puts on a series of excellent temporary exhibitions.

Where to Stay

Originally an 18th-century small chateau, the Chatellerie de Schoebeque offers a delightful mix of rooms, including a gypsy caravan in the garden.

Chatellerie de Schoebeque
32 rue Foch
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 28 42 42 67
Hotel website

Price of rooms $$$
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4. Matisse Museum at Le Cateau-Cambresis, Nord

© Mary Anne Evans
Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau-Cambresis in the north of France and it was the influence of textile design that he saw in his daily life that was to prove such an influence on his work.

The museum, in the former arch-bishop's Fénelon Palace, shows how Matisse developed and changed as an artist. The works of Auguste Herbin, born in 1882 in a village near Le Cateau, and the magazines and books published by the editor-poet, Tériade, add two more collections.

Where to Stay

The Chateau de Ligny is a pretty small castle hotel set in its own wooded grounds. There's an annexe, swimming pool and good restaurant.

Chateau de Ligny
2 rue Pierre Curie
Tel: 00 33 (0)3 27 85 79 79
Hotel website

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5. Montreuil-sur-Mer, Pas-de-Calais

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Once a flourishing port; in fact once the only port for the King of France (but that was the 10th century), Montreuil is a ridiculously romantic place. It’s good for a short break, but it’s also worth half a day’s visit, wandering around the old citadel, and looking out over the countryside around. Go in July and August and you’ll be rewarded with the Festival around Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

Where to Stay

The Chateau de Montreuil is one of the best hotels in the region.

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6. La Coupole, Pas-de-Calais

lacoupolev2
© Mary Anne Evans, licensed to about.com

Built in World War II as a launch pad for Hitler’s V2 rockets that were designed to annihilate London and Antwerp, La Coupole is a monster, a huge concrete dome near St. Omer and the French coast. But inside is one of the best museums in the country. It tells the story of the occupation of France, the holocaust and concentration camps like Auschwitz, and the build up of the German war machine. With films, interactive exhibits and artefacts, it takes you through World War II and into the Cold War and the Space Race with its triumphs and disasters.

Where to Stay

Stay near St Omer at Chateau Tilques. The 19th-century red-brick chateau, now very extended, is set in a delightful park with swans and peacocks. Comfortable, well decorated rooms with chintz to the fore in the main building and a more modern decor in the annexe. There’s also a good restaurant.

Chateau Tilques
Tilques
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 21 88 99 99
Website

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7. Nausicaa in Boulogne, Pas-de-Calais

nausicaasealions
© Alexis Rosenfeld

The Sealife Center in Boulogne has everything – a shark tunnel, lagoon, and an open-air sea lion reserve where the lithe creatures perform. And don’t miss the beautiful Perspex column full of graceful jelly fish.

There's a serious purpose behind all the attractive exhibits, which is to teach, particularly the young, why we should respect and protect the seas around our coastlines. But it’s all so well done that you’re entertained as much as educated.

Where to Stay

The delightful Chambres d’hote (bed and breakfast), Les Terrasses de l’Enclos is within the medieval walls of the old town. The five large rooms are each differently decorated and all have great bathrooms. You either look over their courtyard or onto the ramparts in the distance. Excellent, quite pricey restaurant and great breakfast.

Les Terrasses de l’Enclos
Enclos de L’Evêché
6 rue de Pressy
Tel.:03 91 90 05 90
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8. Wilfred Owen Memorial in Ors, Nord

wowenmem
© Mary Anne Evans

Interest in World War I is growing with the fast approach of the commemoration of the start of the war in 2014. Steal a march on many of those who will be visiting the area and go and see the stark, impressive and moving Memorial to the soldier poet, Wilfred Owen.

Where to Stay

The Chateau de Ligny is a pretty small castle hotel set in its own wooded grounds. There's an annexe, swimming pool and good restaurant.

Chateau de Ligny
2 rue Pierre Curie
Tel: 00 33 (0)3 27 85 79 79
Hotel website

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