Departments of Culture: Hauts-de-France – France Today
Gillian Thornton soaks up the double pleasure of culture and shopping in Hauts-de-France.
From the Manche coast in the north to the vineyards of Champagne in the south, the Hauts-de-France region spans five of the most culturally rich departments in France. Of course, culture means different things to different people, from museums and galleries, to theater and music, to architecture, or crafts and traditions. The processional giants and dragons of northern France, for example, are now on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is enough to spend time at the winter carnival of Cassel, Douai or Dunkirk to understand their importance in the local cultural life.
Many visitors to the region would also include the sites of memory in a cultural itinerary, an opportunity to reflect on the lives lost and the freedom gained through the memorials, museums and cemeteries that stretch from Flanders and Artois to the Somme and the Chemin des Dames. The young men who lie here in pristine rows are cultural giants of a different kind.
Culture also encompasses different ways of life. Take a slow boat across the marsh to Saint-Omer, for example, where the postman still delivers island chalets by boat. And in Amiens, sail on the magnificent waterways of the Hortillonnages, a marshy area renowned for its market gardening.
But whatever your cultural tastes, you will find them in these five departments. The departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were united into a single eponymous region until 2016, when they were merged with Aisne, Oise and Somme, which previously made up Picardy. Today, the “super region” of Hauts-de-France has the largest number of museums in France outside of Paris. For those who enjoy shopping for authentic souvenirs on their travels, the area’s many manufacturers, producers and specialty shops add a welcome opportunity for retail therapy to any short break or traveling vacation.
And since leaving the EU, British travelers can now shop duty-free in France, provided they obtain a tax-free form at the point of sale and validate it before leaving the country.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of LouvreLens, the flagship project of the former mining basin on the border of Nord and Pas-de-Calais. Today, the once grimy mining villages and slag heaps have been converted into cultural centers and historic sites, sports facilities and green spaces, attracting UNESCO World Heritage status as a shining example of urban regeneration. Other cultural projects have also had a makeover in recent years, so let 2022 be the year you get a new angle on a familiar area.
Art and Architecture
Leaving from the Channel coast, many holidaymakers leave the ferry and bypass Calais on their way south. But the city has grown in popularity in recent years, the latest being the Dragon of Calais, which offers visitors a high-level ride along the promenade. For an even higher vantage point, take the elevator to the top of the town hall bell tower, one of many in northern France listed by UNESCO for its distinctive architecture.
See Rodin’s famous Burghers of Calais statue up close in the gardens below, then head to the Museum of Fine Arts to learn about its history in the Rodin Room. Do not leave the city without visiting the City of Lace and Fashion, a fascinating museum retracing the region’s know-how in terms of lace and fashion. For more craftsmanship, head to the Museum of Lace and Embroidery in Caudry near Cambrai to find out why Kate Middleton chose to include Caudry lace in her spectacular 2011 wedding dress.
In recent years, Calais and Boulogne have both gained a reputation for their street-art scene, with Boulogne now boasting over 30 urban murals. But the largest fishing port in France also has a fascinating past. Hop on to explore the old town of Boulogne where highlights of the castle museum include Greek pottery, Egyptian mummies and a network of subterranean Gallo-Roman passages. The dome of the Notre-Dame Basilica is visible from all over the city; go downstairs to visit the largest crypt in France. Further south, one of Europe’s most famous battles was fought in the lush farmland of the Seven Valleys, inland from the chic resort town of Le Touquet.
Learn how young English King Henry V defeated French nobility on horseback with tactics and longbows at the newly renovated Agincourt 1415 Museum. The popular English spelling of Agincourt is due to a mispronunciation by one of Henry’s knights! Markets have been held in the two vast squares of Arras since the Middle Ages. Peruse the stalls on Wednesday and Saturday mornings under another UNESCO-listed belfry, and browse the shops under the gabled houses painstakingly rebuilt to their old design after being nearly obliterated in the First World War. Also explore the Museum of Fine Arts and take a guided tour of the chalk passageways that lie beneath the main squares.
Arras was not the only town in Hauts-de-France to need major reconstruction in the 1930s after the devastation of World War I, and many adopted the fashionable new Art Deco style. Follow the Art Deco route to see flamboyant Art Deco villas and public buildings in the resort town of Le Touquet, and find more period properties and decorations in Béthune and Lille in the far north, and Saint-Quentin and Soissons further south in Picardy.
The former mining basin of northern France extends over the departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais, and at its heart stands the third most visited museum in France, the Louvre-Lens, which opened its doors to the public in December 2012 on the site of a former tile. . First satellite museum of the Parisian institution, it covers 5,000 years of history in its free circulation Galerie du Temps as well as temporary exhibitions.
While the Roman galleries of the Louvre in Paris are temporarily closed, nearly 300 Roman objects are presented together for the first time at the LouvreLens until July 25. Discover how a city became the capital of such a vast empire with the exhibition ‘Rome, La Cité et L’Empire’. The latest tourist attraction to open as part of the cultural mix of the Lens mine.
Head south and Beauvais in the Oise department is home to another Gothic cathedral, the tallest in the world with a ceiling height of 49 metres. The city has a long history of tapestry making, but the former National Tapestry Gallery was recently renamed The Quadrilateral to reflect its changing content as a center for culture and the arts.
Closest to Paris, the deep south of Hauts-de-France is just 45km from the capital, making the magical castles of Chantilly and Pierrefonds popular day trips for visitors to the City of Lights. . With water gardens laid out by André Le Nôtre of Versailles, an extensive collection of works of art brought together by the Duke of Aumale and an elegant stable and equestrian demonstration area, the Domaine de Chantilly offers culture for all. tastes. And all this just 25 minutes from Paris-Gare du Nord.
Surrounded by the peaceful forest of Compiègne, the Château de Pierrefonds to the east could come straight out of a fairy tale with its turrets and drawbridge. This 14th century castle, originally built by Louis, Duke of Orléans, was rebuilt in the 19th century, a mixture of medieval exterior and colorful neo-Gothic interior.
Many visitors to Hauts-de-France are surprised to find vineyards so far north, but the champagne production area begins in the south-eastern corner of the region, accounting for 10% of champagne production. Follow the Champagne Tourist Route through the vineyards and enjoy a visit and a tasting.
The big names to watch out for are Météyer in Trélou-sur-Marne and Pannier in Château-Thierry – a sparkling end to the trip, whatever your cultural tastes!
Excerpt from France Today magazine
Main photo credit: The fairy tale Château de Pierrefonds © Shutterstock