Northern France - French Holidays

Northern France is considered to be an uninspiring region and, hit hard by the industrial depression and the gloom that descends when it rains, it can be difficult to get very enthusiastic about it.

The French, who are renowned for being passionate propagandists when it comes to their own country, are often less than kind when talking about France's northern-most region. The English tend to associate the area with cheap and cheerful booze cruises, a quick dash to the gargantuan supermarchés to stock up on wine and tobacco, then back onto the ferry or train and home to imbibe the spoils of the journey.

However, whilst northern France may not be the stuff of fairy tales, it does have a lot to offer in terms of good food and is steeped in history. It is made up of three regions - Picardy (Picardie), Artois and Flanders (Flandres) - all of which hold historical interest. Flanders is an old medieval principality that also incorporated most of Belgium and some of the Netherlands. Flemish is still widely spoken here, signs are often written in French and Flemish, and more beer is consumed than wine, setting it apart from the rest of France.

As for architecture, aside from the rusting industrial buildings, the capital of northern France, Lille, has an impressive opera house and quaint cobbled old quarter; Amiens is home to an imposing gothic cathedral; Arras benefits from some unparalleled 17th - and 18th-century Flemish buildings in the centre. The hillside town of Cassel - the destination for the Grand Old Duke of York's ten thousand men - has Flemish charm and a working windmill.

The region's other highlights include a visit to the numerous WWI monuments and sites where you can still see the trenches, or the medieval battle sites of Agincourt and Crécy; the bird sanctuary at Martenquerre; or a drive along the Côte d'Opale that runs from Calais to Boulogne along the Pas de Calais.

Choose the old route nationale N1 rather than the expensive and dreary autoroute and you will find yourself in la France profonde fairly quickly, with grassy verges and little villages providing ample opportunities to stop for a picnic.

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