Places to visit in Hauts de France: Pas-de-Calais

Hauts de France is the northernmost region in France and is made up of five departments, Aisne, Nord, Oise, Pas-de-Calais and Somme. This post is about the department of Pas-de-Calais, the area, what to see and do and why I love coming to this part of the world. This department has the towns of Calais, Boulogne-sur-mer, Lens, Arras and Saint Omer (which is known for its beer). 

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Map of Pas-de-Calais region of France (credited: Wikipedia)

This part of France is easy to reach. If arriving by car, there are two autoroutes from Paris, one via Lille and Lens and the other via Amiens. There is one from the north via Dunkerque and Brugge in Belgium. Trains serve the main towns via regional routes however there are a few TGV high-speed trains a day which go to Pas-de-Calais from Paris and Lille. For people coming in from the UK, there is a ferry crossing from Dover to Calais and a car shuttle train which goes through the Channel Tunnel (le tunnel sous la manche) from Folkestone to Coquelles (near Calais). Coming by train there are a couple of services a day with the Eurostar from London to Paris which stops at Calais-Frethun station near Coquelles. From there, a regional train takes passengers into Calais town centre. 

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Le Shuttle road-train at Calais

For me personally, Calais maybe not the most beautiful place in France as it’s a port town and has had a bit of a reputation in recent years with immigrants making camps surrounding the town, waiting for a chance to get smuggled across to the UK, but there is always a great deal of excitement when I arrive here. Either it’s driving off the ferry to explore somewhere else in France or in Europe (heck, Belgium is only a thirty minute drive north of here), it’s just a great feeling to step onto the shores of Calais and explore. The town does have its good bits about it and I will start my blog post with Calais.

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Calais city hall gardens

Calais history steams back hundreds of years ago and grew into a major port with important trading links with England across the water. Eventually King Edward III of England got bored and annexed the city to which the town became known for its wool production. It took France over 200 years to get Calais back and then the biggest event came in the Second World War when the Nazi Germans bombed the town and was virtually razed to the ground. Since then the town has been rebuilt and the industrial area to the north of the centre was thriving over the last fifty years but has since been in decline.

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Calais

The centre itself has a few sights to see such as the Place d’Armes where there is a watchtower (known as the ‘Tour du Guet’) which has stood here since the 13th century and was used as a lighthouse until the 19th century (seems a bit odd as it is quite far from the coastline). Nearby is the church of Notre-Dame which was built when the English had the town and is the only church building built in the English perpendicular style in the whole of the country (that is France of course, not England, now that wouldn’t have made sense!) In this church, one of France’s former presidents Charles de Gaulle married his wife here.

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The most important building and one which can be seen miles around due to its belfry is the Hotel de Ville (the town hall) which has stood here since the 16th century and has the famous ‘Les Bourgeois de Calais’ statue located in the gardens which was completed in 1889 by Auguste Rodin. The sculpture represents an event which happened in the fourteenth century during the Hundred Years’ War when the port of Calais on the English Channel/La Manche was under siege by the English for over a year. According to legend, the king of England, Edward III, coming back from the Battle of Crecy laid siege to the town whilst King Philip VI of France gave orders to defend the city, which failed and the English army forced the king and the city to surrender as a lot of people were suffering from starvation.

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Sitting in front of the famous statue and the City Hall with it’s belfry of Calais behind me.

King Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of the cities leaders would surrender themselves to him (which presumably to be killed). King Edward gave orders that they all should walk out wearing nooses (ropes) around their necks and carrying the keys to the city plus the castle. Eustache de Saint Pierre (one of the city’s wealthiest leaders) volunteered first and five other burghers (wealthy middle class folk) followed him to the city gates. Although the burghers expected to be killed, their lives were spared by the Queen of England, Philippa of Hainault (King Edward’s wife who was French and came from the Hainault region of northern France) who persuaded him not to kill them because this would be a very bad omen for the their child to which she was carrying at the time.

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‘Les Bourgeois de Calais’ statue

Back in 1895 the city of Calais wanted a statue of the six burghers made and eventually the design by a French artist, Rodin, was chosen (after some debate). Soon after the first cast was made and placed in front of the city hall in the centre of Calais. After Rodin’s death, French law stated that no more than twelve casts of the statue can be made. The other casts can be found at the Glypototeket (Copenhagen), the Royal Museum in Mariemont (Belgium), Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament in London, the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, the gardens of the Musee Rodin in Paris, Kunstmuseum in Basel (Switzerland), the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Plateay in Seoul (South Korea). The one in Seoul is the twelfth and final cast and no more can be made.

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Calais

I found the story very moving, interesting and somewhat dismayed about what my home country and our neighbours to the south were like in the past. The story of the six burghers of Calais is always one I will remember for a long time and take around with me on my travels.

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Calais is known for its wine warehouses dotted near the Channel Tunnel and ferry port

The road from the centre towards Sangatte (just south of the city) runs alongside the beach. In the summer months the beach is quite popular and is one of the sandiest on the northern coast of France. Around the town, there are some good bars and restaurants.

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The beach of Calais

The coastal road (the D940) along the Côte d’Opale (Opale Coast) heading south out of Calais towards Boulogne-sur-mer is a nice drive or cycle ride especially on sunny days. The road is bendy in places, up and down hills through beautiful valleys and there are numerous spots on the way to pull over and check out. First off is the ‘Deux Cap’s – Two Capes’, Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez. 

obelisk
Can you see the White Cliffs of Dover in the background?
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Côte d’Opale

Cap Blanc-Nez (in English means ‘Cape White Nose’) is known as a cape but it doesn’t stick out into the water. It is a large white cliff which is 134 meters high (similar to that on the other side of the channel at Dover), which has an obelisk at the top. The obelisk here commemorates the Dover patrol which kept the English Channel/La manche free of Nazi-German U-boats during the First World War. Looking around the area there are a lot of bunkers which were built and used during the Second World War along the coastline and looking inland, there are a lot of craters which can be seen in the fields from the bombardments.

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The obelisk at Cap Blanc-Nez
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The fields around the coastline in this region is like this. The reminder that bombs were dropped here during the Second World War

Further south is Cap Gris-Nez which is a cape that juts out to the sea and is known for the grey colours of the rocks. Basically the English name for this place is ‘Cape Grey Nose’. Despite it not being a stunning place to visit like Cap Blanc-Nez, it is however the closest point of France to England and on a very clear day, the White Cliffs of Dover can be seen. Because of its closeness, over the centuries there have been various invasions on this part of the coastline. Nearby on top of a cliff there is the ruins of a tudor fortress built by England’s King Henry VIII but during Second World War, the Nazi-Germans built a blockhouse on this site. This and hundreds of other sites along the coast formed the ‘Atlantic Wall’ which was supposed to stop the British invading Nazi-German occupied France. Even in 1940 Nazi-German leader Adolf Hilter visited the Cap Gris-Nez fortifications. However four years later the Canadians came in and kicked the Nazi’s out. These days, a few miles away in the village of Audinghen, there is a museum about the fortifications and the history of the area.

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Cap Griz Nez

Eventually the road leads into Boulogne-sur-mer, another beautiful town in Pas-de-Calais which has to be explored. The main area is the old town which is perched on top of the hill overlooking the sea. A lot of places to be explored here, so I have done a separate blog post on Boulogne-sur-mer which can be found here.

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Inland towards the eastern region of Pas-de-Calais is the town of Arras and I love this town. I came here during the Christmas market season but I loved walking around the cobbled-streets of the centre with the Flemish-style buildings overlooking me, taking a trip up the Belfry to get amazing views and take a tour of the underground passageways underneath the town hall. I have also written a much more detailed post on Arras here.

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Another sight to mention near Arras which is worth a visit lies a few kilometres north near the village of Vimy, where the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is located. This is dedicated to the memory of the Canadian army killed during World War I and also serves as a place of commemoration of soldiers killed or presumed dead in France who have no known grave.

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Vimy

Why did I stop here? I noticed the memorial on a postcard in a shop in Arras an hour earlier and it took my eye. It looked impressive so I thought about coming here to check it out as I was in the area and I wasn’t to be disappointed. The memorial is big and I strolled through much of the battlefield park which also overlooks a portion of the ground where the Canadians made their assault during the Battle of the Vimy Ridge, a military engagement fought as part of the Battle of Arras, a major battle in the Pas-de-Calais region. The area is peaceful, trees blowing about in the cold wind, not a soul to be seen.

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Sheep in the grounds of Vimy

The memorial itself is located on Hill 145 (as it was known to Canadians and the British forces during the war) which is the highest point on the ridge. Whilst I was walking around, I was paying my respects in silence. Nearby to here (on further research which needs to be done), I lost one of my Great, Great Uncles during the First World War and is remembered at a memorial in nearby Loos (on the outskirts of Lens). Maybe he fought in this battle? Who knows but for me personally and my family, it would be interesting to find out (for more, please read my post on the Battle of the Somme which is located south of Pas-de-Calais here).

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Vimy

Béthune, located in the heart of Pas-de-Calais between Arras and Calais is another town which is worth a visit, rich in architectural heritage and history. With its many cobbled streets, shops and cafes, I took in the belfry which has 133 steps. It was closed on the day I visited but I have been told if visitors go to the top for the views, the Belgium border can be seen to the north. There are not many sights to see in the town apart from the nearby large brick church but I came here for the Christmas market. A lot smaller than the one in Arras, there were still plenty of things to taste, smell and look at. Located in the square with the Belfry, once again amazing Dutch-style buildings surround the area with the town hall.

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Christmas market at Béthune

The other thing I love to do is try and spot as many Belfries as possible. This part of France and also Belgium, there are fifty-six belfries and they are all on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several of them are located in Pas-de-Calais, in Aire-sur-la-Lys, Arras, Béthune, Boulogne-sur-mer, Calais and Hesdin. Most of the belfries are projecting from larger buildings but there are a few standalone ones. For those who are not quite sure what a belfry is, it is a structure enclosing bells for ringing as part of a building, usually as part of a bell tower or steeple. A belfry encloses the bell chamber, which houses the bells. The walls are pierced by openings which allow the sound to escape. Underneath the chamber there is usually a room below to house the ringers (the guys who pull the rope to make the bells chime).

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The Belfry on top of Arras town hall
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Standalone belfry at Béthune
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Belfry in Boulogne-sur-mer
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Calais Belfry

I am forever coming to Pas-de-Calais so hopefully I can keep putting updates into this blog post. I would totally recommend people to come to this part of the world, for its history, warm welcome, good beers and food. It is so close to Belgium, the UK, and even Paris, it’s worth spending a couple of days in this region.

Enjoy my blog post on the Nord department of Hauts-de-France? Then check out my other blog posts on the other departments in the region.

Pas-de-Calais department – Click here.

Nord department – Click here.

Somme – Click here.

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