Places to visit in Hauts de France: Nord
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 Nord, the area, what to see and do and why I love coming to this part of the world. This department has the towns of Lille, Dunkerque (Dunkirk), Cambrai and Valenciennes, with Lille being the main administrative city for the Nord department and the whole of Hauts de France (and also being the fourth largest city after Paris, Lyon and Marseille). This blog post is about places which are worth hitting up in the area (and I will be updating this post every time I have something new to write about) and here is my guide to Nord.
Lille: the business city of France and one of the major crossroads in Europe (as it connects with Brussels, London, Paris, Western Germany and so fourth). I like Lille but it’s a bit misplaced with a lot of buildings and streets in the centre making me think that the city wouldn’t look out of place in Belgium (again, it’s all down to history). However a lot of buildings are very modern and because of this, I love the mixture in architecture.
After some digs around the area, Lille seems to have had people living here since 2000BC and as mentioned, the area has had several occupiers. However it was in 1667 saw a big changing moment for the city as King Louis XIV of France laid siege on Lille and became a part of France, which really pissed off the locals. It took some time for the locals to gain confidence with the French but it came. There was no attempt to wipe out the Picard language (more about that later) and the locals have always felt Flemish.
A citadel was built in the 17th century near the centre of modern-day Lille however it didn’t stop France losing Lille to the Dutch. For five years from 1708 to 1713 the city was taken during the War of the Spanish Succession but eventually was back in France’s hands. The French Revolution came along and the city of Lille (which most of the citizens were Catholic) took little part in the event. However there were still riots and destruction of churches but the city picked itself up and held its first elections in 1790.
By the 1860s the city grew even more and there were 80,000 people living here which meant a huge rise in ‘social’ activities for the locals. Taverns and cabarets popped up everywhere and it was worked out that for every three houses in the city, there was a tavern (not quite sure if this is true but sounds good to me!). At one point there were sixty three drinking clubs, thirty seven places for card players to gamble, twenty three places for people to go bowling, eighteen places for archery and thirteen places to play skittles. Sounds like a party town to me and the locals were very happy to be here. Into the twentieth century, more people came here to work due to the industrial revolution with railway lines being built and a lot of coal being mined in the area.
Then it all went downhill again, Lille was occupied by the Germans in October 1914 after a ten day siege on the city. The city was destroyed by heavy shelling and the Germans made Lille one of their bases. This lasted until October 1918 when the British came along and kicked the Germans out. The great depression came along and a lot of locals were living in poverty during the 1920s and then it just got worse for the locals when the Germans came back to the city after another siege at the start of the Second World War. However this time as the locals still had the First World War fresh in their minds, they left the city quickly and headed anywhere where they could escape the Nazi Germans. Lille was under Nazi Control until September 1944 when the British, Polish and Canadian armies came to the area and again, kicked the Germans into touch.
After the war life in the Nord and Lille was normal and still is. Peace has come to the city and hopefully will stay that way. That’s the background of the city so what has the city got to offer for visitors? There is the citadel, the Grand Place (which General Charles de Gaulle was born nearby in the city), the cathedral and beautiful buildings of Dutch style architecture.
Dunkerque (Dunkirk): the northernmost city in France and is 10km (6.2 miles) from the Belgian border on the North Sea coast and is also the third largest French harbour. I have to admit I am not a big fan of the city itself but have stayed here several times as I cycle to and from Belgium from nearby Calais. I just find the place a little bit boring and I don’t like the looks of some areas. That’s just my personal opinion. However the history here is what the city is worth visiting for. Similar to Lille because of the area, the city has had many occupants but it was during the Second World War that the Dunkerque came into the spotlight.
During 1940 in the Battle of France, the British Expeditionary Force were aiding the French and Belgian armies in the area but had to retreat as the Nazi Germans were going crazy and killing Allied forces left, right and centre. They were just too strong and well prepared. They all retreated to Dunkirk and at one point there were more than 400,000 soldiers trapped. However at this point for several days, the Nazi Germans stopped the attack. Only Adolf Hilter knows why he did this and has taken this to his grave. But then the attacks started up again, this time sending in the Luftwaffe (Nazi German air force) and started bombing Dunkerque from above. An evacuation by sea was needed and this was called Operation Dynamo. Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister) ordered any ship or boat available, didn’t care what size it was, to get over La Manche and rescue as many soldiers as possible. In the end over 338,000 men were saved (which included 123,000 from France) using over 900 vessels.
Away from history, the most notable places and things I came across are the town hall and its belfry tower (more on that later on) and the beaches. Despite the beaches being well known due to the history they are quite wide and sandy, so when the hot summer days come along, it can be a fantastic place to get a tan.
However it’s the coastline of Nord department south of Dunkerque heading towards Calais I like about the area. The border line of Nord ends at the southern side of Gravelines and Grand-Fort-Philippe. Gravelines started out life during the 12th century when a canal was built to connect the sea with the town of Saint-Omer near Calais. During this period the town was on the western borders of the Spanish held Flanders region, so Gravelines became heavily fortified. However that didn’t help them as the English came along in 1383 and destroyed the fortress but after that the English had to retreat back towards Calais. Further battles between the English and Spanish happened in the area, on land and at sea and eventually after three hundred years, the French finally annexed the area and became a part of France. But it took another three hundred years for all the locals to speak French as they kept their flemish roots and language alive. One of my favourite things to do when I stop off in the town during bike rides is to go to the local bakery just off the main square, get some fresh bread and croissants and take them to the main square and refill. Sunday mornings are pretty good here in Gravelines.
After their surrender, they joined other British troops from other regiments as well as French soldiers in charge of a military depot in the area were taken to a barn in La Plaine au Bois on the 28th May 1940. On the way to the barn the allied troops became a bit more alarmed at the brutal conduct of the SS en route to the barn, which included shooting a number of wounded stragglers who couldn’t keep up.
On arrival at the barn, the most senior British officer in the group, a guy named Captain James Lynn-Allen protested, but was rebuked by an SS soldier. One hundred men were now standing inside the small barn and then the SS threw stick grenades into the barn killing many of the POWs (Prisoner of War). However the grenades failed to kill everybody due to the bravery of two British troops, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Augustus Jennings who hurled themselves on top of the grenades using their bodies so they could suppress the force of the explosion and shield their fellow soldiers from the blast.
The SS found out what was going on so they called for two groups of five to come out. The survivors were shot. However one man who was shot, Brian Fahey survived (which was unknown to the SS at the time). Eventually Brian would become a composer back home and worked with the BBC (and died back in 2007 aged 87). Anyway, the SS saw this method too slow as well and just went into the barn shooting the rest of the surviving troops, all guns blazing! Several British prisoners were able to escape whilst others like Brain Fahey were left for dead. A total of eighty men were killed at the time and within a few days afterwards, some of the wounded died because of their wounds being so severe. A few days after that, Fahey and several others were found by medics of the German Army and were taken to hospital (not quite sure why when the Germans wanted to shoot them in the first place!). Once treated they were sent to prisoner of war camps around Europe (so I am not sure what was better, being shot in a bar or going to somewhere like Auschwitz or Dachau and having a bad time there but it ended up all good for Brian Fahey because as mentioned, he survived and had a wonderful career in music).
How to get to Nord: This part of France is easy to reach. If arriving by car, there is the main autoroute from Paris to Brussels, whilst there is the autoroute from Calais to Brugge in Belgium which passes Dunkerque. For trains there is the TGV high speed train link from Lille to Paris as well as other parts of the country, however for people coming in from the UK or Belgium, there is the Eurostar which connects the British and Belgium capitals with most services serving Lille d’Europe train station. For ferries, there is a crossing from Dunkerque to Dover. There is also the Lesquin airport very near to Lille which serves a small handful of cities in Europe and the south of France.
Picard: Quind un Ch’ti mi i’est à l’agonie, savez vous bin che qui li rind la vie ? I bot un d’mi.
French: Quand un gars du Nord est à l’agonie, savez-vous bien ce qui lui rend la vie ? Il boit un demi.
English: “When a northerner is dying, do you know what revives him? He drinks a pint.”
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 department – Click here.
Loved this post on Pas-de-Calais? Then please share it by pinning it! Cheers guys.