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.

Map of the Nord Department in Hauts-de-France (copyright: Wikipedia)

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History: I won’t go into too much detail but the way I see it, this area was settled by Belgae tribes (as well as settling south of Nord and all around Belgium. At some point they managed to get across the English Channel / La Manche and settled in Southern England. There is even a former settlement near my home town of Stevenage). Then the Romans came in and settled. They even made a road from the port of Bononia (Boulogne-sur-mer) to Colonia (Cologne) in Germany. Then the Saxons came in with their Dutch type language which kinda influenced the area and in cases, Dutch can be heard in some places in Nord (but not too often). At one point France (or the area known as County of Flanders) included the cities of Brugge, Gent and Antwerp and went into the southern part of Netherlands. Then the area was sucked into Netherlands territory before the Spanish invaded the area and Nord became part of the Spanish Netherlands. That was short lived as the area became part of France and in recent history, had two wars with the Germans (and there is quite a lot of history in this area which I will touch on later).

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The area has been under so many influences but it seems since 1945 it has found its peace and the locals have moved on & made this a better place (ok, sometimes there is the odd squabble with politics and immigrants from Asia and Africa around the ferry ports who are trying to get to the UK but apart from that, life is good).

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Lille

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.

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Lille

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.     

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Lille

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.

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Now you would think that would be it for Lille but no, even under French rule, the city was still being attacked by outsiders. 1792 saw the Austrians coming along and laying siege to Lille. That lasted several days but there is still evidence in the buildings near the Grand-Place (on modern day maps this is called Place du General-de-Gaulle), where there are black dots around windows (they are not decorative cartouches) which are cannonballs lodged in the facade! A lot of buildings and the main church were destroyed but the city picked itself up again. 19th century came along and because of Napoleon continental blockade against the British (yup, he didn’t let us British come onto European mainland, how many times have I heard this during history lessons!?!), the city became a leader in the textile industry. The city produced a lot of wool where the nearby cities of Tourcoing and Roubaix produced the wool.

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Lille

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. 

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Lille Stadium – Stade Pierre Mauroy

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.  

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Inside Lille’s Stadium

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.

At Lille FC’s stadium.

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.

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Dunkerque

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.

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Dunkerque

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.

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Olga cycling between Gravelines and Dunkerque

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.

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Nord, Hauts-de-France, France, Lille, Dunkerque, Nord, Hauts-de-France, France, Lille, Dunkerque,
Right on the coastline is Grand Fort Phillippe at the mouth of the canal. Here there is a calvary with a cross which is a good place to have a seat and admire the water nearby. The beaches are also great, big and sandy but again, needs the hot temperatures. Whilst here I just see a lot of people walking their dogs.

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Nord, Hauts-de-France, France, Lille, Dunkerque, Nord, Hauts-de-France, France, Lille, Dunkerque,
In a field between the villages of Wormhout and Esquelbecq in the Nord department, not too far away from the Belgium-France border, east of Dunkerque was where the Wormhout massacre took place. The short story of it all was the British were in retreat heading back to Dunkerque as the Germans were advancing very quickly towards La Manche/English Channel in May 1940. The 144th Infantry Brigade of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division was holding the main road in the area to delay the German advance so the rest of the British army would get on the boat back to the island. However the troops were overrun by the Waffen-SS soldiers from the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hilter. The British tried to hold out but used up their ammunition supplies so they decided to surrender to the SS troops, thinking that they would be taken prisoner according to the Geneva Convention (like hell Hilter and his pals were going to go by that piece of paper as they bloody started the Second World War).  

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The barn where a lot of the captured were shot

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.

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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.

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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).

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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. Eleven of them in the Nord department are located in Armentières, Bailleul, Bergues, Cambrai, Comines, Douai, Dunkerque (there are two there), Gravelines, Lille and Loos. 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).

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.

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Personal: For me personally, this part of France I have a lot of connections with and spent a lot of my time here. The main area I would go to is Lille. I have worked here in the past but in my free time I used to go to a lot of concerts as well as supporting my French football team, Lille (also known as LOSC). Away from Lille I have done a lot of cycling along the coastline from Belgium to Calais and also cycled through the department when I cycled from my hometown of Stevenage to Amsterdam in Netherlands (check out my blog post HERE). I love going to the little villages here and driving through the countryside. It maybe flat, full of fields and maybe the landscape is not as spectacular as the rest of the country but the area has charm about the place. The locals are friendly as well and don’t seem to mind speaking English (as this area is so close to home island) but also as I speak French, I love the roughness of the accent here which seems to have been mixed with the French spoken in Belgium. Whilst here I notice the French-Picard dialect Ch’ti which is also spoken in this region but mainly with elderly people (and I hope it doesn’t die out with them, I am for one a lover of languages and don’t want to see them die out. It’s not just a language, it’s the culture and the history which goes with it also). I totally recommend people to come to this region and embrace it. Every time I come here, there is always something new to see.  

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Final say: I learnt a phrase with the locals in a bar once. It was in the local Picard dialect so I had to translate it into French before into English and I totally agree with this. I have never forgotten. 

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.

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