Did you know that there's a part of France no one knew existed until six years ago? No one ever visited, and those who had heard about the area had major misconceptions. Even the French didn't know what was going on in this mysterious part of their own country.
We're talking about the far north of France. For a long time, many people thought that Paris was the North and didn't know that there was an entire region to discover underneath. A region where almost every village produces its own beer, that is rich in history because of its strategic location in times of war, that is ideal for hiking and biking activities, and that has a vast array of local culinary specialities.
So why is the far north of France so popular now?
In 2008, the movie Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome To The Sticks) was released. In this French comedy about the misconceptions surrounding the region, a public servant from the Provence (Dany Boon) is banished to the distant, unheard of town of Bergues, in the far north of France. Strongly prejudiced against this supposedly arctic and inhospitable place, he leaves his family behind to relocate temporarily there, with the firm intent to quickly come back. But against all expectations, he loves it.
As soon as the movie was released, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis became a humongous success in France and Belgium, and even got an Italian remake (Benvenuti al sud) and sequel (Benvenuti al nord). In no time, tourists went in hordes to the far north of France to discover the locations of their new favorite movie.
Exactly one week after I left The Gambia, I was invited by Pays de Flandre Tourisme to discover the far north of France, more in particular the villages of Cassel, Bailleul, Hondschoote, and Drincham. Here's a little overview of the places of interest I discovered during my trip.
The most beautiful village I visited in the North of France was undoubtedly Cassel. The place has recovered well from the destruction during World War I and has preserved its ancient, almost medieval character, resulting in old city gates, small alleys, many passageways, and old houses.
I explored Cassel via a city walk and a stroll through the Jardin du Mont des Recollets (voted 'best gardens of France'). From here, I had a wonderful vantage point over the region, because Cassel is built on the highest mountain of French Flanders (176 meters). In the past, many battles have been fought on the flanks of the Mont Cassel.
I enjoyed an even better view from the estaminet Kasteelhof, that is decorated with traditional furniture and garlands of hop. Culinary enthusiasts from Belgium and the Netherlands often cross the border to dine in Kasteelhof. The dishes are typical of the area and make recurring use of ingredients such as chicory, speculoos and violet. What do you think for example of chicory wine or speculoos liqueur? I even tried Maroilles, the local cheese mentioned in Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis because of its strong smell.
After lunch in Kasteelhof I visited the Musée de Flandre. During the battle of Ypres, the museum was the headquarters of Marshal Foch. Nowadays the museum houses a rather weird collection of Flemish art from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.
Bailleul is interesting because of its history. During World War I, the Germans bombed the town on an almost daily basis. Ninety-eight percent of Bailleul was destroyed and then rebuilt in Flemish style by the architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier. The War Memorial, a fake ruin from which a winged victory rises, refers to this destruction.
For the best views of Bailleul, I had to climb the two-hundred steps of the belfry. The interior was particularly worth noting, mainly the carillon playing Flemish folk songs and the inside of the clock. The reconstructed belfry of Bailleul is since 2005 a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Also on the program was the Benoît de Puyd museum. Benoît de Puyd was a wealthy art collector who bequeathed both his art collection and his house to the municipality of Bailleul in order to turn it into a museum. The sculptures, paintings, furniture, ceramics, and lace from the Benoît de Puyd museum give an idea of the Flemish culture between the fifteenth and the nineteenth century.
I finished my tour in Bailleul with a visit to the lace school. Lace making has always been an important activity in the region, and the school is a way to keep this tradition alive.
Since the middle ages, Hondschoote is known as 'the land of flax'. From June to september, the surrounding fields are beaming with blue flax flowers which you can discover by following the flax route or by participating in the Rallye Bleu.
In the cozy Le grenier du lin you can browse through several types of flax-based products: cosmetics, beer, food, linen clothing, etc.
Did you know that the oldest windmill of Europe is located in Hondschoote? According to certain sources, the Noordmolen was built in 1127. Together with the Spinnewyl, the Noordmolen is still in use.
My tour of Hondschoote ended with a visit of the St-Vaast's Church. This Flemish gothic church contains several exceptional altarpieces, confessionals, and organs. If you look closely, you'll notice that everything is made out of wood.
I spent the night in the guest-house Au Gallodrome in Drincham. It's super cozy, especially the bar/restaurant area where you can eat around a large wooden table in front of the fireplace. The food was excellent.
If you are subscribed to my other blog, Traveling Cats, you will already know that Au Gallodrome is the home of two felines. Have a look at the pictures if you have not already done so. More pictures of the guest-house can be found here.
Overall, my stay in the far north of France was a cozy one and it was fun to recognize many of the elements from the movie. If you're a fan of Bienvenue chez le Ch'tis, then the north of France should definitely be added to your list of places to visit.
P.S. The north of France organizes many Christmassy things right now. In Vallée de la Lys, for example, a decorated trailer will take you on a tour through the area while listening to a beautiful Christmas story and enjoying a snack. Of course, there are many Christmas markets on offer in the region. Some upcoming ones can be found in Watten (December 6 and 7), Méteren (December 7), Hazebrouck (December 12 to 24), Merville (December 12 to 14), Bergues (December 13 and 14), Neuf-Berquin (December 13 and 14) and Wormhout (December 17 to 21).
Disclaimer: I visited the North of France as a guest of Pays de Flandre Tourisme. The opinions are my own. For more information, call 0033 328 48 61 54.