Beckoning from just across the Channel and combining nature, culture and traditions, the newly formed French region of Hauts-de-France (a merger of the former regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy) feels a world away despite its 90-minute proximity to the UK. There’s a wide range of sightseeing opportunities and activities on offer here, against a backdrop of gentle forests and farmland, dramatic beaches and chalk cliffs. The region’s picturesque fishing villages and elegant seaside resorts of the Opal and Picard Coasts will delight holidaymakers in search of rest and rejuvenation, and culture vultures can get their fill in the main cities of Calais, Lille and Amiens.
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The architecture of Hauts-de-France is particularly attractive with its abundance of Flemish influences; great examples include the grandiose Grand Place in Arras, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Grâce in Cambrai, the Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) in Lille, and Béthune’s lofty bell tower. Also leave time to explore Cambrai, Tourcoing and Valenciennes.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, Laon, Lille and Roubaix are all classified Cities of Art and History with many cultural and architectural treasures, and there are breathtaking chateaux in Chantilly, Compiègne and Pierrefonds. In Amiens, exploring the 13th-century Gothic cathedral, with its renowned sculptures, should be first on your list.
Hear the thunder of hooves in Chantilly at the Prix de Diane and the Chantilly Jockey-Club, which figure among its greatest equestrian events. There are also several impressive son-et-lumière (sound and light) shows in Hauts-de-France during the summer months: head to Coucy-le-Chateau for one of the best.
Considered one of the world’s most beautiful, the famous Bay of Somme is a birdwatcher's paradise where you can hear a cacophony of different species – and even the barks of a colony of harbour seals.
The region also hosts some unique aural events such as the one-of-a-kind accordion festival in Wazemmes (Lille), taking place in May each year.
If you want to taste the essence of Hauts-de-France, book in for dinner at a bistro and order carbonade flamande, a traditionally Belgian dish that was quickly adopted by Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Made with beef and onions slow-cooked in beer and brown sugar and usually served with homemade chips, it’s the ultimate comfort food. Another speciality dish is the ficelle picarde, a delicious Béchamel-sauce-topped pancake stuffed with ham, mushrooms and shallots.
The famous Ratte du Touquet potato is grown on the Opal Coast and in Picardy – firm-fleshed with a delicate flavour, you’ll find it on menus everywhere. On the coast there’s also plenty of fish soup on offer (especially in the resort of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage) served with garlic croutons and rouille, a spicy mayonnaise. Don’t miss the excellent mussels, either.
For the sweet-toothed, there are oval-shaped gaufres fourrées (filled waffles), which originated in Lille in the 19th century, enjoyed as a snack with beer or hot chocolate. If you’re feeling especially indulgent, ask for a dollop of crème Chantilly (from the eponymous town) on top. Drinking in Hauts de France is a pleasure too: choose from the many artisanal beers and local liqueurs, such as juniper-based genièvre. The red-fruit Folie Douce is commonly drunk an aperitif and pear cider and champagne from the Marne Valley are also popular.
With its 23km of coastline, rugged cliffs, breathtakingly diverse terrain and coastal villages, the Grand Site des Deux-Caps (Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez) is an emblematic area of Hauts-de-France, popular for walks and general outdoor adventure.
The seaside resorts in Hauts-de-France (Berck-sur-Mer, Le Touquet-Paris-Plage and Boulogne-sur-Mer) combine the pleasures of the beach and numerous watersports with the fast-paced thrills of the casino. The scenic Bay of Somme offers countless outdoor activities including kayaking, yachting, hiking, horse-trekking and bike trips. Cyclists can also enjoy riding on the famous cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.Less sporty types can immerse themselves in the best of French fashion at Calais’ Lace Museum, a beautiful, tactile place where you can admire the creations and techniques of the best French and international designers. For shopping, don’t miss the Braderie de Lille open-air flea market (the largest in Europe), where you can browse bric-a-brac to your heart’s content.
You can’t visit Hauts-de-France without experiencing the pungent smells of the local produce at the markets. There are characterful cheeses made here such as Vieux-Lille and the strong, orange cow’s-milk cheese Maroilles, which is used to make the local savoury tart known as flamiche. Wander past bistros and boulangeries and you’re bound to smell the wafts of a freshly-baked flamiche emerging from the oven.
Montreuil-sur-Mer is rapidly developing into the foodie hub of northern France; this small medieval town has a two-Michelin-star restaurant and another with one star, so consider booking well in advance if you fancy a real gourmet treat.
In Amiens, explore the fragrant floating market gardens or hortillonnages, cultivated since the Middle Ages – stroll along the towpaths or explore this intricate network of tiny canals by traditional boat.