Things to Do in Nord-Pas de Calais
As the highest municipal building of France at 104 meters high, the Lille belfry, attached to the town hall (Beffroi de l'Hôtel de Ville de Lille), is certainly a must when in the north of France. Both the belfry and town hall are reminiscent of Flemish architecture with their typical triangular gables and red bricks – understandably, so, considering the border to Belgium is just a few kilometers away. The belfry was built in 1932 as part of the reconstruction of the town hall, which was, unfortunately, torn to pieces during the First World War. And although it is not in use anymore, the belfry contains a headlight that was once used to inform the population of imminent municipal gatherings. Because of how it dominates the city, the belfry offers unobstructed and unparalleled 360-degree views of Lille, and even surrounding areas on clear days. The city hall and its belfry have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005.
Vieux-Lille—the city’s Old Town—is its most historic quarter, with notable Flemish-style architecture and major landmarks. The area, located just north of the city center, dates back centuries. Come for the history, architecture, and its gourmet food and drink offerings.
Notre Dame de la Treille Cathedral in Lille is a Roman Catholic church that took almost 150 years to complete. The building is known for its modern stained glass panels and impressive organ.
The Hospice Comtesse Museum is the city museum of Lille, housed in an old hospital founded by Jeanne, Countess of Flanders in the 13th century. You’ll find paintings, tapestries, wood sculptures, porcelain objects, and more on display.
The Wellington Quarry (Carrière Wellington) museum opened in March 2008 in Arras in the North of France, inside a quarry used during World War I. It commemorates those who built the tunnels and, subsequently, fought in the Battle of Arras during World War I. The Arras Tunnels formed an intricate network that ran from the town center to the German front lines, and housed over 20,000 soldiers of the British Empire and the Commonwealth. In fact, it was New Zealand soldiers who named the quarry after the city of the same name in their home country.
Although they were used as air shelters during the Second World War, the tunnels remained essentially forgotten until their rediscovery in 1990. 350 meters of the quarry’s galleries, located approximately 22 meters underground, can be accessed today. The museum showcases historical artifacts to help visitors understand the context around the Battle of Arras, notably why the military strategy was so remarkable at the time and what life was like for the underground soldiers.
Charles de Gaulle is one of the most celebrated Frenchmen of the past few centuries—and Lille’s Birthplace of Charles de Gaulle (Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle) offers a glimpse into the early years of the French general and statesman. Visit his birthplace-turned-museum to see family keepsakes, documents, and other mementos.
Lille’s main public square, the Grand Place—which also goes by the Place du Général de Gaulle—is a top gathering point in this northerly city. Grand Palace is ringed by many of the city’s historic buildings and attractions, including the Vieille Bourse, and located in Lille’s atmospheric Old Town (Vieux-Lille).
Just outside the Belgian border with France stands a First World War cemetery built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission containing the graves of 250 British and Australian soldiers who died on July 19, 1916, in the Battle of Fromelles - a diversionary battle, which only occured in order to draw the attention of the Germans away from the larger attacks elsewhere in Somme. It involved units of the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division, but alas, the Germans were well-prepared and the British Empire troops suffered great losses.
Dating back from just 2009, Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery was the first new Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery to be built in commemoration of World War I in over 50 years; the last such cemeteries having mostly been in remembrance of the Second World War. The reason for this somewhat unusual delay is that analysis of historical aerial photographs showed the presence of mass graves on the edge of Pheasant Wood, which were confirmed after excavation works in 2008. Over 250 British and Australian bodies from five mass graves and some 6,200 individual artifacts have since been successfully identified using DNA analysis.
What were once dugouts for battalion headquarters, today serves as one of the largest historical cemeteries in the region. The Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery contains some 7,655 burials from World War I, and according to experts, nearly half of these remain unidentified.
The cemetery includes roughly 7,000 graves from those who died while at war in Arras, as well as a handful from burial grounds in Nod Pas-de-Calais, but nearly 50 Canadians who died during the Battle of Vimy Ridge are also laid to rest here. In early 2000, Canada exhumed a body from one such grave and laid him to rest in Ottawa, where he now memorializes all lost soldiers.
Pozieres is a small village in rural France that was the setting of a two-week confrontation during the Battles of Somme of World War I. It is where, between March and April 1918, the German Fifth Army was driven further out into the fields of Somme by overwhelmingly large numbers of British corps that were on a mission to compromise the nearby German bastion of Thiepval. Although it technically involved the British Empire, Pozières is really an Australian battle - seeing as it involved over 23,000 corps and that the Australian flag flies over several buildings in recognition of the sacrifice of the ANZACs – even though the cemetery does not bare any Australian names; instead, Australian soldiers who fell in France and whose graves are not known are commemorated at the National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
There are 2,758 Commonwealth servicemen buried or commemorated in the Pozières cemetery. As such, the memorial and cemetery comprise a stunning gateway building with open colonnade walkways, making way to the remains of a blockhouse named "Gibraltar" which was a three-meter-high blockhouse-observation point. It also contains the Tank Memorial, with four small-scale models of the tanks used by the British between 1916 and 1918 – the first army to use tanks.
More Things to Do in Nord-Pas de Calais
Located in the hamlet of Haringzelle, Audinghen, near Cape Gris Nez, in Pas de Calais, the Todt Battery (Batterie Todt) was once one of the most important coastal fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. It was built by the Germans during World War II and consisted of four Krupp guns capable of reaching the British coast, each with a range of up 55.7 kilometers and protected by a bunker. One of those now houses a museum called Musée du Mur de l'Atlantique that’s entirely dedicated to World War II, where visitors learn more about military history through displays of various hardware.
The Battery officially fired its first shell in February 1942 and, after an intense aerial bombardment, was taken in September 1944 by Anglo-Canadians troops as part of Operation Undergo. Todt Battery was originally supposed to be called Siegfried Battery; that changed when the engineering mastermind responsible for building the Atlantic Wall, Fritz Todt, died in a plane crash just a few days before the battery’s inauguration.
Also known as Helen’s Tower, Ulster Tower is a memorial dedicated to the Irishmen who lost their lives on the Somme battlefields in France in World War I. Built in 1921 thanks to funds collected by public subscription, Ulster Tower is an exact replica of the famous white-washed, 70 feet (21 metres) high stone memorial on the 36th Division's training ground in Belfast, where many soldiers of the Ulster Division trained before moving to France in order to attack a German strongpoint named Schwaben Redoubt, just a little further north-east of where Ulster Tower stands today. The battle site was a triangle of trenches of 500–600 yards (460–550 meters) long and 200 yards (180 meters) wide; the Ulster men captured the redoubt on July 1, 1916, suffering casualties of roughly 5,000.
Designed in neo-Gothic style, the memorial site features a plaque commemorating the names of the men who won the Victoria Cross during the Somme battles. Ulster Tower contains a small memorial room, with plaques of remembrance from regiments and public authorities in Northern Ireland as well as a Book of Remembrance for visitors to sign. A visitor center opened next to the Tower in the 1990s, providing insightful and contextual information to World War I buffs.The inscription on the memorial reads: "This Memorial is Dedicated to the Men and Women of the Orange Institution Worldwide, who at the call of King and country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of man by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in Freedom. Let those who come after see to it that their names be not forgotten."
With a collection spanning the centuries, the Palais des Beaux-Arts has something for everyone. Inside, you’ll find works from some of Europe’s most celebrated artists, including Raphael, Bosch, Goya, Monet, and many others.
Home to one of France’s most significant modern and contemporary art collections, Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art was established in 1983. Wander the museum’s expansive gallery spaces and collection and view highlights that include works by Picasso, Modigliani, Miró, and other modernist luminaries.
Opened in 1822, Lille's Natural History Museum (Musée d'Histoire Naturelle de Lille) is one of Lille’s oldest and is the only of its kind in Nord / Pas-de-Calais. The fact that the museum still stands to this day is nothing short of a miracle, seeing as it overcame two World Wars and yet continued adding items to its ever-expanding collections – that now comprises of over 200,000 specimens. It now focuses on two main themes, mineralogical and zoological. The former has tens of thousands of minerals and paleontological items, some of which date back 400 million years. The latter, on the other hand, contains 1,500 mammals, 1,000 reptiles and 100,000 insects to name a few, including several now-extinct species from around the world like the Iguanodon dinosaur, the Tasmanian Tiger and the Passenger Pigeon. Throughout its exhibitions the museum present the history of earth and life with various interactive displays and informative posters, encouraging visitors to care for the rapidly disappearing species and preserve the planet’s precious legacy.
As a farming village located 8 miles north of Arras in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Ablain-Saint-Nazaire was almost completely destroyed during World War I. But the horrors of the war did not spare this tranquil village; one of the most striking monuments to have fallen under gunfire (with front lines only two kilometers away) was the Ablain-Saint-Nazaire Church, a 16th-century flamboyant Gothic masterpiece built upon the request of local lord Charles de Bourbon-Carency to honor Saint Nazarius and the role he played in the healing of the lord’s sick daughter.
The Ancient Monuments Commission of France listed the church in 1908, right before the war started, while the same committee opted against rebuilding the magnificent church 10 years later. The committee wanted to preserve the poignant ruins as a testament to the German brutality and ruthlessness — a bone-chilling sight scarred by the war, and where time seems to have stood still for the past century. Shell holes are still visible today on most stones that make up these roofless yet utterly fascinating ruins. A new church was later built on the other side of town, which fortunately, still stands today.
The Maison Folie Hospice d'Havré, a historic monastery, is not only remarkable because of its history, but also because of its current vocation. Founded in the 12th century by the daughter of a local count, the monastery remained in use until the late 1990s – its chapel, the cloisters and the refectory façade were recently added to the list of historic monuments of France. Throughout its history the monastery was used as a hospital and school for young girls. But what used to be a place of worship is now a place for cultural exchanges under the theme of art. The hospice welcomes an eclectic mix of activities pertaining to the arts, like dancing, painting, cinema, theatre and music shows on a regular basis. The hospice is also noteworthy for its beautiful garden, which is filled with medicinal herbs.
The town of Calais is more of a throughway than a destination. That’s because each year some 15 million people pass by this quiet nook en route to Dover, but very few actually stop. Still, seasoned travelers say this major ferry port, which is also the largest city in Pas-de-Calais, has a few hidden gems that make it worth overnighting.
The World War II museum on Part St Pierre is housed inside a former Nazi military bunker and the museum’s 20 rooms are filled with photographs and artifacts that help make history come alive. The Citadel on Avenue Roger Salengro, once housed a medieval castle, but today travelers can venture to this spot for epic views of the White Cliffs of Dover. And the pre-war Watch Tower, which dates back to the early 1900s, is one of the most historic monuments in the town of Calais.
The community of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) in northern France is known for its roles in World Wars I and II, but there’s more to this quiet destination than army and military memorials. Art lovers will find an extensive collection of Flemish, Italian and French paintings and sculptures at the Musee des Beaux-Arts. History buffs will do well to check out the Musee Portuaire, which has exhibits that examine Dunkirk’s past, as well as the background of its famous port.
The Liar’s Tower, Dunkirk Town Hall and Church Saint Eloi are among the place’s top architectural wonders and ever popular Carnival—a yearly celebration between January and March that celebrates fishermen heading out to sea—remains one of Dunkirk’s biggest tourist attractions.
Le Fresnoy National Studio for Contemporary Arts (Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains)
The Le Fresnoy National Studio for Contemporary Arts (Le Fresnoy Studio National des Arts Contemporains) located in the Lille suburbia acts as both a teaching establishment and a museum; its goal being to give northern France residents and visitors easy access to the arts of all forms (cinema, photography, applied arts, musique, living arts, etc.) in a state-of-the-art building. Its genesis is to integrate audiovisual techniques to its productions, making Le Fresnoy an exclusive place for locals to experiment with various practices – the museum creates over 50 pieces every year. In a nutshell, Le Fresnoy is kind of like “dance studio meets movie set”; every movement, every pain stroke is subject to technological embellishments. Because of its unique mission, the museum has welcomed several world-class art exhibitions over the years, and continues to be acclaimed by other museums around the world. The museum also houses a cinema and regular exhibitions aimed at children.
Far from being a museum dedicated to pools, La Piscine Museum (Musée d'Art et d'Industrie André Diligent) in Roubaix is in fact an arts museum houses in a former indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool. This somehow peculiar location was chosen because it features an outstanding art deco interior, having been built in 1927. The swimming pool remained in use until 1985, and was given a second life as an arts museum in 2000. The museum holds items that date back from 1835, most of which were collected from a textile factory that once stood next door. Elements of literature, science and fine arts were added to enhance the collection of historic textiles and to form an extensive exhibition dedicated to the fruitful alliance between applied arts and industry. Some of the most famous paintings and sculptures found at La Piscine include works from Rodin, Picasso, Claudel, Gérôme, Stark, van Dongen and other contemporaries – which, of course, are complimented by the architectural marvel that is La Piscine Museum.
Between March 17, 1943, and May 1, 1944, 68 antagonists were shot by Nazis at the Bondues Fort. It’s on the ruins (the fort was destroyed by the Germans before they evacuated the area in 1944) of this very fort that stands Bondues' Museum of the Resistance (Musée de la Résistance). The museum is a symbol of strength if there ever was one, honoring the memory of these gallant dead. Dedicated to the resistance movement in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region during World War II, the museum features exclusive artifacts, reconstitutions and knick-knacks related to Wold War II, organized in a noteworthy scenography throughout five different rooms named Memories, Refusal, Courage, Engagement and Sacrifice. A memorial to the memory of the 68 victims was erected in 1997.
Plunge straight into Flander’s textile history at this historic manufacture located right outside of Lille. A professionally-trained guide explains visitors how textile is created from mere wool, how the different machines work, telling the story of these men and women who dedicated their lives to their craft. Seven 10-minute-long videos depict the ambiance of the manufacture, exploring different aspects of textile making. As a museum of its time, La Manufacture de Roubaix not only recounts the history of local textiles but also exploits the concepts of eco-friendly performances, local markets and innovative techniques, which are all essential to a sustainable production nowadays.
A great museum for those interested in Lille’s military history, the Museum of the Gunners in Lille (Musée des Canonniers Sédentaires de Lille) explains the story of the Sainte Barbe Brotherhood (one of the oldest artillery units in Europe) and their implication in the defense of the city over the centuries. Indeed, Lille, because of its strategic and thus precarious position, required an effective militia as well as walled fortifications in order to survive – something that would later on be proved necessary, seeing as the city went from being Flemish, Bourguignone, Imperial and Spanish before becoming French, all in the matter of a few centuries. The museum’s exhibitions, presented in the former Urbanist convent, holds over 3,000 objects of various genres like artifacts, weapons like firearms and cannons (including the famous Gribeauval cannons that Napoleon Bonaparte offered to the canoneers himself), documents and equipment related to the city’s defense.