When daffodils start to bloom you know that winter is past and spring is on the way. Time to look for those weekends away and an area worthy of a weekend is the Pas-de-Calais region of Northern France.
It was in Dover on a bright sunny March day I boarded the P&O ferry Spirit of Britain. Travelling in the Brassiere enjoying a well presented meal of steak and salad washed down with a very acceptable white wine made the 90 minute journey to the port of Calais seem even shorter. It was then through formalities and onto the mini bus heading through the beautiful French countryside to our first stop at Guines 18 kms south of Calais.
A visit to “La Tour de L’Horloge”:http://www.tour-horloge-guines.com/en/ in Guines makes for an interesting way to while away an afternoon. Discover the time when the area was invaded by Vikings, sit in a Viking long-ship and watch a depiction of the time, dress up as a Viking Princess or a French Knight. See life as it was in those days or come forward to 1520 when Henry Vlll met Francois 1 and the Cloth of Gold. See how to make chain mail and so much more before finally climbing the outer steps to the grass plateau and clock tower with views over the surrounding town.
Late afternoon, time to make tracks to our hotel for the night, “La Cour de Remi”:https://lacourderemi.com/ in Bermicourt 80 kms south west of Guines. Built during the Restoration Period the former estate buildings of this magnificent house have been transformed into a hotel, restaurant, bedrooms and something very different, a tree house. The accommodations are large with bathrooms to match. With showers, huge marble baths, designer wash basins and herb based toiletries these really are bathrooms with a difference. The beds are large and very comfortable.
The food prepared by Sebastien is a mix of gastronomy and bistro style. Bread, Sauces and jams are made on the premises ensuring quality and freshness. Dinner is taken in the main restaurant where I enjoyed a main of liver accompanied by the lightest, fluffiest mash potato I have ever experienced and a baked apple filled with nuts to finish. Washed down with a good local wine this is a venue I would return to.
Next morning I awake to the sun streaming through the large patio windows of my bedroom. The blue sky has white clouds tinged with red and pink making for a beautiful scene. An early breakfast of meats and cheeses accompanied with coffee as only the French can make it ensure a good start to the day.
Soon it’s all aboard our transport for the short journey to Agincourt and the ‘Centre Historique Medieval’ where we are met by Christophe Gilliot a director of the museum and Chief Evrard of the gendarmerie. Situated in a small village the Agincourt Medieval Centre has as the main attraction a giant model of the battlefield with models of the troops set up in their formations. The museum tells the story of that famous battle on the 15th October 600 years ago when 9,000 English troops of which 7,000 were archers took on 14,000 French soldiers. The battle was a slaughter and only lasted 6 hours during which up to 4,000 of the French troops were killed mainly by the archers who could fire arrows from their long bows at the rate of up to 8 a minute. The museum contains many artefacts, suits of armour and other interesting objects and is well worth a visit. The cost to enter is 7.50€ for adults and 5€ for children.
Lunchtime finds us at a local restaurant, “Charles Vl”:http://www.restaurantcharles6.com/. Very busy at the time of our arrival with nearly every table filled to capacity. The set menu for lunch, confit of duck with stir fried vegetables was well presented and enjoyable and despite the number of diners, service was excellent. Once again this meal was washed down by another excellent local wine making it a memorable meal for the right reasons. A number of menus are offered starting at 17.5€
Before departing Agincourt a visit was made to the local church, the church of Saint Nicolas which unfortunately was locked at the time of our arrival. However the graveyard has a number of beautiful marble grave plots remembering many of the local families and is worth a visit. Leaving the village behind us we make our way to the battle site which today is a very large ploughed field with monuments placed in strategic places on roads surrounding it. It is difficult to imagine how it would have been 600 years ago with 20,000 plus soldiers fighting in thick mud.
Time to head west through the countryside to Hesmond and in particular “La Halte d’Autrefois”:http://www.halte-autrefois.com/, a small farm concentrating on the making of organic goat cheese and baking bread the traditional way. A small herd of goats are tended and milked by the farms owner and the milk turned to cheese which is then sold at the local market or used to barter for other goods in the local area. Baking is carried out twice a week with 3 different types of loaf, plain, seeded and dark. Bread dough, mixed by hand, is left to settle whilst the brick oven is heated with burning wood to a temperature of 250c taking up to 2 hours. Once achieved the dough that forms not only loaves but also scones are slid into the oven for baking, 1 kilo taking 45 minutes. When cooked the bread is sold to callers as well as sold at the local market on Wednesdays. Nearby are small gites by a stream whose banks were covered by flowering snowdrops making the site even more picturesque than it already was. These gites can be rented with baking and cheese making classes available at the farm.
We now head north to the village of Loison-sur-Crequoise and the premises of wine producer Hubert Delobel. With a backdrop of green hills wandered by sheep and lambs it make for a relaxing setting. Created in 1985 “Perle de Grosielle”:http://www.perledegroseille.com/ now produce 80,000 bottles of ‘current’ wine a year through two vats each capable of holding 15,000 litres. The ‘Current Garden’ opened in 2006 has nearly 80 different variety of current and is open daily to the public from the 1st July to 31st August for tasting. During the ‘Feast of the Current’ held this year 18th-19th July Hubert’s wife Cathy offers pancakes with whipped cream and raspberry coulis. The company not only produces wine but preserves and pate in various flavours. Alongside the winery is a modern house with sleeping for 10 that is available to rent. It even has an outdoor hot Jacuzzi.
Now late afternoon it’s time to head north to our overnight stop at the La Sapiniere. A hotel set in the French country side with wonderful views. The rooms are in outbuildings but only yards from the main building where the restaurant is situated. Operated under the direction of Henry-Michel and Anne-Marie Delbeke this is a good choice for an overnight stop and several cars in the carpark bore British registration plates. The large dining room gives views over the local countryside and makes an ideal setting. For starters it is Escargots with Bacon, for my main I select the Rack of Lamb with fresh vegetables and to finish, Pear in Port wine sauce. Another meal to be remembered. Yes, the wine was excellent too, but what French wine isn’t?
The next day is our last in northern France. After an early breakfast it is off to St. Omer where market day is in full swing. However first stop is the Notre Dame Cathedral of St. Omer. A beautiful example of Gothic architecture containing many side chapels, a pulpit carved in wood and tall columns that have stood the test of time. From here it is a short walk to the market square with stalls of brightly coloured fresh fruit and vegetables, stalls selling clothes, shoes, meat, d.i.y tools , flowers and of course living in the age of technology no market would be complete without stalls selling accessories for mobile phones and tablets. I spend the next hour sitting in the sunshine with a coffee taking in the atmosphere before it is time to visit ‘The Marsh in the heart of the City’.
The Audomarois Marshes extending over 3,726 hectares were reclaimed by monks who dug channels into which the marsh water drained to form canals. These canals and the reclaimed land are now the habitat and reserve of 42 species of mammal, 98 of beetle, 400 of plants and flowers, 232 bird, 71 molluscs and 26 of fish. The canals total 170 kilometres in length which eventually reach the sea. This area is a wildlife lover’s dream. Slowly passing along these canals in a traditional boat, passing vegetable gardens and canal side homes is another world yet less than a mile from the city centre. Seeing wildlife you would not usually see as you pass silently along the water in the late winter sunshine. Even the postman has to travel by boat to deliver mail to some of the houses that have been built along the canal edges. The centre is open all year and if in a group wishing to take the boat ride booking is essential. Click “here”:http://maisondumarais.org/ for more info.
Lunch time arrives and I am ready for my visit to “Le Sept de Coeur”:http://www.leseptdecoeur.fr/, a small restaurant owned and operated by Cedric Dussault. For a small restaurant, it only seats 12, the menu is a gastronomic delight. Thinly sliced cured ham to start, mouth watering beef as a main and ice cream to finish. Yes, of course I had wine and again it was excellent. Cedric does the cooking, the waiting and the clearing. A veritable one man band that produces excellent results. To use that well know phrase ‘I’ll be back’.
Sadly it is now time to head back to Calais for the ferry home. Boarding the Pride of Kent we head for the Club lounge where it is time to reflect on the trip over a glass of chilled Champagne. It has consisted of longs days and many miles or should I say kilometres covered. It has though, been a very enjoyable experience, visiting areas that are synonymous with our history. Hotels, restaurants and venues off the main tourist track which have in every case proved what delights Northern France has to offer. This has been a trip that young or old would enjoy, there has been something for everyone and certainly it has whetted my appetite to visit the region again.
My personal thanks not only to the venues whose web sites are shown but also to my hosts who made it such an enjoyable and memorable trip. Benoit Dieval for arranging the venues and being the driver. “P&O Ferries”:http://www.poferries.com/en/portal for conveying me safely across the sea.