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How to spend a weekend in Pas-de-Calais

Take a break in northern France and discover an authentic, picturesque, and welcoming corner between the sea and the land says Janine Marsh鈥

The department of Pas-de-Calais in the north of France is a land of contrasts. The unspoiled Opal Coast stretches for 75 miles, a shoreline of demerara sugar-coloured sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs, Belle-Epoque seaside resorts and flourishing fishing villages. Inland, the pastoral countryside is peppered with picturesque villages and historic towns. In Saint-Omer just 30 minutes from Calais, is France鈥檚 last cultivated wetland, a UNESCO-listed biosphere, a haven for wildlife and the only place in France where post is delivered to the island homes by boat!

There鈥檚 just so much to see and do – and I should know, I live here! But allow me to save you time, here are just a few favourites to show you how to spend a weekend in Pas-de-Calais:

Fabulous for Families

Follow the route of the Opal Coast and you鈥檒l discover traditional little seaside villages where kids can dash up and down sand dunes, paddle and pootle about in rock pools, and fly kites on the boundless breezy beaches. The perfect outing for waterproof children and patient parents.

At the in Guines, discover the history of the area from the Vikings to the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 when King Henry VIII visited and jousted with the King of France. Kids can dress up like a Viking or a knight, play games and board a Viking ship!

Goggle at a dragon in Calais! Yes really. A fire-breathing, eye-lid batting, 72-tonne dragon roams the historic sites of Calais several times a day and lives in a glass lair on the beach. Take a 45-minute ride on the dragon鈥檚 back (kids under 3 go free).听

Nirvana for nature lovers

This area is great for wandering or cycling. Meander the coastal paths of the GR120 alongside dunes and sandy beaches, or head inland to discover unspoiled countryside criss-crossed by a network of thousands of miles of maintained and sign posted routes. Pop into any local tourist office for details and maps and look or for the V茅lo漏 sign which flags up bike-friendly restaurants, accommodation, charging points, rental, and repair shops.

At the seaside resort of Berck-sur-Mer, head down to the water鈥檚 edge on the south side of the beach on the Baie d鈥橝uthie, to see a huge colony of more than 100 wild seals splashing about in the water, lazing about on the sandbanks, and calling out to each other.

Cosy up under a blanket on the hills of the Deux Caps, the Two Cliffs, which overlook the White Cliffs of Dover and enjoy a picnic. Nothing says France more than a baguette with a chunk of cheese or some tasty charcuterie with a glass of wine 鈥 or a flask of coffee.

Uncover the ancient history of the marshes of Saint Omer at the Maison du Marais interpretive centre. First dug out by monks in the 7th century, there鈥檚 still a thriving market garden in this horticultural wonderland. You can tour the marshes by boat (O鈥橫arais by Isnor), discover the traditional wooden boat makers, they are also the last to make boats using Viking methods in France, and spot a wealth of waterfowl and other wild creatures.

Fabulous for Foodies

Chocoholics will love the . Take a 45-minute tour (in French and English) to witness the magical bean to bar chocolate process.

Sweet dreams are made of cheese! Try the local fromages – from the King of pongy cheeses Vieux Boulogne, to stinky but scrumptious Maroilles. You鈥檒l find plenty of bistros and estaminets (traditional Flemish inns) serving mussels and chips and local dishes like beef stew cooked with locally produced sugar and beer and a regional regional favourite 鈥 Le Welsh. Legend has it that Welsh soldiers introduced the Welsh rarebit during Henry VIII鈥檚 siege of Boulogne in 1544.

Beer 鈥 the Champagne of northern France! They鈥檝e made beer for centuries here and there is a thriving microbrewery scene. At Brasserie La Br猫che in Bethune, try the craft ales made with passion and at Chez Marcel in Arras, meet with a 鈥榖eerologist鈥 and enjoy a tasting session.

Wander a market 鈥 you鈥檒l find some of the best here and there are markets every day of the week. On Friday head to Etaples voted best market in France in 2021. On Saturday there are excellent markets in Montreuil-sur-Mer, Saint-Omer, and the Sunday market in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Historic Cities and Cultural hotspots

Meet the Greeters 鈥 discover the secret hotspots only the locals know about. The greeter system operates across the region with volunteer guides showing you around 鈥榯heir鈥 France, sharing snippets of local history to groups of up to six. Completely free.

Arras is the perfect small city to leave the car behind and take a stroll. The two main squares are unique in Europe, lined with columned arcades and 155 houses in sumptuous baroque Flemish style. The cobbled Place des H茅ros, is dominated by the UNESCO-listed belfry which tops the architecturally glorious town hall. Voted France鈥檚 favourite monument in 2015, the 75m high platform is the perfect perch from which to drink in the magnificent views over the town. And say hello to the giants, adored heritage figures of the north of France, who stand guard on the ground floor.

Medieval Montreuil-sur-Mer sits atop a hill overlooking the Dordogne-like countryside of the Seven Valleys 鈥 there is no sea despite mention of la mer in the name. Take a wander round the ramparts, visit the 16th century Citadel which was fortified by Louis XIV鈥檚 engineer Vauban, and stroll the towns cobbled streets and squares and stop for a mug of steaming hot chocolate in the main square before the pretty Italianate theatre. It was in this town in 1837 that Victor Hugo stopped for lunch and was so impressed by his experiences in the town, it inspired him to write Les Miserables.

Bring history lessons to life:

Indelibly marked by two world wars, there are many major remembrance sites in听Pas de Calais and many museums and monuments pay homage.

In Arras, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Experience in Beaurains offers a fascinating glimpse into the organisation’s painstaking work maintaining Commonwealth cemeteries, monuments, and memorials around the world. And the nearby Wellington Tunnels are an immersive memorial to the Battle of Arras, a step back in time to the First World War.

La Coupole near Saint-Omer, a 55,000-tonne concrete dome with 18 feet thick walls, is where Hitler had a secret V2 rocket base built. Today it is a fascinating and haunting historical and scientific museum, and home to the most advanced planetarium in the world. With a unique 15m wide screen with 10K resolution, watch incredible 3D films from interactive seats.

In the port towns of Dunkirk and Calais and all around the Opal coast you鈥檒l find monuments, memorials and museums dedicated to the two world wars and offering a fascinating window to the past. Don鈥檛 miss the Atlantic Wall Museum in Audinghen, a German World War II fortress with its eerily undisturbed relics from uniforms to cutlery and cups. Outside is an incredibly well-preserved and rare railway gun.

Climb Napoleon鈥檚 Column in Wimille on the outskirts of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Here, in 1804 the great general and Emperor of France mustered his forces and had 2000 ships built, in sight of England. Though the planned invasion never took place, Napoleon began the tradition of the Legion d鈥橦onneur medals, and the moment is marked by this immense column. Climb 296 steps for eye-popping views over the English Channel.

Azincourt 1415 Museum takes you further back in time and tells the tumultuous tale of one of history鈥檚 most famous battles: Agincourt. Brush up on the history of this monumental moment in time, where the battle was over in just hours, making the British victors and King Henry V legends for the rest of time.

If you鈥檙e thinking 鈥榯hat鈥檚 a lot to pack in for a weekend鈥 you鈥檙e right 鈥 stay longer!

Find loads more to see and do at:

Janine Marsh is the author of听 several internationally best-selling books about France. Her latest book How to be French听鈥 a celebration of the French lifestyle and听art de vivre, is out now 鈥 a look at the French way of life. Find all books on her website听

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