Most people hurtle through Pas de Calais on their way South but it’s an easy hop across the channel, particularly if you use Eurostar.
It makes for a good weekend break and December has special attractions – the Christmas markets of Bethune and Arras are in full swing, there’s an excellent 2* Michelin restaurant and the Louvre Lens has just updated its display.
Of course, this was the front line during WW1 and rain showers coupled with an icy wind brings home what it must have been like in the trenches at this time of the year. No wonder they declared a Christmas ceasefire and had a game of football, commemorated at the new peace memorial in Neuville-St-Vaast. The towns, all flattened and then rebuilt, celebrate the run up to Christmas with their own distinctive markets.
Arras has the largest market in Northern France, crowned by a big wheel which allows you to get an overview of the town and enjoy their Christmas lights. The famous Grand Place or main square was painstakingly reconstructed as it appeared before the war and the side of the famous belfry has a programmed light show. Mulled wine is on offer whilst you wander the market looking for those special gifts.
You can also buy cheese and sausage here and sample oysters and seafood. For serious food shopping, visit the specialist shops around the town. Try the unpasteurised local cheeses at La Prairie Fromagerie and buy cakes and chocolates from Sébastien Thibault. You’ll be drawn by the aromas from Maison VAYEZ, a specialist tea and coffee shop and relax with a local beer at Au Comptoir de Fred.
Underneath the town is an extensive network of tunnels dug in the middle ages but enlarged and connected during WW1. They ran from the centre of Arras to the German front lines and, in the 1917 Arras Offensive, 24,000 Allied troops burst out in front of the Germans and caught them by surprise. Guided tours are available but I get a private view of a rather unusual activity. Jean Francois Dubois of La Finarde matures his cheese in one of them – it’s slightly eerie to go underground and be surrounded by rows of mouldy cheeses, cobwebs hanging from the ceiling.
Nearby Béthune was also completely destroyed during WW1 but, unlike Arras, they choose to rebuild in a contemporary style. The result is a charming collection of Art Deco buildings, built in the Flemish style, best viewed from the top of the belfry in the main square. They also stage a Christmas market, on a smaller scale than Arras, but still useful for last minute present ideas.
Coal mining was the once main livelihood of this area, but now the pits are quiet and the huge slag heaps grassed over. They’ve been given UNESCO Heritage status and put to new uses – one has a vineyard, another grows crocus for saffron. In the centre of Lens, at 42 place Jean Jaurès, it’s worth visiting the Jeanson chocolate shop and its salon de thé.
Another recent addition is the Louvre-Lens, a purpose-built gallery displaying some of the treasures of the Louvre in a large airy space. Unlike its parent, over 200 artworks are arranged in chronological order from the birth of writing, around 3500 BC, to the middle of the 19th century. They also replace 20% of their collection every December so this is a good time to see the new exhibits.
The temporary exhibition space changes every three months. Until 21 January 2019, its theme is Love with sections devoted to seduction, passion, worship among others and there’s even one room where parental discretion is advised. Here you’ll find a What the Butler Saw 19th-century silent movie and pornographic drawings from the same period.
A sobering experience, just outside the town is the Lens’ 14-18 War and Peace History Centre. Although there are a few artefacts from the time, it’s the unique graphic material, including over 300 large high-quality photographs, which bring home the horrors of war. They tell the story from the point of view of everyone involved, including the Germans. You can examine the war records here and I discover my great uncle died in December 1914. Sadly he didn’t even make the football match.
Tell me more about Christmas Markets and Northern France
Tourisme Lens has information about the town.
Le Chateau de Beaulieu has beautiful rooms with Marc Meurin’s excellent 2* Michelin cooking, just outside Bethune. He always gives cooking lessons on Saturday mornings.
Hotel Le Mercure Arras Centre Gare makes a convenient base.
The newly opened Hotel Louvre Lens is right opposite the gallery and has good food in its Galibot restaurant.
Eat and Drink
Page 24, just outside Arras, brews good local beer and they open their bar on Friday and Saturday nights.
L’Oeuf ou la Poule in Arras serves excellent local chicken dishes.
Anagram, on the Grande Place in Arras, is a stylish bistro.
Eurostar has a speedy one hour service from St Pancras to Calais. There are good train connections to all the towns mentioned.