Pas de Calais: A Part of France Most Americans Haven’t Seen
By Max Hartshorne
I was pedaling as fast as I could over a dirt road leading toward the English Channel. I stopped to take a break with my guide, Jerome Casagrande, who lives in the small town of Wissant, and I asked him how many Americans visit this part of Northern France.
He paused for a moment before replying. ‘None.” I was his first Yank, he said that Canadians come to ride with him but never Americans.
A WWII Pillbox
We were on mountain bikes on a windy June day; our destination was a WWII pillbox perched atop a hill. It must have made a great lookout for the Germans but the invasion of 1944 would come far to the south, more than 225 miles from this windy place.
The bunker was never used, but like so many of these concrete edifices, it remains a part of France’s coastal landscape.
I was in Pas-de-Calais, the district of France it seems, few Americans ever venture. I was pleased to be discovering a part of France that was totally new to me.
Not only is there fantastic mountain biking over farm roads and through gorgeous little villages, but also a wealth of World War I history, cities that were both beautiful and full of fascinating buildings, and as usual in France, food that I’d remember long after it was gone.
This is the busiest shipping channel in the world, with more than 500 ships passing by every day to the busy port of Rotterdam to the north, and it’s also home to France’s biggest fishing port, Boulogne-sur-Mer.
You can visit the outside of this cavernous shrine to all things fishy, but you can’t go in and buy any fish unless you buy wholesale for a restaurant or market.
Amiens on Rails
My trip to Pas de Nord began with a pleasant train trip through Amiens to the station at Arras. I was pleased that my rail pass from RailEurope provided me with the first-class service.
If I had wanted to take the more glamorous and much faster Tres Grand Vitesse, or TGV, I would have had to pay an additional $30 Euros on top of the cost of the rail pass.
I was happy to watch the rolling fields zip by and when my guide Benoit met me, we were off to the newest museum in the region, the fantastic Louvre-Lens. (Read more about this new museum on GoNOMAD)
A night in a French Mansion
Just a short drive from the Louvre-Lens, our lodgings would turn out to be regal. We drove up the gravel driveway and into the courtyard of what looked like a very rich person’s house.
It was indeed a former home of a millionaire–but today it’s Le Chartreuse, an elegant country hotel with a terrific four-star restaurant called Le Robert II.
This is the kind of place where tuxedoed waiters stand patiently waiting to serve you, and the spectacular menu is enhanced when they roll out a massive cheese tray.
The beef was Wagyu, topped with summer truffles, and it was so tender you could cut it with a fork. Benoit had a red mullet fillet with tomato conserve and squid, equally impressive and delicious.
We sampled cheeses from the north and sipped our espressos from embossed china demitasse cups. Elegant wasn’t a good enough word for this luxurious hotel and this dining room!
Despite our regal lodgings, the next day we’d get closer to the ground on mountain bikes. We met my aforementioned bicycle guide at his small shop in the town center of Wissant, and soon I was in the peloton of a pack of mountain bike riders, zooming down a dirt farm road with spectacular views of farmland all around us.
No, this was not a ride that any Americans had taken, but there are plenty of great reasons why many more might just want to.
The little eight-year-old cyclist continued to roar ahead of us, and after our visit to the pillbox, it was down and around some village streets before hitting the field roads once again.
Later on, I wanted a better view of the channel and we hiked up to a lookout with the wind whipping our coats and making us hang on to our hats. Farmland stretched as far as the eye could see, only stopped by the channel’s waves pounding the coast.
The town of Calais is where all of those ferries were heading. After a peek at the extremely wide beach filled with kiteboarders and the usual Frite trucks, we explored this old city.
The town hall is a magnificent building with a tall belltower; right next to it is a Rodin sculpture. We rode the elevator up to the top of the spire and gazed out at the big main ferry terminal, where cars were disembarking from the 26-mile trip over Calais town hall, with Rodin sculpture.
The city was completely rebuilt in the 1950s after being devasted during World War II by German and Allied forces.
My guide Benoit told me how much he enjoyed popping over to England every few months to drink beer in a pub and go shopping.
People who live in Pas-de-Calais regularly cross the channel either by car through the tunnel, or by ferry. Prices are very low because of all the competition; you can get there for just 45 euros round trip, car included. There are also three-day specials through Dec 31 for just 38 euros!
Le Touquet Paris-Plage
I love old beach towns, and especially ones with a long history of being big attractions. The old Atlantic City, for example, before the casinos came, used to be a charming, fun place to visit. The town of La Touquet Paris-Plage is indeed a faded old beauty, with a legacy of once being Paris’ favorite beach destination.
That was before Provence took its spot right after WWII. But Touquet was the star in the days before the war, I was told by my host Martine.
The years 1920-1944 were “les Annee fol,” or the crazy years when movie stars and glamourous Parisians enjoyed the beach and the nightlife of this small seaside town. About 6000 people live here year around today, and in the summer the population swells to 15,000 on weekends.
As we toured one of the 18 golf courses in town and surroundings, she told me she was once a champion golfer at the course. It was obvious as we toured in a golf cart and so many people waved to her as we drove by.
A Massive Beach with Sail Karts
The beach at La Touquet is massive, it’s so wide it stretches out as far as you can see. It is used for many things besides swimming and water sports. Every February, about 800 dirt bikes converge on a track made in the sand and roar around, followed by legions of four-wheel ATVs, hurtling through the sand chasing glory.
The Enduro is an epic event that attracts thousands of spectators, even in the chill of February. Next to the big beach, is a pretty wooded area where you can walk, or ride a horse. Other times you’ll spot kite surfers, kayakers, and many small sailboats offshore here.
When we joined a nature walk there, even in French I learned a whole lot about the creatures that are usually ignored lying on a beach. But each tiny shell, or casing, tells a story, and we learned about flora and fauna as we patrolled the beach, looking down at the creations of nature and out at the kiteboarders whipping by in the high-intensity wind.
In Le Touquet, two sports are popular which I had never heard of. While we stood next to the Yacht club, an army of men and women clad in wetsuits began walking in a long line toward and finally, into the waves.
Then they started marching along in the waist-high water, all following an instructor. It’s called Ocean Walking, and you can find locals practicing this cool new way to exercise most mornings here.
Next to where we watched the ocean walkers was a parking lot full of three-wheeled chariots with sails. These are sand yachts, and they are used to zip along the big wide beach when the wind is just right.
Unfortunately for us, the wind was too strong during my visit, so we never go to try it out. But sailing along on a wide beach being pushed by The
The powerful winds, while you control the steering like a go-kart, sounds pretty great to me! Next time, for sure.
Le Touquet’s neighborhoods that we visited are elegant, with many oversized Anglo-Norman mansions, signs that this is still an affluent community despite Provence’s popularity with Parisians.
It’s also a town that still supports a very active horse scene and on Sundays, there are tournaments here with some of France’s best horse jumpers. The grounds where the jumps take place also have a racing oval.
The town’s narrow streets have a lot of interesting stores. I visited one shop, part of a French chain, called Conserverie La Belle-iloise that features thousands of different cans of tinned fish. Sardines, mackerel, oysters, the most outstanding selection of sardines ever assembled in one shop.
Rue de Metz in La Touquet also has many restaurants and cafes and is the heart of the Horse competition in La Touquet Paris-plage.
It was too hard to resist as a sardine aficionado, and I brought home a six-pack of some of France’s finest sardines in olive oil. There are also fish markets, with a sparkling array of crustaceans and fish from the nearby Boulogne-sur-Mer commercial fish market.
I stayed at the Castel Victoria, which features small rooms but low nightly rates. Who cares who big the rooms are when there is a giant beach two blocks away?
Downstairs there is a cozy bar and the free wifi made keeping in touch with the home front a breeze.
Brasserie Les Sports
The hotel is also an easy walk from some lively nightlife, including the most popular joint in town, the Brasserie Les Sports. On a busy Saturday night, the streets were teeming with rowdy partiers.
This year the region is promoting a World War I trail, that takes travelers to many cemeteries and battle sites from this great war to end all wars. Discover it for yourself.
Useful resources for Nord Pas de Calais:
Bike tours in Wissant, from Atoutsport.fr 03 21 17 20 51 Jerome Casagrande
La Chartreuse 1 Rue de Fouquieres, 62199 Gosnay 00 33 03 21 62 80 00. Like staying in a castle, with a fantastic restaurant and elegant rooms.