There is More to France Than Paris

Four cities in Northern France showcase decadent antiquity and a way of life that is charmingly laid-back.  
There is More to France Than Paris 7
Vieille Bourse was Lille’s old stock market. Photo by: @Pouchin/Getty Images

In 2008, the comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis gave France’s north the image boost it had long been craving. There is a famous scene in the movie where the protagonist is summoned by his superior, who is about to deliver grave news. “Fired?” guesses the hero. “No, worse,” comes the reply. “Transferred.” When our hero finds out that he is to be positioned somewhere up north, he is mortified.

In conversations with newcomers to France’s north, locals often bring up the film. As one resident memorably told me, “First, ze hero is crying because he come to ze north. By ze end, he is crying again… but zis time, because he iz leaving.”

The region, officially known as the Hauts-de-France, has been unfairly characterised by many in France as unsophisticated. But any proud northerner will assure you that this is only because it remains underappreciated. I spent four days across four towns—Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens and Chantilly—and returned with ample stories to tell.

Lille was a young town with cool brasseries and fancy shopping streets while Le Touquet was glamour personified. Amiens bewitched with nature and Chantilly was an experience in royal indulgence.

In summer, the north is at its brightest. Don’t believe the grapevine, the sun comes out often enough. There is no better time to dive deep into a region that offers oodles of what the French call “délice” and what we otherwise call “delight”.

 

Lille

The Vieille Bourse hosts dancing events in its premises and is home to a secondhand book market. Photo by: Ed Norton/Getty Images

The Vieille Bourse hosts dancing events in its premises and is home to a secondhand book market. Photo by: Ed Norton/Getty Images

My first taste of Lille, the cultural seat of French Flanders, is a 30-minute dash around the city in a vintage Citroën convertible. Robin, my driver, sports a fetching grey beret.

By way of conversation, he offers trivia in halting English. “Lot of cafés and young people eeyer… only one Starbucks.” “Zis is Carlton hotel, where Dominique Strauss-Kahn make a mistayke with women.” “Zis street az Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and Hermès.”

Driving past one of the city’s bell towers, he declares, “Der are two belfrys eeyere.” I spot the structure—the top half of its decorated column and a steeple—peeking above the Vieille Bourse.

The Vieille Bourse is Lille’s most extravagant monument, a Flemish Renaissance masterpiece in red brick and pale gold pilasters built when the city was under Spanish rule. As the car sputters along, other 17th- and 18th-century Renaissance buildings come into view and I grasp the contours of Lille. The city is like the Citroën in spirit; compact, refined and underrated.

Chocolateries across Lille are known for their waffles, especially Méert, that was a favourite with Charles de Gaulle. Photo by: Maurice Rougemont/Contributor/Getty Images

Chocolateries across Lille are known for their waffles, especially Méert, that was a favourite with Charles de Gaulle. Photo by: Maurice Rougemont/Contributor/Getty Images

Most of its history is packed into two vibrant public squares—the Place du Général-de-Gaulle, locally known as the Grand Place and Place du Théâtre, the opera house square, both flanked by Flemish and French architectural marvels. Residents and tourists stream into the squares all through the day, spilling out of patisseries and estaminets or just catching their breath, with a glass of local brew.

Lille is only two hours by road from Paris and, in recent years, it has positioned itself as a luxury shopping destination. The bulk of its high-fashion business operates in and around the old town of Vieux-Lille, an eye-catching quarter dotted with narrow alleys and artsy houses.

“You want to go shopping?” asks Isabelle Durand, who is showing me and four other travellers around. She spurs us on encouragingly. “A group of Chinese visitors came here to Lille recently. They spent $30,000 in one store!” Her eyes widen.

In no mood to go splurging, we continue our culture trail instead. Next up, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Treille, or the Lille Cathedral. Despite its ancient provenance, the church elicits mixed feelings.

I can see why; it’s as if the architect was intent on projecting a split personality. Towards the back, the church is a neo-Gothic beauty with stained glass windows, but then I see the facade—a flat marble exterior with iron railings.

Isabelle mutters, “I loved the old church, the beautiful church. Not this thing on the outside.” Construction on the cathedral began in 1854, but it was halted after the two world wars. Finally, in 1999, the incongruous front was hurriedly erected.

Isabelle may not love the church entirely but she adores Lille. A former Parisian, she came here to escape the French capital’s sweaty density. As she argues, “People in Paris are so stressed. But Lille is fun, warm and lively.”

WHEN IN LILLE: Tuck into some regional cuisine, steeped in Flemish influences; a signature preparation is the pot’je vleesch (rabbit, veal, chicken meat, served cold in a pot of savoury jelly with French fries).

 

Le Touquet

Le Touquet is the playground of the French elite, where famous figures like Emmanuel Macron own holiday homes. Photo by: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Staff/Getty Images

Le Touquet is the playground of the French elite, where famous figures like Emmanuel Macron own holiday homes. Photo by: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/Staff/Getty Images

Le Touquet could well be fashioned from the pages of a glossy brochure, the sort where impossibly handsome aristocratic faces frolic on white sandy beaches. An affluent seaside neighbourhood, it’s located an hour from Calais along the Côte d’Opale (the Opal coast), and has long been a swanky retreat for “old money”, not just from France but from all over the world.

Members of British high society have had traditional ties to the place. In the past, frequent visitors included Winston Churchill, Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson, playwright and director Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse. For many Brits, Le Touquet still retains its sheen. Estelle Dubail, my local guide, confirms the town’s elite antecedants saying, “Several families from the U.K. have their holiday homes here.”

In September, when I am here, Le Touquet has fallen silent. Summer nearly wrapped, the town’s swish set has left and the streets wear a deserted look. At the height of peak season (June-August), I might have walked in on sunnier scenes: athletic and toned torsos tanning by the lido; elegantly attired retirees engaged in spirited contests across golf courses and tennis courts; coin slots ringing in casinos; the art deco market near Rue Saint Jean humming with fashionable shoppers; stately manors and pretty villas hosting rip-roaring banquets.

Vacationers here are usually found lazing by the beach (bottom) or hitting the tennis courts, casinos and golf courses. Photo by: Karl Blackwell/Getty Images

Vacationers here are usually found lazing by the beach (bottom) or hitting the tennis courts, casinos and golf courses. Photo by: Karl Blackwell/Getty Images

All is not quiet though. There are some who make the most of even the leanest season. During a leisurely lunch at Spoon, a modern French restaurant overlooking the greens of La Mer, I spot two raucous teams of older gentlemen teeing off. La Mer is one of three courses at Le Touquet Golf Club, the most prominent golfing facility here.

Golf is obviously the sport du jour in any resort town; in Le Touquet, horse riding and bicycling remain popular too but the sport that fascinates this town is sand yachting. Simply put, the activity involves reclining inside a yacht on three wheels, and manoeuvring it on the beach with the help of sails.

My group of five travellers is about to get a first-hand immersion in the sport. We head to the Centre Nautique de la Manche Bertrand Lambert, where our painfully amateur attempts are monitored by instructor Jean Bernard Bacquet. Jean is hawk-eyed and brusque, barking directions at us—“You will all fix your own sails without any help.” So we do just that, lift our yachts and position ourselves inside it lying down and holding tight to the rope attached to our sails. Bacquet sets us off, but steering the yacht in a straight line as the wind bears down on us is a daunting prospect.

More than once, my yacht loses steam, swerves like a car losing control and crashes into the waves. Then, on the third or fourth attempt, with a little nudge from Jean, my sail gains momentum and I glide forward. It’s a minor victory but my loud whoop decidedly proves it meant far more.

WHEN IN LE TOUQUET: Take a tour of Hôtel Barrière Le Westminster, an imperial art  deco property from the 1930s, patronised by celebrities.

 

Amiens

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens has complex carvings that depict biblical scenes. Photo by: Picardy Tourism

The Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens has complex carvings that depict biblical scenes. Photo by: Picardy Tourism

Evenings around Amiens can be romantic or, at least, this one is. The city has wide open, green parks; we are in the gorgeous grounds near the Amiens Cathedral. In the dimming light of dusk, the gardens feed the imagination.

“Remember The Three Musketeers?” my guide Julia Maassen asks. Julia is a German with a degree in history and conducts a walking tour, much like a university professor: great historical context, attention to detail and cheerful storytelling. She continues, “Alexandre Dumas came to one of these beautiful gardens when he was writing his story. They say it was here that he found inspiration for the secret tryst between his characters, Anne of Austria and the Duke of Buckingham.”

There is, however, a more modern affaire d’amour that’s become a part of local canon: President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. Macron went to La Providence, a prestigious private school in the city, where his future wife taught French and Latin. The two are believed to have begun a tentative courtship when the president was a teenager.

In Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, narrow sloping streets are lined by cottages belonging to fisher folk. Many of the houses have quirky fishing decorations. Photo by: Clément Philippe/Dinodia Photo Library

In Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, narrow sloping streets are lined by cottages belonging to fisher folk. Many of the houses have quirky fishing decorations. Photo by: Clément Philippe/Dinodia Photo Library

Maybe the floating gardens—the hortillonnages—bore witness to their youthful rendezvous. The gardens are Amiens’s most recognisable feature; around 65 kilometres of marshy canals, offshoots of the Somme river, which can be accessed by boat. Rustic cottages and colourful flower beds dot islands along the canals, with ducks and swans paddling along peacefully.

It is here that Julia kicks off her tour, leading us to Amiens’s biggest monument, Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens. The cathedral, built between 1220 and 1228, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and twice the size of the Notre-Dame in Paris. It remains the largest Gothic church in France.

“You won’t have time to see the cathedral fully even if you stay here all day,” warns Julia, hinting at the sheer scale of its architecture. From the entrance, the cathedral’s elevation is imposing. Every arch and corner reflects detailed carvings, miniature statues and intricate imagery. Julia is right—the cathedral demands hours of study.

“During the Second World War, the German shelled the cathedral but nothing happened to it because all the firemen focussed their energy on protecting it,” she recounts. “The rest of Amiens burnt down.”

As the tour winds down, Julia checks a few more sights off our list and stops outside the town college—University of Picardy Jules Verne. “Jules Verne lived in Amiens,” she reveals. “You know why he came here? Because his wife was from here.” Aha, another man who fell in love and found Amiens.

AROUND AMIENS: Only an hour’s drive away from Amiens is Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, a fishing community with stunning medieval ruins. Much of the town looks like it is from another time, with houses bearing marine motifs.

 

Chantilly

Chateau de Chantilly is renowned for its Great Stables, where performers put on costumed shows for visitors. Photo by: PEC Photo/Getty Images

Chateau de Chantilly is renowned for its Great Stables, where performers put on costumed shows for visitors. Photo by: PEC Photo/Getty Images

Grande Singerie is a peculiar boudoir, even for a chateau that’s full of eccentric flourishes. Wall-to-wall murals dominate this ornate chamber inside Chateau de Chantilly, a 20,000-acre palace complex belonging to the Condé family, who were cousins of Louis XV and Louis XVI. Each piece of art here, by Christopher Huet, is an anthropomorphic representation of monkeys. They smoke, they eat, they are human.

Chantilly’s heart is this spectacular chateau and its gardens, designed by André Le Nôtre, the landscapist of Versailles. Grande Singerie is one of many opulent chambers in the chateau. The latter also houses Musée Condé (the Condé Museum), which possesses an art collection only second to the Louvre in Paris. Any credit for the chateau’s survival should go to the Duke of Aumale, the last Prince of Condé, who inherited it and ensured it remained intact through wars and revolutions.

Chantilly cream, frothy and smooth as butter, is prepared in the traditional style in Chateau de Chantilly's historic kitchen. Photo by: """Lippman, Peter"""/Getty Images

Chantilly cream, frothy and smooth as butter, is prepared in the traditional style in Chateau de Chantilly’s historic kitchen. Photo by: “””Lippman, Peter”””/Getty Images

As we take in Huet’s art, the museum guide—a stern lady wearing black—issues a terse warning, “Do not mistake these works for criticism.” Anybody reading classist allegory into these paintings, therefore, stand corrected. “This was the king’s cousin’s house, so no criticism here. Purely for fun.”

True enough, why would any feature on Chantilly mock nobility? It still lives like it belongs to an imperial age. The chateau’s Great Stables conducts spectacular equestrian shows with riders performing in powdered wigs and regency frocks. At La Capitainerie, a fine-dining establishment inside the chateau, Olivier Malherbe from the castle’s management team regales my group with tales of royal carousels during the reign of Louis XVII. “The carousels were about the connection between the rider and his horse, and the demonstration of this through exercises,” he says.

As we speak, La Capitainerie’s kitchen is getting ready to showcase a regional signature—the Chantilly cream, known for its smooth, light texture. “It is full of butter, so lot of fat, eh,” says Olivier, then quickly adds, “But let’s not dwell on that.” We nod our heads and dive in. Within minutes, the white moussey concoction is polished off.

Olivier and his horse-riding instructor Delphine, a boisterous American transplant to Chantilly, later join us on a jaunt around the impeccable gardens. Driving in a golf cart, we skim past symmetrical flower beds, blissful water bodies, statues and lavish fountains. Nôtre’s work at Versailles is far more ostentatious, though Olivier believes the man reserved his best for Chantilly. “Versailles has a great palace but we have the better gardens.”

Essentials

Indians visiting Paris have to apply for a single-entry Schengen visa online. No direct flights connect Lille, Le Touquet, Amiens and Chantilly to any Indian city.
All travel must be routed through Paris. From the Charles de Gaulle airport, the four towns are about a 1-to-2-hr drive away and they are also easily accessible by the TGV, an intercity high-speed rail line. The TER line connects the smaller cities.

  • Lakshmi Sankaran fantasizes about a bucket-list journey to witness the aurora borealis someday. Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India, she will also gladly follow a captivating tune to the end of this world.

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