French Flanders, like next-door neighbour Belgian Flanders, is focusing massive attention on its turbulent past – and that isn’t just its pivotal role in the two world wars but dating way back past the Napoleonic wars to the Hundred Years War we all know about from the writings of William Shakespeare. Battlefield tourism has become a very big business.
October 24th, 1415, the St. Crispin’s Day of Henry V, is commemorated at the fascinating Azincourt museum, tucked away deep in the delightful Seven Valleys countryside, between Hesdin and Fruges.
Nearing completion here is a major redevelopment that ensures a far more hands-on digital-age historical experience.
The English army was outnumbered almost two to one when the battle commenced but a hail-storm of arrows unleashed by Henry’s Welsh archers led to a panic and frantic retreat that spelt death or captivity for the cream of France’s knights, many of whom were crushed under-foot in the deep mud as the steep terrain funnelled them into an ever-narrowing gap.
As we criss-crossed the region of Flanders, evocative memories of momentous historical events from history seemed to leap out at us from behind bushes, down secret lanes and suburban alleyways or showcased in majestic city squares. Walled and moated cities and towns; imposing memorials; preserved sections of trench and a host of fascinating museums were all part of the mix.
Our five-day motoring tour of the region started with a couple of overnights at the outstanding La Charteuse du Val Saint-Esprit, in the village of Gosnay. It’s an estate that provides not one but two very good hotels – the decidedly upmarket château-style La Chartreuse itself and the Best Western affiliated La Maitaire – and three restaurants on the one site, a beautifully restored and refurbished one-time convent and impressive outbuildings with roots back to the 1300s.
Also in Gosnay is the Cantiques de Gosnay Unité d’Art Sacré, which comprises an important collection of 70 religious paintings, 10 stained glass windows and sculptures, created by René Ducourant.
The close-by town of Béthune’s connections with the British army are recalled through the medium of a way-marked Bethune And The British’ walking trail.
Opened two years ago, the Lens 14-18 interpretation centre is a unique collection of dramatically displayed over-sized black and white photographs, close by the Ring of Remembrance International Memorial. Inaugurated on November 11th (Armistice Day) 2014, the Centenary of the outbreak of World War One, this is among the largest memorials in the world, and bears the names of 580,00 fallen soldiers, listed strictly alphabetically, without distinction by nationality, to unite the fallen, friend foe alike.
Close by the massive Notre-Dame-de-Lorette is the largest French military cemetery while numerous British and Empire troop burial grounds, with their serried ranks of alabaster white headstones are dotted through the rolling poppy dotted hills.
From there we headed through the mining districts around Lens, with their huge volcano-shaped slag heaps now covered in green vegetation, and on to the fascinating fortified town of Bergues – famed for its local hard cheese and plump white sausages and even more renowned for its role in the smash hit comedy movie ‘Bienvenue Chez Les Cht’i’, which translates as ‘Welcome To The Home of the Cht’i”, as the locals are known. Written, directed and starred in by highly popular actor Dany Boon – a sort of latter-day Jacques Tatti – this quirky celebration of one of France’s diverse regional cultures was the fastest selling movie of all-time in any language, drawing an amazing audience of more than 20-million cinema goers on its first week of release, in 2008.
While the movie did serve admirably to put Bergues on the international tourist trail, ironically the massive encircling walls that had till then been the town’s most potent calling card attraction were not featured in the film – though an amusing guided pedestrian tour will reveal the settings for various key bits of the plot, Boon’s reasoning was that he wanted to showcase the region as a whole rather than Bergues alone.
It was the inspired military architect Sébastien Le Prestre Marshal de Vauban (1633 – 1707) who, at the behest of Louis XIV – ‘The Sun King’ – re-constructed those formidable encircling moats and walls, which remain remarkably complete and run to four kilometres in length.
It was said of the great man that none of the fortifications that he ever besieged managed to withstand his onslaught, while none of the bastions built in full accord with his carefully individually crafted plans ever fell to an attack.
Over a 40-year career this dynamic genius upgraded the fortifications of more than 300 cities across France and its neighbours and built 37 new fortresses. Located just over nine kilometres from the busy Channel port of Dunkirk, Bergues is a beautifully maintained example of Vauban’s craft, constructed on 9th Century foundations. Reserve 90 minutes for the four-kilometres Ramparts Walk.
Featuring a carillon of 50 bells that ring out on market and festival days, the town’s massive belfry has certainly had a chequered past. Begun in the 13th Century, it has been destroyed and rebuilt on several occasions – firstly in the wake of the 1383 French invasion of the then independent Flanders, then in the 16th Century and again in 1940 and 1944.
Our all too short visit in this fascinating little French Flemish town ended on a culinary high spot with an outstanding sampling of traditional Flemish cuisine ‘A La façon de ma Mere’ (‘The way mother cooked it’) at the unashamedly traditional and rustic Le Bruegel, with its soft stone façade and pastel blue windows and a delightful wooden floored and bric a brac filled dining room satisfying the inner man before we moved on to the dramatic final act of our short break, at the massive broodingly sinister La Coupole, a concrete monstrosity, sunk into the chalk hillside and constructed by the Nazi’s as a site for launching V2 rockets aimed at London and now containing not only a history and memorial centre to conflicts and events that are the common heritage of all Europeans but an impressive 360-degree planetarium.
With body and mind well sated, we ended our little tour with a relaxing overnight at the splendid Najeti St. Omer golf club.
Our compact but internally spacious Peugeot 308 hire car had served us well but if you are looking for a more energetic Flemish experience, there’s a delightful 240-kilometre Great War Remembrance cycling tour waiting to be savoured.
For further information go to www.atout-france.fr/
Roger St Pierre is a seasoned professional travel writer and editor with over 40 years in the industry and one of our regular contributors.
Photographs courtesy of Visit Flanders