While most tourists head to northern France only to visit the war memorials there, a corner of this once desolated region is thriving again, dynamically shaking off the ghosts of social and economical bankruptcy which have been haunting its flat landscapes for the past century (writes Julia Ossena).
The name Pays de Flandres defines a narrow area on the border with Belgium, surrounded by the three main cities of Calais, Dunkirk and Lille. Although it suffered a lot of damage during war time, it is not however as doom and gloom as one might assume, and a few days around these quaint villages and green rolling hills will definitely convince you of the region’s assets.
From fossil dunes to lush swamps
There are indeed a few natural wonders worth exploring, proof of the region’s diversity and healthy countryside. Near Dunkirk, the small village of Ghyvelde boasts a fossil dune dating back 5,000 years. Covering a total surface of 112 hectares, it stretches along five kilometres for a total width of 600m, three kilometres away from the actual coastline.
Along with the Cabour’s dune in Belgium, this is the only preserved remains of the ancient coast, previous to the more recent lowering of the seas. Being named part of the 'Natura 2000' network (which seeks to protect areas of interest in the EU) seven years ago has helped to develop this unique environment, with free access to its bushy paths and ponds where you’ll be able to experience its unique flora and fauna.
Away from the coast, in the little town of Nieurlet, lies the 'Marais Audomarois', or Flemish swamps, a beautiful network of canals which take you deep into Flanders’ countryside. You’ll need to hop on to a little barge to explore this extremely romantic setting, where the only sounds you hear will be the flapping wings of ducks and swans at your approach. The lush vegetation is a fantastic backdrop to tiny islands and traditional cottages, some half-timbered, some with thatched roofs, their inhabitants still using little canoes to go shopping or to take their children to school.
Between sweeping dunes and green canals, there is a peculiar charm to the infinite landscape of undulating flax fields. Surprisingly, France is the main European producer of this valuable plant, from which linen is made, with two-thirds of global production cultivated from the area between the Belgian border and the plain of Caen in Normandy.
The blooming season (May-June) turns the area into an ocean of delicate blue flowers that you can enjoy along a 30km easy cycling path, designed specifically for the public to discover the region.
A certain joie de vivre
The Flanders country is also rich in architecture, and although it was highly bombed during WWII, some true jewels have survived, enhancing the tumultuous past of the area. As a perpetually-claimed part of Europe, it bears the influences of Belgium and Holland as well as Spain, a country that occupied the Flanders during the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result the general feeling is a mix of obvious Flemish features, such as impressive brick buildings with their outlined roofs reminiscent of Brussels Grand-Place or traditional French half-timbered countryside maisonettes, with an overall zest of Spanish inspiration in some curvier structures and details.
The most beautiful example of preserved heritage can be seen in the market town of Hazebrouck: the former chapel and friary of the Augustines is now a stunning reminder of the culturally-mixed past of the region, with one wing showing off Flemish influences, and the other one related clearly to the Spanish occupation period. It is now a fascinating museum boasting works of art from the greatest masters, such as Rubens and Bosch.
Further into the town, the red silhouette of St Eloi church hides in its shade the béguinnage district, a row of cute dolls houses with attached allotments that used to be the home of single women and widows. Other places of architectural interest in the Flanders Country include Gravelines and Bergues, two fortified towns whose thick walls testify to the turmoil that past centuries have brought upon this land. Finally, it won’t take long for you to spot the many restored windmills peppered over the hills, giving the area a romantic aspect as you wander around its winding paths.
These structures are without doubt proof of the local people’s will to preserve their traditions with a passion and joie de vivre rarely advertised up here in the North Country. They love their history, they are passionate about their land, and they’ll make you fall in love with local produce such as delicious duck foie gras, oven-baked cheese pastry, and addictive Picon – a bitter orange liqueur to mix in your beer.
There is a lot to do around here, from walking, cycling or boating to museums to visit and festivals to attend - the most important of all being Mardi-Gras in February, when another centuries-old tradition brings giant puppets out to be carried and danced around to the sound of music. It’s all there, for those curious enough to explore this too-long-forgotten neighbour.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".