John Ruler looks at how his love of Nord-Pas de Calais helped him discover a long-lost relative who perished in World War I.Read more...
Nord-Pas de Calais - Background information
Abridged from the History section in Nord-Pas de Calais: the Bradt Guide
On the morning of 25 January 1658, the citizens of Dunkirk were Spanish. By noon they were French, and by the evening English. This small, but far from insignificant, fact starkly illustrates the fluctuating fortunes of Nord-Pas de Calais, for centuries ravaged by war between rival nations and even regions.
The fact that it has managed to assimilate the characteristics of each occupying force is astonishing. Even more so is the way in which these have been turned to mutual advantage. But then these sturdy northern folk are nothing if not adaptable, honed by history into fighting for a corner of France which, located between Germany, England and the Benelux countries, has long been been one of the most contested regions in Europe. Charles de Gaulle was later to dub it a ‘fatal avenue’ through which invading armies repeatedly passed.
Originally part of the historic provinces of Artois, French Flanders (Flandre) and Picardie to the south, present-day Nord-Pas de Calais is split into two départements. Basically the medieval principality of French Flanders, in what used to be the southwestern part of the Low Countries, now largely forms the département of Le Nord, which takes up the northeastern section of the region. However, it continues to have much in common with the neighbouring Low Countries in terms of terrain and Flemish culture. Similarly the old French province of Artois is designated as Pas de Calais. This does not, as is sometimes quoted, include Picardy.
Conflict and commerce seem to have a habit of inspiring creativity. This is certainly true of Nord-Pas de Calais where the architectural styles, still easy on the eye, have been shaped by the Flemish, and heavily influenced by the Spanish Netherlands, the French and the English.
Each has left its distinctive mark. Even the ravages of wars, including World War I – during which vast swathes of buildings were destroyed but since have been superbly restored – have failed to erase that lasting legacy.
Commercial growth in the Middle Ages stemmed from a creative instinct to produce fine lace, linen and textiles generally. From this grew the potteries and glass factories of the Industrial Age, superseded by the heavy industry fired by coal and steel. Emile Zola made his literary mark through his best-selling book about this period, Germinal. A new, more environmentally friendly era in which green tourism is playing a major role is not only revitalising the landscape but the contemporary arts scene as well. The choice of Lens as the new wing of the Louvre in Paris, is one notable example of this.
One architectural aspect literally stands out above any other. No less than 17 Nord-Pas de Calais belfries, built as watchtowers and symbols of civic pride, were granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005. Visit them in Aire sur la Lys, Armentiéres, Arras, Bailleul, Bergues, Béthune, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais, Cambrai, Comines, Douai, Dunkirk, Gravelines, Hesdin, Lille and Loos.
Most are open to the public and offer the best views in town. Tours and a host of learned books are based on another highly visible slice of history – fortifications, dating back to Roman times. The region is positively plastered with them, the last being the ugly German blockhouses and other concrete paraphernalia of World War II.
Montreuil-sur-Mer relies on its magnificent ramparts as crowd-pullers as does lesser-known Le Quesnoy whose intricate fortifications inevitably include the handiwork of the military mastermind Vauban. A tourist leaflet provides an itinerary based entirely on fortified towns from Calais and the coast region to Arras and Lille, and beyond to Bavay and Avesnes sur Helpe. Tourist offices should have a copy.