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 - Calendar
Make whoopee at Dunkirk’s biggest party
Did it start with parties for fishermen off to icy Icelandic waters? Nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that in 1906, one of the craziest of French carnivals was raucously described as a case of ‘shins plowed, breasts crushed, mixed odours of perspiration and smoked herring, hairy men in garter belts, traditional music, roll mops and beer…’ It remains to this day a cacophony of colourful costumes and marching bands, wiping away the winter blues from mid-January to the middle of March.
Rev up for the bikers’ bonanza
Enduropale/Quadro is legendary for kick-starting the French motorsport season on Le Touquet’s fine sandy beaches. Drawing around a thousand professional and amateur bikers and 800 quad bikers, it is considered a tough course attracting huge crowds of bikers and off-road fans. Races, which include a section for youngsters aged between 13 and 17, take place over two days with an environmentally friendly 17.9km route for the bikes (a little less for the youngsters) and 14.1km route for the quads. For more information, see www.enduropaledutouquet.fr.
Drop in for the town hall gardens
Look out for tours of the magic gardens hidden in the boves (cellars) under Arras’s Gothic-style town hall from late March to late June. Dug from the 10th century onwards, the ancient underground limestone quarries host the annual Jardin des Boves, a hot bed of horticultural themes dreamed up by the visual artist Luc Brevart. It’s a fascinating glimpse into subtly lit subterranean gardens where orchids and ferns thrive and flourish using mineral nutrient solutions in water and artificial light rather than sunlight and water.
Let’s go fly your kite!
Beware low flying kites at Berck-sur-Mer … this breezy beach hosts the International Kite Festival in early April, which sees professionals and amateurs show off their skills in a kaleidoscope of colour and shapes. It is held on the same sandy site where famous aviator Louis Bleriot organised the first international competition for aéroplages, the ancestor of sand-yachting, in 1907. No kite of your own? Then simply admire the hundreds tied to weights. With tents and stalls selling regional goodies including food, it’s all good family fun. Visit the kite-building workshops or wander through the Wind Gardens.
Sample the taste of fresh crab
Since 1975, Audresselles, a sleepy village 2km northwest of the popular sea fishing centre of Ambleteuse, has sported a shield bearing a crab and a fishing boat – a giveaway clue to La Fête du Crabe, a lively tribute to the lobster as well as the crab, caught locally since the end of the 19th century and best eaten in spring and early summer. Find out for yourself at the Restaurant Au P’tit Bonheur (auptitbonheur.org/audresselles.html). Book well in advance. The fête celebrates, too, the flambart, a chubby wooden fishing boat captained by one man, sometimes two.
Snap up a bargain in a cheesy setting
Explore the green face of Le Nord, and snap up a bargain at the same time. With more than 600 exhibitors, the flea market at Maroilles in the Avesnois is a must for genuine finds among the ornaments, earthenware, crockery and old furniture. This rural village of a mere 1,500 souls is also home to the ubiquitous square cheese. Some 200 locals help make the big day, on the third Sunday in June, a major event attracting more than 80,000 visitors.
Revel in giant-sized success
It’s a tall order, but nothing quite beats the three-day knees-up when the Gayant family sway their way through Douai in early July. But they are giants after all. Made from wickerwork, Mons Gayant measures 8.50m, an impressive 28ft, and weighs 370kg; his wife Marie is a mere 6.25m, or around 20ft. Each of their three children rise to 2.40m, around 7ft. Their towering presence marks a further defeat of the French in 1530 when Flanders’s Spanish rulers suggested a celebratory giant to represent Jehan Gelon, who freed the town from a 9th-century Norman siege.
Pick up a spud with a crane
The humble spud comes into its own on 31 August at the Patate Feest in Esquelbecq where, on the last weekend of the month, they have been chucking participants into a pile of purée for nearly 20 years. Games, such as picking up a spud with a crane, vie with other potato-inspired jollities, a scarecrow rally, a parade of giants, a regional market and as well as bands and processions.
Tuck into mussels and chips
If you’ve never tried mussels and chips you certainly will at the Lille flea market where restaurants compete to see which can build the highest pile of empty shells. And with two days and two nights, and more than two million worldwide visitors, the tonnage quickly tots up. The 2014 market runs non-stop from 14.00 Saturday 6 September to 23.00 Sunday 7 September, check the website for future events. With thousands of sellers, the market is divided into small boulevards for small antiques, records and books and major avenues for creative handicrafts and ethnic items.
Check out on the chicory
Of the 190,000 tons of chicory produced annually in northern France, 95% is grown in the sandy soil of the Audruicq Oye-Plage region. On the third weekend of October, such an horticultural honour is marked annually by the Chicory Festival at Nouvelle-Église, Vieille-Église, St Omer Capelle and St Folquin, with an exhibition, the Chicorium Delirium, featuring a gastronomic fair focusing on cooking with chicory (or endive to you and I).
Try a taste of seasonal herring
Fishing for ideas? Then head for Etaples, the effervescent Cité des Pêcheurs where seasonal dishes smoked, grilled or marinated at the Herring King Festival (8–9 November) recall the days when fishermen celebrated their catch, of which the herring was the undisputed star. Similar tastings, plus entertainment, folk music and traditional dancing, also take place at Boulogne’s Herring Festival (22–23 November) which pays tribute to the time when the oh-so-French resort was France’s number one fishing port.
Have a fowl time in turkey town …
When it comes to talking turkey, Licques, less than an hour from Calais, is in a league of its own. Two weeks before Christmas (13–14 December), be it fair or foul, the small community of some 1,500 swells to several thousand, egged on by the Christmas spirit. Feel free to join this rip-roaring slice of rural tradition which starts on the Sunday with free cups of steaming turkey soup in the village square, and ends amid general jollity with a turkey lunch in a massive heated marquee.