Quelle Surprise! Northern France

Discover an overlooked part of France with this short road trip.

Like a lot of folks, when I think of France, I start with the big hitters: Paris, Provence, the Riviera, the Alps, and maybe, if my mind is truly firing on all cylinders, I sneak a Lyon or a Biarritz in there somewhere. However, after my recent road trip in the North of France for the New Year, I can assure you that this part of France should be on everyone’s list.

It’s easy to get a feel for Lille

Coming from London via Eurostar, getting to Lille is a breeze. Just as you start getting tucked into your book or a nap, you’ve arrived! We stayed at the Grand Hotel Bellevue, which is located right on the large plaza in the center of town. Reasonable. Friendly staff. Big modern bathrooms. (If you like water pressure and have traveled in Europe, you will know why this is important). Terrific location. (The plaza-facing rooms have stunning views.) What’s not to like when you start things off that way?

Around the corner from the hotel, we took in Lille’s cute little Christmas market, which earned some kudos from The Guardian for being one of Europe’s best small Christmas markets. Perhaps the freshly steaming pony crap in front of a justifiably annoyed honey merchant put me off a bit, but having toured quite a few Christmas markets in my day, I wouldn’t say this is a principal reason to come to Lille.

That’s because there are many more excellent reasons to come to Lille. First off, the old town is one of the largest I’ve strolled around– full of every shop you could ever ask for, loads of restaurants, and tons of bars. (Being a university town always helps on the bar front.)  Everything is walkable, and the town is fringed by a vast expanse of green space. The architecture is particularly interesting: the best of French meets the best of Flemish. Bonus: there’s even an impressive (and unique!) Louis XIV star fort still in use as a military base.

One of the biggest art museums in France is also in Lille. It has a very fine collection of numerous eras and nationalities, giving you a great dose of art without overwhelming you. We saw a really interesting Millais exhibition there. (See what’s on when you want to visit here: http://www.pba-lille.fr/en)

The regional cuisine is a tasty and hearty mish-mash of French/Flemish. We ate dinner at Le Barbue d’Anvers, an excellent restaurant full of locals tucked away on a side street off the big plaza. Eating downstairs under the vaulted ceilings was very romantic, the service was excellent, and the food was top-notch. Try the oysters if it’s the right time of year for them, and the waterzooi chicken (a chicken stew) or the carbonnade (beer-braised beef.)

We picked up our rental car at the Lille casino and drove to Amiens (about two hours away). Amiens is a hidden jewel of a town, billed as the “little Venice of the North.” Now, a lot of European towns claim some kind of Venice honours, so I was skeptical. However, Amiens definitely delivered on the charming canals, windy little streets, and overall ambiance.

As it was still the festive period, Amiens Christmas market was in full swing. If you are into Christmas markets, this was one of the best I’ve been to in Europe: lots of great food, many shops stretching for about 2km down the main drag of town, a holiday tableau for

Holiday light show - Amiens
The light show in Amiens did not disappoint (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

photo opps, and lively engagement among the local populace. A holiday highlight was the psychedelic light show on the front of Amiens cathedral. The French are always masters of lighting things, but if you ever get a chance to see it when they do a full-on light show, run, don’t walk to wherever they’re being illuminating (pardon the pun.)

In Amiens, we stayed at the Hotel Le Prieuré just next to the cathedral. Again, a great location, clean rooms, and amazingly helpful staff. The hotel reception pointed us in the direction of Amiens’ old town for dinner; their suggestion of dinner at Le Quai did not disappoint. Delicious dover sole, and if you’re a bit full of braised beef stews, some hearty main course salads can be found here. (In the summer, the terrace here must be amazing– right on a canal with a view of the cathedral.)

After dinner, we sniffed out a wine bar called L’Hexagone (14, rue des Sergents, 80 000 Amiens). This was truly one of the best wine bars we’ve been anywhere ever. Lots of interesting choices from around France, and quite a few organic/biodynamic wines all at very reasonable prices. The staff, again, were very friendly and very knowledgeable. It might be worth going to Amiens just to have a glass of wine here.

After a visit to the cathedral in Amiens, we headed off to Laon for lunch en route to Reims. The medieval part of Laon sits on a plateau above the surrounding region, hovering as if in air. The historic fortifications, epic cathedral, and teeny winding streets almost felt like a movie set– particularly because virtually no one was out and about. (It was a bitterly cold day and during the holidays, so I’m guessing things get livelier with the addition of sunshine and normal routines.) Laon’s definitely worth a visit for the cathedral alone, and if you happen to stop there, have a tasty lunch for a great price at Le Péché Mignon, just down from the cathdral (53 rue Châtelaine).

The goal of our whole trip was spending New Year’s Eve in the capital of champagne: Reims. After lunch in Laon, we got to Reims in just about an hour.

En route, as with most of Northern France, you pass a lot of monuments to battle sites from World War I. Road sides are fringed with ridges from trenches, the ruins of battle boxes, and countless cemeteries large and small. The magnitude of “the war to end all wars” cannot be escaped. It all has a sobering effect even in the giddy heart of champagne-land. As it’s the 100th anniversary of the last year of World War I, I plan to go back later this year solely to visit all the sites.

Once you get into Reims, it’s hard to be somber since immediately upon arriving in the city you are greeted by numerous champagne houses, three of which are part of the wider UNESCO-listed world heritage site in and around Reims. Ancient Gallo-Romans once mined chalk from the Reims hills, which ended up making perfect champagne cellars for the likes of Taittinger, Pommery, and Ruinart. To visit these and have a tasting, you need to make an appointment in advance. It’s a bit pricey, but worth it.

Stained glass – A must-see (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

I should list all the other sites you should see in Reims: the art museum with David’s assassination of Marat, the site of the German surrender which ended World War II in Europe, the stunning stained glass in the Cathedral…but you can get all that info from the tourist office. The one place you have to add to your Reims itinerary is the Bistrot de Forum (6 Place de Forum). This became our home away from home in Reims, the meeting point where we got a coffee with friends in the morning and where we ended the evenings over beer, wine, and champers. The staff here took us under their wing and made us feel like regulars. You could see from the active local patronage that this warm, collegial service was the norm, rather than the exception. (Note: this is also a great place for snacks throughout the day– harder to find than you think even in a larger French town like Reims).

Beyond snacks, eating out in Reims is a lot more of the Northern/Eastern French vibe of ham, onions, potatoes, and cheese in various combinations. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) A beautiful brasserie with such regional favorites is Brasserie Excelsior. If you’re hankering for something to change things up, the Italian restaurant, La Villa, does not disappoint: an amazing space and some of the best Italian food any of us have had in a long while.

For Reims lodging, we stayed at the lovely, well-situated Grand Hotel des Templiers. Complete with a decent pool and sauna to paddle/sweat off the champagne-fueled excess, the hotel was a perfect base for exploring Reims. (When you book, request a room in the historic main building.) The staff, again, could not have been more friendly or helpful.

If you’re catching a theme here across all the places I visited in Northern France, it’s the people. There are a few places I’ve been–anywhere on Earth– where I have been so universally greeted with a smile and a helpful hint or two about what to see/where to go. As always, it’s not the booze, great food, and historical interest that make for a great trip, but the people you meet along the way.

On reviendra. (Bistrot de Forum, you’ve been warned.)