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White cliffs to wetlands; discovering France’s Pas-de-Calais | France holidays



With the tide out, it’s a magical second, rivulets of water swirl and eddy by the sand, the white cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez loom behind me. There’s not a soul in sight. This jagged headland marks the beginning of the Côte d’Opale, which runs south-west from Calais for about 75 miles, and is a part of the Pas-de-Calais area.

Map of northern Picardy

Whereas most travellers arriving in Calais or Boulogne head straight for Paris and past, I’m right here to discover this reasonably priced and sometimes bypassed nook of France. The wild “Opal Coast” has sandy seashores, fishing ports and quaint seaside resorts, and 30 miles inland are the fascinating and engaging vegetable gardens of the Audomarois: immense, unspoilt wetlands outdoors the medieval city of Saint-Omer, my subsequent vacation spot.

The Cap Blanc-Nez juts out from sheer chalk cliffs that run to a second wild promontory, Cap Gris-Nez. Climbing or biking the ten miles separating the 2 capes can take a day: the route runs throughout abandoned dunes and seashores that really feel countless. Simply by Cap Blanc-Nez, the pleasant, family-run Hôtel l’Escale is an effective base for exploring the coast and sampling top-notch native delicacies. Third-generation chef Vincent Brignoli creates a €26 dinner menu utilizing native, seasonal merchandise: it’d embrace pork terrine with endives and juniper, an intense do-it-yourself soup of chunky cod in creamy shrimp sauce, pungent maroilles cheese from a close-by artisan dairy and to-die-for chocolate mousse.

Ambleteuse fort dates from the late seventeenth century. {Photograph}: Hemis/Alamy

The following day I am going south in the direction of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Every resort I go has surprises in retailer. Wissant has a road market each Wednesday, supreme for getting a seaside picnic with village produce like La Fromagerie en Herbe’s natural goat cheese and freshly picked fruit and greens from Les Jardins Intrépides. The sleepy fishing village of Audresselles is legendary for its flobards – flat-bottomed boats used for crab fishing (a crab pageant takes place every summer season) – and on the waterfront is the coast’s strangest place to remain, Le Ch’Ti Blockhaus. It’s a concrete second world battle bunker transformed right into a four-bedroom B&B.

One mile down the street is Ambleteuse, the place the seaside promenade is marked by an impregnable-looking fort jutting into the ocean. The Unesco-listed fortification was constructed within the seventeenth century by famend navy architect the Marquis de Vauban to guard the port. To work up an urge for food, I observe the regular stream of hikers throughout the seaside, previous households foraging for shellfish among the many rocks, and into sand dunes that go as much as the sting of the Slack river estuary.

Seafood at Cap Nord, Wimereux. {Photograph}: John Brunton

Arriving in Wimereux simply earlier than lunch, I’ve time to wander previous this belle époque resort’s vacation house mansions, designed in an ornate art-nouveau wedding-cake type. It takes a great two hours to feast on the seafood platter of oysters, clams, prawns, langoustines, whelks and crab served on the seaside terrace of the Cap Nord brasserie (platter for 2 €49.90pp; three-course set menu €24.90), by which period the rising tide has erased the seaside and large waves crash throughout the boardwalk, splashing passersby.


An hour’s drive inland is Saint-Omer, a buying and selling centre for textiles within the center ages, immediately a bustling city with a Gothic cathedral, ruined medieval abbey and great flower gardens alongside the town ramparts. Day trippers head for La Maison du Marais, an eco-centre devoted to the natural world of the Unesco-listed Audomarois marshes. From the eco-centre, a one-hour boat journey (grownup €11) provides a great academic introduction, although it takes longer to get a full impression of those immense wetlands.

Saint-Omer is towards the southern finish of an enormous community of canals, rivers and channels. {Photograph}: Hemis/Alamy

Masking greater than 3,700 hectares (9,000 acres), the fertile marshland was reworked into agricultural land, initially by spiritual communities, 1,000 years in the past, making a community of canals that crisscross the Audomarois. About 170km of canals are nonetheless navigable immediately, and though the unique island communities are actually linked by bridges, and tales of put up being delivered by boat are extra folklore, there are nonetheless many energetic farming communities cultivating the floating gardens, rising carrots, leeks, artichokes, endives, lettuce and above all, some 2 million cauliflowers a yr. To get a extra hands-on clarification, I head to the sting of city, to take a sluggish boat journey by the canals with Rémy Colin, from his artisan boatyard, Les Faiseurs de Bateaux (excursions lasting 1hr 45mins price €12pp).

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Rémy really lives out on the wetlands and comes from a household who farmed vegetable right here for hundreds of years. “I grew up on the standard flat-bottomed bacôve boats that navigate the waterways of our marshes, and my dream was to protect this boatbuilding patrimony,” he says. “However we by no means had sufficient boat orders to outlive financially. So 10 years in the past we modified course and determined to make use of tourism to protect our heritage, passing on our data of the wetlands whereas nonetheless constructing boats.”


This pleasant inexperienced cooperative now features a group guiding vacationers and operating an out of doors restaurant and bar, Les Piquinettes, whereas a part of their land is cultivated by an natural farmer.

The Audomarois are excellent for puttering round in on a conventional boat. {Photograph}: Gautier Stephane/Alamy

Out on the water, Rémy enchants everybody with previous tales and private anecdotes of island life because the boat slowly weaves by a verdant labyrinth of slender waterways bordered by cultivated gardens. He factors out the waterside redbrick cottage his mother and father nonetheless stay in, identifies totally different species of geese and marsh birds quietly paddling previous the boat and as we dip beneath an historic lock gate, he recounts how farmers would even put livestock of their boats to hold them from one pasture to a different.

We go wildflowers and rushes rising on the banks, after which farmers working away in neat, earthy fields. I spot many stalls at Saint-Omer’s teeming Saturday morning market loaded with produce direct from the Audomarois. At restaurant L’Histoire de…, artisan chef Laurent Bogé proudly prepares his each day altering menu du marché with produce from native growers and farmers (three-course set menu from €21). I take pleasure in haddock creme brulee, beef cheeks braised in purple wine, then apple and nut flan with cider ice-cream. The menu is a real instance of farm-to-table eating – and one other reminder of how this a part of France gives real, sustainable surprises.


The journey was offered by the Pas-de-Calais Tourism Workplace. Double s at Hôtel l’Escale price from €110 B&B, doubles at Ibis Saint-Omer Centre from €100 B&B. 2 Caps à Velo gives bike rent and guided excursions alongside this coast (one-day guided tour on electrical bike €80pp)

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