April 12, 2024

White cliffs to wetlands; discovering the French Pas-de-Calais | France vacation

WAt low tide it is a magical moment, streams of water swirl and swirl through the sand, the white cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez loom behind me. There isn’t a soul to be seen. This jagged headland marks the start of the Côte d’Opale, which runs about 120 kilometers southwest of Calais and is part of the Pas-de-Calais region.

Map of North Picardy

While most travelers who arrive in Calais or Boulogne head straight to Paris and beyond, I’m here to explore this affordable and often overlooked corner of France. The wild ‘Opal Coast’ has sandy beaches, fishing ports and picturesque seaside resorts, and 30 miles inland are the fascinating and attractive vegetable gardens of the Audomarois: immense, unspoilt wetlands outside the medieval town of Saint-Omer, my next destination.

The Cap Blanc-Nez rises from steep chalk cliffs that extend to a second wild promontory, Cap Gris-Nez. Walking or cycling the 16 kilometers that separate the two capes can take a day: the route runs over deserted dunes and beaches that seem endless. The friendly, family-run Hôtel l’Escale, near Cap Blanc-Nez, is a good base for exploring the coast and sampling first-class local cuisine. Third-generation chef Vincent Brignoli creates a €26 dinner menu with local, seasonal produce: it can include pork terrine with endive and juniper, an intense homemade soup of thick cod in creamy shrimp sauce, sharp maroilles cheese from a nearby artisan dairy and -the one- for chocolate mousse.

The Ambleteuse Fort dates from the end of the 17th century. Photo: Hemis/Alamy

The next day I head south towards Boulogne-sur-Mer. Every resort I pass has surprises in store. Wissant has a street market every Wednesday, ideal for buying a beach picnic with village produce such as organic goat’s cheese from La Fromagerie and Herbe and freshly picked fruit and vegetables from Les Jardins Intrépides. The sleepy fishing village of Audresselles is known for its flobards – flat-bottomed boats used for crab fishing (a crab festival takes place every summer) – and on the water’s edge lies the coast’s strangest place to stay: Le Ch’Ti Blockhaus. It is a concrete bunker from the Second World War that has been converted into a four-bedroom B&B.

A mile and a half away is Ambleteuse, where the beach promenade is marked by an impregnable-looking fortress jutting into the sea. The UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortress was built in the 17th century by the famous military architect the Marquis de Vauban to protect the port. To work up an appetite, I follow the steady stream of walkers along the beach, past families foraging among the rocks for shellfish, and into the sand dunes that rise to the edge of the Slack River estuary.

Seafood at Cap Nord, Wimereux. Photo: John Brunton

Arriving in Wimereux just before lunch, I have time to wander past the holiday homes of this Belle Epoque resort, designed in an ornate Art Nouveau wedding cake style. It takes more than two hours to enjoy the fish platter with oysters, mussels, shrimps, langoustines, whelks and crab, served on the seaside terrace of the Cap Nord brasserie (dish for two €49.90 pp; three-course menu €24.90) By then the incoming tide has swept away the beach and giant waves crash over the boardwalk, splashing passersby.

An hour’s drive inland is Saint-Omer, a textile trading center in the Middle Ages, today a bustling city with a Gothic cathedral, a medieval abbey ruins and beautiful flower gardens along the ramparts. Day trippers head to La Maison du Marais, an eco-centre dedicated to the flora and fauna of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Audomarois Marshes. From the eco centre, a one-hour boat trip (adults €11) gives a good educational introduction, although it takes longer to get a full impression of these immense wetlands.

Saint-Omer is located at the southern end of an extensive network of canals, rivers and canals. Photo: Hemis/Alamy

The fertile marshland covers more than 3,700 hectares (9,000 acres) and was converted into agricultural land 1,000 years ago, initially by religious communities, creating a network of canals that cross the Audomarois. Approximately 170 km of canals are still navigable today, and although the original island communities are now connected by bridges, and stories of mail delivery by boat are more folklore, there are still many active farming communities who cultivate and root the floating gardens , growing leeks, artichokes, endives, lettuce and especially about 2 million cauliflowers per year. For a more practical explanation, I head to the outskirts of the city, to take a slow boat trip through the canals with Rémy Colin, from his craft wharf, Les Faiseurs de Bateaux (1 hour and 45 minutes tours cost €12 per person) .

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Rémy actually lives in the wetlands and comes from a family that grew vegetables here for centuries. “I grew up with the traditional flat bottom bacove boats that ply the waterways of our marshes, and my dream was to preserve this shipbuilding heritage,” he says. “But we never had enough boat orders to survive financially. So ten years ago we changed direction and decided to use tourism to preserve our heritage, passing on our knowledge of the wetlands while still building boats.”

This friendly green cooperative now consists of a team that guides tourists and runs an open-air restaurant and bar, Les Piquinettes, while part of their land is farmed by an organic farmer.

The Audomarois are perfect for strolling around on a traditional boat. Photo: Gautier Stephane/Alamy

On the water, Rémy enchants everyone with old stories and personal anecdotes about island life as the boat slowly winds through a green labyrinth of narrow waterways, lined with cultivated gardens. He points to the red-brick waterfront house where his parents still live, identifies several species of ducks and marsh birds that silently paddle past the boat, and as we duck under an old lock gate, he tells how farmers even put livestock in their boats to to transport. from one pasture to another.

We pass wildflowers and rushes growing on the banks, and then farmers working in neat, earthy fields. I see many stalls at the busy Saturday morning market of Sint-Omer, full of products straight from the Audomarois. At restaurant L’Histoire de…, artisan chef Laurent Bogé proudly prepares his daily change menu du marché with products from local growers and farmers (three-course menu from € 21). I enjoy haddock crème brulee, beef cheeks braised in red wine, and then apple and nut pie with cider ice cream. The menu is a true example of farm-to-table dining – and another reminder of how this part of France offers real, sustainable surprises.

The trip was arranged by the Pas-de-Calais tourist office. A double room at Hôtel l’Escale costs €110 B&B, a double room at Ibis Saint-Omer Center from €100 B&B. 2 Caps à Velo offers bicycle rental and guided tours along this coast (one-day guided tour on electric bicycle €80pp)

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