Even for people who grew up in France, the Nord is often associated with terrible weather, economic deprivation and support for the far-right. Or, partly thanks to the hit film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a funny accent.
But if you’ve never considered visiting the area, you could be missing out. Here’s why.
It’s strategically placed
It sounds like an old joke – the only reason to come to the north is so that you get to leave – but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Nord département’s proximity to other European countries is a major selling point.
From Lille, you can be in Brussels in 34 minutes by train, or in London in under an hour and a half (that’s 70 minutes quicker than the Eurostar from Paris to London).
Plus, as we will see later on, the Belgian influence is what gives the area much of its charm, and what sets it apart from the rest of France.
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Nowhere is that influence more evident than in the culinary tradition – here you’ll find delicious chips wherever you go, and mobile baraques à frites (chip vans) serve even the smallest towns.
The area is also known for its gaufres fourrées, waffles filled with either brown sugar or vanilla, made famous by the Maison Méert waffle house in Lille where you can still enjoy the delicacy today.
— Eurostar UK (@EurostarUK) September 16, 2018
If you want a more consistent meal just head to one of the region’s many estaminets – traditional restaurants serving regional dishes such as carbonade flamande (beef stew cooked in beer and gingerbread), welsh (a local take on Welsh rarebit ), or tarte au maroilles made using the strong local cheese.
Of course, proximity to Belgium also means beer, so if you prefer a cold pint over a glass of red, then this is the place for you. While breweries have recently been multiplying all across France, there is a long tradition of enjoying beer in the north.
In bars and on supermarket shelves you’ll find delicious local beers such as Jeanlain, Lil, and Anosteké, which was recently named “world’s best pale beer” at the 2021 World Beer Awards.
Beer is a culture in the north, whether enjoyed in a local estaminet, in a taproom where you can taste the beer directly on the premises, such as the one at the Brique House brewery on the outskirts of Lille, or at the annual BAL festival in the city.
The street parties
If you’re not afraid of a crowd, look at planning your trip around one of the huge, annual events which take place in the north. The Braderie de Lille is Europe’s largest flea market and attracts around 2 million visitors every year, although it has been cancelled the last two years because of Covid concerns.
Usually during the first weekend in September, the city centre becomes one large pedestrian zone given over to 100km of stands selling antiques, vintage clothes, food, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
In regular times, 30 tons of chips are consumed over the course of the weekend, along with 500 tons of mussels whose shells are piled high in the streets.
Then there is Dunkirk Carnival, a three-day long street party where people dress up in extravagant costumes, dance in the streets, and gather in front of the town hall to catch the herring thrown at them by the mayor. Yes, really.
With its red brick houses so emblematic of the industrial north, visiting the area will feel more like you’re in the north of England than in France. Perfect if you’ve become accustomed to grey stones and want to discover another side to France.
Take a walk around Place du Général-de-Gaulle, the main square in Lille, and you’ll discover a wonderful mix of French and Flemish influences. There aren’t many public squares in France that can rival it, with its restaurant terraces and colourful buildings lined with gold.
And just like Belgium, the area’s skyline is defined by tall belfries built between the 11th and 17th centuries. Along with 33 across the border, 23 belfries in the north of France are listed as a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site. 11 of these, including some of the most striking examples, are to be found in the Nord département. Lille and Douai are good places to start.
As a former mining region, the north has played a key role in France’s development. The traces of this past can be found in the architecture – many of the area’s red brick houses were built as corons to house miners and their families – and in the slag heaps which mark the landscape itself.
The Nord-Pas-de-Calais Mining Basin is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was described in heart-rending detail by Emile Zola in his novel Germinal. There are several museums you can visit to discover what life was like in this difficult part of the country, while La Manufacture in Roubaix will plunge you into the textile industry, historically one of the pillars of the local economy.
If museums are your thing, then you’re in luck. The area is home to the Lens-Louvre, a satellite museum for the Louvre in Paris which lends its smaller cousin objects from its collections – meaning that people outside the capital can enjoy art without the crowds of tourists usually found at the Paris gallery.
Then hop on over to Roubaix and its La Piscine Museum, where you’ll find paintings, sculptures and textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries, all housed in a former Art Deco municipal swimming pool.
Lille is also home to the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, his house has been converted into a museum you can visit to learn more about the man who to this day holds a unique place in the French national psyche.
We’re all familiar with the stereotype that the French are rude and unwelcoming. Whether you find that to be true or an unfair generalisation, the same cannot be said for the inhabitants of what used to be the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region. On the contrary: they are famous for being welcoming.
That’s part of the reason Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, despite poking fun at them, was well-received by people in the north. Many saw themselves in the film, in which the local postman played by Dany Boon is always drunk by the afternoon because every time he delivers the post he is invited inside for a drink, and a sceptical southerner is eventually won over by the local hospitality.
As Enrico Macias sang, “Les gens du Nord ont dans le cœur le soleil qu’ils n’ont pas dehors” – People from the North have in their hearts the sun they don’t have outdoors.