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Being the closest part of France to England, Calais has for many years been the favourite entry port for those of us crossing the channel whether it be for a day’s shopping, a weekend break or an even longer stay in that part of the country.
Calais is as exciting and vibrant as it has always been and just 21 miles away, shops are open, people sit outside cafes enjoying a glass of pastis, the restaurants still serve great food including Le Channel where Madame Crespo continues to greet everyone with a kiss on the cheek.
And the area has many surprises that make it well worth staying in. Lace and Cheese are just two of them and then there's the relatively new Lens Louvre Museum and the WW1 sites which make a stay here a must do.
Many of us don't appreciate that Calais was the centre of the French lace making industry since the early 1800s. Much of the machinery used was manufactured in Nottingham and smuggled in illegally. At its peak, more than 40,000 people were involved in lace making. The machines were modified to enable lace to be manufactured industrially which matched the quality of the handmade variety. Indeed today this area is still responsible for 80% of the world lace production. It's much in demand by some of the top names in the world of fashion.
The Cité de la Dentelle et de la Mode (Calais International Centre of Lace and Fashion) was opened in 2009 and is housed in a building which gives it an authentic 19th century lace factory feel, enhanced with a futuristic glass extension.
A stunning museum, very much hands on with a vast history of the lace industry. There are working looms and glass fronted display cabinets with 3000 items of fashion, as a poor boy from Warwick it was an odd experience to be allowed to gaze at lace underwear without getting my ear clipped.
Just 10 miles south of Calais is the village of Ardres, a pretty unspoilt medieval village. It's here in the Rue de L’Arsenal that we find Boursots Wine Collection, owned and operated by the suave Guy Boursot who, despite his name, is an Englishman. He has a vast knowledge of the wine industry, much of it gained from working at some of the UKs major wine companies.
He tells an amusing story of how an Englishman opening a wine shop in France was received by the locals. Now, 10 years later many of those locals are now his clients. Despite the effect on the exchange rate, the low taxation of French wine makes buying in France still great value. I tasted some excellent wines and a stop at Boursots whether it be for a bottle or six months’ supplies is highly recommended.
Another 13 miles south east finds my base for this trip, the stunning Chateau Tilques. Built in the 19th century of red brick, it sits in its own immaculately maintained rolling parkland. It is a classic old style French hotel but with every 21st century convenience. 29 Rooms are to be found in the main chateau and a further 24 rooms in the more modern conservatory.
After aperitifs and canapés served in the chateau, meals are taken the adjoining Le Vert Mesnil restaurant set in a former 17thcentury stable block, where Jamie Oliver trained. There is a great menu and I went for a starter of finely sliced cured beef, a classic French chicken dish and a local speciality Beer pie. Much red wine on top of my aperitif meant a very comfortable night in a massive and very comfortable bed.
A pre-breakfast walk around the grounds the next morning gave me the opportunity to admire the many statues on exhibition all of which are for sale. Very explicit and detailed they are best not seen by young eyes.
Just 45 minutes away is the town of Lens, largely destroyed in the First World War this former coal mining town is the home to another must see. The Louvre-Lens is a magnificent modern museum; opened in 2012 it displays objects from the collection of the world famous Musee du Louvre in Paris.
The main focus of the museum is the Time Gallery, a huge windowless but very bright and well-lit hanger like building where nothing is hanging on the walls and you are taken from around 3500BC up to the artworks of the 19th century.
There's something for everyone here, great hands on touch screens and a chance to observe future exhibits being restored by onsite experts.
We are of course in the area where many of the front line trenches of WW1 and I pass many military cemeteries, French, German, British and Canadian all within a mile or two of each other. The Ring of Remembrance at Lens is a very sombre and emotive experience. A giant ring of black walls lined with bronze panels engraved with the names of nearly 600,000 who lost their lives on all sides in this part of France. My own heritage is starkly represented by two great uncles from both sides of my family, but they were on different sides in the war.
Adjacent is one of the largest French Cemeteries and the much visited Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette. A few hundred yards away is the Lens 14-18 War and Peace Centre; opened in 2015 there are some graphic reminders of the horrors of war.
France is of course well-known for its cheese, and the town of Lens has a branch of famous French affineur Philippe Olivier's cheese shop. Here I tasted a selection of six cheeses, all of which came from the Pas de Calais region. From a smooth mild creamy goats’ cheese to a mouth stripping Coeur d’Arras, I bought a selection to take home and two weeks later I still have to drive my car with the windows open.
Lunch was taken in the Al Fosse 7 restaurant in Lens, a traditional miners' restaurant, indeed it takes its name from nearby pit no 7. I enjoyed a huge slab of Foie Gras and a massive steak frites, one of those odd cuts you only get in France.
You may find this hard to believe but on the way back to the hotel I passed a brewery, strictly speaking that’s a fib, I stopped at a brewery. Page 24 brewery which has a great visitor centre - and are very generous with their samples. A tip: if you visit the brewery, don’t taste the Barley Wine or you may not wake up in time to get to the restaurant for dinner.
Next morning a trip around the market in St Omer before a smooth crossing back to Dover on a DFDS brand new ferry and home in time for supper… fromage sur baguette grille. The pas de Calais and the Nord de France is alive, thriving, bustling and full of surprises and a mere 90 minutes away by boat across the Channel.
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