Saint-Omer: Take five
Re-treading old ground, travel writer Roger St. Pierre visits one of his favourite French towns and a too often overlooked region
France is a big country, there’s so much to take in, but in our hurry to hit the autoroute and head for the south and the sunshine, we're in danger of missing out some of the best bits of La Belle France.
What’s more, there’s a lot that’s of interest in Northern France besides the scenic bits.
Just across the Channel, Pas de Calais-Nord is a region redolent with Irish and Anglo history – the land of Agincourt, or Azincourt as the French call it; of the Field of the Cloth of Gold where Henry VIII and French king Francis I met to impress each other and their citizens with their pomp and their power, and where so much Irish and British blood was shed in the Great War trenches and Second World War battlefields of Flanders, Artois and Picardy.
From here, the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ evacuation took place, invasions were planned by Caesar, Napoleon and Hitler in turn and V2 rockets would have been launched en-masse to rain down on London and Belfast too if the sites had not been over-run by the liberating armies before the onslaught could gather full momentum.
La Coupole is the vast concrete dome that once housed these early weapons of mass destruction. It is today a vast and recently lavishly upgraded museum to those grim days, its latest attractions being a lavish and thought provoking space exploration exhibition and an impressive 3D planetarium.
In the wooded hills behind Calais and Boulogne, tinkling brooks course through the picturesque Seven Valleys, a rural idyll where cows graze in lush meadows and are driven down the narrow lanes to the milking parlour while roses seem to grow around every cottage doorway and rolling fields are seasonally filled with blood red poppies in one of Mother Nature’s most spectacular displays.
It’s a place for picnics and country walks and for great food too.
This is the land of the Ch’tis – the French Nordistes, rough-hewn sons of the land, the coalmines and the sea too, whose guttural dialect is oftimes barely intelligible, even to their fellow Frenchmen.
The fastest grossing movie of all time in any language, ‘Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis’ stormed the French box office back in 2008 (though it made little impact elsewhere).
I was in the Breton capital of Rennes the night the film opened. It was showing simultaneously and around the clock at three different cinemas there and at 3am the queues stretched around the block.
An amazing tally of 20 million people saw it in its first 25 weeks on release.
An engaging, quintessentially French comedy, starring Cad Merad and Dany Boon, its storyline follows the fortunes of a post office manager who is moved from his position in the south of France and told he will be relocated in the north, to him a cold and mysterious place.
But slowly he is won over by the locals - their strange ways and odd dialect - and when he finally gets a transfer back to the sunshine he bursts into tears, reflecting the local saying: "You cry twice up north: once when you arrive and again when you leave."
As a solid fan of the region, I have to agree with that sentiment. My latest visit was based not in Bergues, the walled and moated town – near Dunkirk – where the film’s protagonist ended up, but in the equally historic Saint Omer.
I stayed for the fourth time – which says something about the quality of the place – at Château Tilques (www.tilques.najeti.fr), a 19 Century country house hotel in classic red brick Flemish style.
Originally refurbished as a hotel by Brits a couple of decades ago, this welcoming venue is now operated by Najeti, a highly professional French group with eight luxury hotels in its portfolio – mainly in the north.
It’s true that the guestrooms, especially those in the more recently added annexe, are somewhat corporate in feel but they are ultra-luxury and the classy Le Vert Mesnel restaurant provides all the individuality and creative inspiration you could wish for.
It was no surprise that everyone in our little group plumped for the novel take on the classic Flemish rabbit with prunes followed by an exquisitely presented pheasant dish that really was an artwork on a plate. It was a magical choice.
There are 53 guestrooms, an indoor pool and a tennis court, with golf and horse riding available nearby.
It's but a 10-minute drive from Tilques to the heart of Saint Omer, a bustling market town that centres on a large square bristling with shops and eating places. Notre Dame Cathedral is also at the heart of things.
A trading centre for more than 1,000 years, Saint Omer has a wealth of fascinating architecture – much of it featuring the famed yellow bricks – as well as impressive canals in the lower town.
The sea isn’t far away, hence the wealth of fish dishes, including, of course, the ubiquitous moules frites. Much of the other produce used by chefs here comes from the vast Clairmarais water meadows, on the edge of town – a horticultural wonderland, only reachable by flat-bottom boat, which served as a near-impregnable hideaway for the wartime French Resistance.
A languid boat cruise with Embarcadère Isnor or Au Bon Accueil will glide you past lush allotments and smallholdings, set on long, narrow strips of land known as lègres, your progress accompanied by a wealth of waterfowl and other wild creatures.
New for 2013 is the La Maison du Marais interpretive centre at Saint Martin au Laërt. Altogether, there are 3,700 hectares of wetlands in the region, with 160 kms of navigable waterways.
It is true that much of the Pas de Calais-Nord region is flat as a crêpe but there are some sizeable hills too – the savage so-called ‘Flemish Alps’ that feature so heavily in the classic Tour of Flanders bicycle race are just across the border in Belgium but on the French side there’s Mont Noir, Mont des Chats, crowned by a massive monastery, and, a little further off, my favourite, Mont Cassel, with its winding, cobbled climb leading to the little hilltop town where Allied Supreme Commander, Marechal Foch, made his headquarters during the First World War.
Here you will find the delightful little T’Kasteelhof estaminet, styled after an old grocery store, where they dish up classic Flemish dishes and rely on ingredients produced within a 100 km radius – hence plenty of beer but no wine list (surely unique for a French restaurant). The views of the surrounding countryside are wide-sweeping and a superb backdrop for a slow-paced meal.
Other attractions in and around Saint Omer include the unusual town hall, nicknamed ‘The Coffee Mill’ by the locals; the library, with its 350,000 volumes; the Musée de L’Hôtel Sandelin, currently featuring the art of Flanders and Champagne 1150-1250 and boasting wonderful collections of paintings and ceramics; the ruins of St. Bertin Abbey; tours of the massive glassworks at Arques; 15-km steam train rides along the valley of the delightfully named River Aa, between Arques and Lumbres; the 13-metre high boat lift at Fontinettes-Arques; the 25 thrill rides of the Dennlys Parc, at Donnebroeucq, and the massive concrete blockhouse built at Eperlecques by the Nazi occupiers.
Still hungry? At Longuenesse, close by Saint Omer’s aerodrome, you’ll find the charming little L’Envol restaurant (www.lenvol-restaurant.fr). The USP here is a menu of authentic mediaeval delicacies. It’s open every lunchtime but only on Fridays and Saturdays of an evening.
Welcome to L’Audomarois – the region of Saint Omer, land of the Ch’tis.