If you haven’t heard of Hauts-de-France yet, that’s because it is indeed France’s newest region – only formed in 2016 from the joining of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The hidden treasures to be found here in France’s northernmost region, however, are much more established – to the tune of centuries, in many cases. We don’t think this place is going to be kept secret for Australian travellers for much longer.
The history encased within this very special swathe of France, tucked between Paris in the south and the English Channel and North Sea to its north, can be seen in its architectural wonders and chateaux, its war-written landscapes and its richly cultured communities. After all, destinations with indelible ties to World War 1 history are found here: the battlefields of the Somme, Calais in Pas de Calais and Dunkirk in French Flanders. The Gothic cathedrals of Amiens – celebrating 800 years in 2020 – and Senlis await, as well as 18th-century chateaux in Chantilly and Pierrefonds, the magnificent floating gardens of Amiens, and the cobblestones and markets of the quaint ‘old town’ of Lille.
It’s all within an easy drive from Paris, and with Charles de Gaulle airport placed perfectly to the north of the capital, you can simply strike north to combine French cultural treasures with the famous Australian Remembrance Trail of war memories and memorials. Here’s a six-day road-trip itinerary that will help you see it all.
DAY 1: Senlis – Chantilly
A short drive from Charles de Gaulle, you can arrive at your first stop – the Gallo-Roman town of Senlis. The monarchs of the early French dynasties lived right here, attracted by the proximity of the dense and beautiful Chantilly forest (now a prime spot to hike). No visit here is complete without seeing the town’s Gothic cathedral, then you can explore the town via its cobblestone pathways and discover the Art and Archaeology Museum. The Museum is home to many originals by the renowned self-taught French artist Seraphine, known for her naïve styles and immortalised in the 2008 film named after her. You can drive right through the forest of Chantilly to arrive in the centre of Chantilly town itself – a surprising and stunning enclave of sandstone villas and chateaux. Tonight, choose between a stay in the boutique three-star Hotel l’Chantilly, or the exquisitely five-star Tiara Château Mont Royal Chantilly.
DAY 2: Chantilly – Amiens
Here in the equestrian capital of France, the sights are refined and the history, remarkable. A visit to the unmissable Domaine de Chantilly will take most of the day, with its Chateau and adjoining Musée Condé housing the largest collection of Renaissance paintings outside of the Louvre, and its intricate gardens spanning fully 115 hectares. The stables here are the largest in Europe, and the Horse Museum is widely lauded. An equestrian show inside the stables is an often-enjoyed treat here, and a meal at La Capitainerie restaurant in the heart of the chateau is also a must. Then you can drive on to Amiens, roughly one hour away. The boutique three-star Hotel Prieure Amiens is charming, intimate and centrally located.
DAY 3: Amiens
Today is a special day in this elegant and thoroughly beautiful city. Spend the morning in the Gothic cathedral of Amiens, the largest in Europe and a listed UNESCO World Heritage site, then head over for lunch in the Quai Saint Leu district with its bustling restaurants on the banks of the canals. You’ll also find the exquisite Les Hortillonnages floating gardens near here, which you can tour by electric boat if you wish; visit on a Saturday and you can buy produce from the gardens at the water market in Saint-Leu.
There are plenty of antique shops in Amiens to choose a handsome souvenir or three, or pop into the Halles du Beffroi shopping centre to taste delicious regional produce, from light-as-air tuiles en chocolat to a traditional, rich gâteau battu, as well as jewel-hued macarons and a great range of local cheeses. Pick up a few tranches of soft and firm cheese varieties to take back to your hotel, along with perhaps a local drop of northern-style dry cider or some French sparkles – after all, the region of Champagne is only a couple of hours away.
DAY 4: Amiens – Naours – Arras
After a leisurely breakfast, a short drive takes you to the thick of wartime memories in and around Naours. Take your time soaking up the truly unique and moving experience that is the commemorative Sir John Monash Centre, named after the Australian war hero and set on the grounds of the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery. The Australian National Memorial is right alongside, and you can then move on to the Franco Australian Museum near here. You can continue on to the Australian Memorial Park as you like, and do stop for a fascinating look around the intimate Bullecourt Museum, overlooked by the statue of the ‘Bullecourt Digger’. Bullecourt was the site of particularly fierce battles, and is a poignant stop on the larger Australian Remembrance Trail which, in its entirety, spans sites in France and Belgium.
A wonderful stop can also be enjoyed at Vignacourt Museum, formed around a box of photographic negatives found in an attic on the former Western Front in 2010, unveiling a raft of stories and information about wartime life here. After this reflective and informative day, take the short drive to the town of Arras, for a stay overnight in the chic, boutique three-star Hotel Particulier.
DAY 5: Arras – Lille
The eclecticism of Arras lies in its heritage, together with the solemnity of its remembrance sites, combining to form a unique and memorable French experience. This modern French town, and its convivial inhabitants, is best discovered by strolling the quiet laneways and enjoying a drink in Place de Heros, the main square at the foot of the UNESCO Belfry. Book at the Tourist Office (on reservation only) an exclusive tour with a passionate, bilingual guide, to visit the infamous Wellington Tunnels. These evocative quarry tunnels plunge you into the history of the Great War, the Battle of Arras and the tragic events that took place here. You will follow the story through the city and up to the subterranean city of tunnels that sheltered so many soldiers.
After this poignant World War 1 discovery, drive on to Fromelles – also a site of great importance and poignancy. Here, one of Australia’s most significant World War 1 losses occurred; in 2008, the remains of 250 unknown soldiers were exhumed and a major DNA identification campaign began to restore their identities and honour their memory. The site inspired the well-known The Lost Diggers of Fromelles project by the students of Saint Clare’s College, Sydney. From Fromelles, you have an easy 20-minute drive on to Lille, where you can stay in the unique and super funky Mamashelter Lille.
DAY 6: Lille
The capital of the northern France and a host town for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Lille is a contemporary, lively and culturally rich city. The grand Place du Theatre is an ideal place to begin, to really soak in the main sites of Lille such as the grand neoclassical Opera House. Don’t miss a climb up the Belfry Tower to devour a wonderfully majestic 360-degree view from the top of this UNESCO Heritage-listed site.
From here, it’s a leisurely wander to the Place Charles de Gaulle, the central square of Vieux Lille (the ‘old town’) and be pulled by curiosity into hidden courtyards, intriguing shops and enticing cafés. The gastronomic scene here is very serious indeed, so set aside plenty of time to taste local delicacies and specialties. The Notre Dame de la Treille cathedral and the Palais des Beaux Arts are also must-visit destinations to appreciate the historic atmosphere that permeates this northern city. Lille’s airport is close by, so you can simply drop off your car here, then it’s a quick TGV train ride to Charles de Gaulle airport (under one hour), or into Paris to continue your French adventure.