Being just a short drive and ferry ride away can mean the Pas de Calais region is taken too much for granted, but we decided to visit with a definite mission to explore.
Our base was a small, but comfortable gite (a French holiday house), in Béthune,
45 miles south-east of Calais, with good access to the surrounding area.
The city has a stunning central plaza with a defining feature – a 36-bell belfry dating from the 14th century that belts out its tune from a fabulous Flemish gothic tower.
Opposite is an imposing town hall, a building that is testament to the majesty of
Béthune was a wealthy Flanders city involved in cloth dyeing and the tanning of leather and later continued in its prosperity through mining. Sadly, the majority of its historic buildings constructed during these successful economic periods were flattened by German artillery in 1918.
Although the town had been fought over many times, it was still surprising to see Jewish soldiers from three countries buried in the extensive cemetery on the outskirts of the municipality.
One of these was an extraordinary forgotten hero – Lieutenant Frank Alexander de Pass – who was awarded the first Jewish Victoria Cross of the First World War for defending a trench and protecting his side, while at a great personal risk from enemy bombs. While under heavy fire, he also rescued a wounded man who was lying exposed to enemy bullets. De Pass lost his life the following day, while continuing this defence on 25 November 1914.
Béthune is also the centre of a wonderful story of bravery and chutzpah. In 1940, the Germans ordered the Jewish population to prepare for deportation. Fortuné Delestrez, a resident of the city, immediately offered sanctuary to two children, Fanny and Simon. As adults, they were able to recount two incidents when Nazi officers, tipped off by informers, searched the Delestrez home.
On the first occasion, his wife Louise draped a long tablecloth over the table, hid the children underneath, and then proceeded to serve the Germans coffee from the same table! When the Nazis arrived again, Fanny and Simon were concealed behind a wardrobe on top of a large beer container and the Germans once more failed in their quest, owing to Louise’s ability to keep her cool.
Two months later, Fanny and Simon were smuggled out of the Delestrez apartment, hidden in potato sacks and, after some hardships, were eventually able to join their parents in Paris. The act of heroism by the Delestrez family was remembered in 1991, when Yad Vashem included them among rhe Righteous Among the Nations.
Eleven miles from Béthune is the town of Lens, home to one of France’s top football teams and, surprisingly, a branch of the Louvre. It was opened in 2012 and is the best designed museum I have ever visited, yet stuck in the corner of the town beyond the football stadium, it does seem rather a neglected treasure.
Laying out the exhibits in chronological, as well as geographic order, is a work of
genius that needs to be copied, as does the large bright glass room in which they
The ancient statues are gobsmacking. Four Egyptian baboons sit ahead of Marcus Aurelius and a Mithraic bull and are life-size. The decline in the Dark Ages becomes apparent further forward with unrealistic paintings of saints and a rare direct portrait of God. Indian and Iranian art adds to the contrast, but we have to wait to the final years of the ancient regime to see western images that compare in quality to the earlier sections.
Furniture and paintings from that period form a fitting prelude to the iconic last work of Napoleon on his horse.
Le Touquet has changed a lot since I last visited as a child, but still oozes charm and elegance, which continues to make it a favourite for elegant Parisians wanting some time on its extensive coastline.
The casino was the inspiration for Casino Royale – Ian Fleming was a frequent visitor. Other famous tourists include Sean Connery, Winston Churchill and Tony Blair. It has become especially popular nowadays as Brigitte Macron inherited villa Monejan from her parents, and the presidential couple come frequently to Le Touquet to relax.
The town is only two hours from both London and Paris and is also known as a good destination for sport-based family holidays, with its golf courses, tennis courts, and sand yachting.
Boutiques and eateries are sophisticated and numerous. We had a tip-off to visit the famous fish restaurant, Perard, and were not disappointed with our meal.
Less hospitable is the fact that Pas de Calais has the unfortunate pride of being one of the birthplaces of military rockets.
Near St Omer is La Coupole, originally a hardened bunker that has been transformed into a museum, depicting the evil of the Nazi V2 programme.
This is where the Nazi war criminal Wernher von Braun used slave labour in a desperate attempt to produce a terror weapon that might rescue Hitler’s war.
When that failed, he was able to avoid capture by the Soviets and become a US hero.
More than two decades later, von Braun extended his work into the programme that designed the Saturn V, the rocket which first launched Americans to the moon.
Where to stay…
Lucy travelled by DFDS Ferries from Dover to Calais (dfdsseaways.co.uk) and stayed in accommodation booked through Gites de France (gites-de -france.com). She visited the Louvre-Lens (louvrelens.fr) and La Coupole (lacoupole-france.co.uk). For details, see visit-pas-de-calais.com