As a child I spent many happy family holidays in France – living close to the south coast of the UK as we did, it was really easy to stick us kids in the car and catch a ferry from Dover to Calais, arriving on foreign soil ready to explore within a few hours. I go back there still – here are three of my favourite spots, all are only an hour or two’s drive from Calais.
Le Touquet – Ideal For Beach People
The quirky coastal town of Le Touquet around an hour west along the coast road from Calais used to be a hangout for filmstars and a playground for politicians back in the 1920s and 30s. Rich and powerful Parisians built exuberant villas here, a casino opened and the airport ferried in moneyed Brits from across the channel – today, the place has a bit of an air of faded grandeur about it which I really love.
You can hop on a bicycle and pedal your way around those grand villas – many of them with interesting Art Deco architectural flourishes, some now housing interesting art exhibitions. The local produce market in the centre of the town buzzes with life, bursting with all manner of fruits, vegetable, fish and fowl – and then there’s the beach, which of course was what attracted the rich and famous in the first place.
Giverny – Lovely For Art Lovers
France has given the world its fair share of genuinely great artists and few come much more impactful than Monet. At the forefront of the Impressionist movement which sought to depict hyper realistic scenes using tiny dabs of bright paint – Monet painted many of his most famous canvases at his house and gardens in Giverny which lies around 3 hours inland from Calais on the banks of the River Seine. Monet lived here from 1883 to his death in 1926 and devoted much of his time to creating the most amazingly vibrant gardens – wonderfully laid-out expanses of brilliant blooms interspersed with placid lakes, shady bowers and delicate footbridges. From these views were born some of his most famous works of art – in particular the vast canvases of waterlillies, many with a slender Japanese footbridge in the background.
Laon: Wonderful For Romance
The medieval town of Laon sits atop an escarpment on the wide plains east of Paris – it’s also around a 3 hour drive from Calais – down the A26 autoroute – but well worth the traveling time, particularly if you’re looking for a cosy weekend break á deux without many other tourists around. The big autoroute going right past the door means many visitors to this part of France cruise right on by and that’s why I particularly like it – it’s surprisingly unvisited. The tightly contoured hillside it sits on means that the old town is a delightful labyrinth of narrow old cobbled streets and wooden beamed houses. It’s ideal for just strolling – sudden abrupt views of unexpected vastness arrive around corners as you reach stretches of the old ramparts. And then, sat right in the midst of it all, is the massive cathedral – a Gothic fortress of the most incredible proportions adorned with all manner of carvings and statues. In the evenings the town is quiet and cosy, ideal for a meander and a spot of food at one of the handful of local bars and creperies.
Getting there: P&O Ferries has regular sailings every day from Dover to Calais – the crossing takes just 90 minutes and if you’re lucky you’ll get to travel aboard their smart new super ferry the Spirit of France.
Have you been to northern France? Would you recommend any other places to visit?