By Travelin’ Gal Maxine Albert
Swathed in wintry finest and accessorized in holiday glam, Paris looks even more beautiful in winter. There’s the scenic Seine, Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees, great food, fine wine and The Louvre. What news to hear that a second Louvre was to grace France. I came for the December opening of the Louvre in Lens and wanted to explore the less traveled North Pais de Calais, where Lens is located. What I found was a region rich in history and culture with superb cuisine, which may be France’s best kept secret.
My journey began aboard Air France in premium voyager, with affordable pricing and business class amenities such as spacious seats, additional leg and reclining room and superior meals. Landing well rested in Paris, I was ready to head out to the famous sights and impressive museums. Dotted with white trees, outdoor Christmas markets with myriad goodies and women wrapped in stylish scarves sporting chic hats and boots, The City of Lights dazzled.
I love strolling the streets and taking in the grand buildings, art galleries, pastry-filled boulangeries and lively cafes and brasseries. If you like chicken, head to Epicerie–Rotisserie Jeanne A where the tender juicy specialty is reputed to be among the best in Paris.
Stay: W Paris – Opera: Located near the exclusive boutiques of Rue du Faubourg Saint–Honore, the stylish W Hotel features sleek rooms and suites with bespoke furnishings, plush beds and linens, happening bar/lounge and Arola Restaurant.
Les Jardins du Marais Hotel offers snazzy deco rooms with charming outdoor gardens in the trendy Marais near ateliers of young designers.
PAIS DE CALAIS: LOUVRE - LENS
Hop aboard the high speed TGV RailEurope train and travel in utmost comfort and ease through the verdant countryside peppered with white and lilac flowers, arriving in Lens in an hour. Take a day excursion or rent a car, as I did, and explore the region. The open landscape of Northeast France, located between the North Sea and Belgium, bears the scars of World War I and its historic sights.
Lens has been designated a Unesco Site in recognition of its mining heritage; the new museum is actually set atop a former mine works. This other Louvre was conceived to bring the Paris treasures to a wider audience with rotating exhibitions. Hailed as one of the architectural masterpieces of the new millennium, the museum is built around a central glass pavilion with two wings, the Grande Galerie and Galerie du Temps. Its glass structure, transparent walls and aluminum ceiling angled to reflect natural light harmonizes with the landscape.
Works are innovatively exhibited without partitions. You get up close and personal with the great masters, viewing paintings and sculptures from all angles. I thrilled being so near a Rembrandt and thought a sensor would go off. There are none; a visible and accessible experience is actually encouraged. The Louvre-Lens uniquely aligns works from different cultures conceived during the same period, giving a greater historical perspective. Botticelli, Rubens, Delacroix, Poussin, El Greco, Goya and Raphael are among the rotating prestigious collection. Visitors can also observe restoration of art works in progress. A multimedia audio intuitive user interface guide with curators uses creative animation.
The entire site preserves the rugged pride and beauty of the former coal mine taken over by nature. Sustainable landscape designs evoke the plant to coal cycle and also feature miniature gardens, a lake, grasslands, a forest path and clearing, terraces, an esplanade and picnic areas on the forecourt. Opening this February in the museum, 2 star Michelin chef Marc Meurin’s eponymous L’Atelier restaurant will feature local products for those wanting gastronomy with their art.
Stay: La Chartreuse, a former castle in Gosnay with spacious elegant rooms, synthesizes French country with touches of a British Manor house. Le Robert ll gastronomic restaurant wows food lovers with dishes like pumpkin aspic and lamb with eggplant and polenta, done to perfection.
Capital of Artois Region, this city is known for its Christmas fair, gabled buildings, cobbled twin town squares with cafes and specialty shops, ornate belfry and Flemish architecture. The tasty regional cuisine includes Andouillette sausages, a meat stew known as Potje Vleesch, local Maroilles and Boulette d’avesnes cheeses, and crunchy praline chocolates - in the shape of rats!
Don’t miss the Wellington Quarry. Descend sixty-five feet below ground to the actual site where twenty four thousand British soldiers hid for eight days to surprise the German army at the Battle of Arras. Walk in the actual steps of the soldiers through the connecting tunnels and hear their words. Film footage, audio recordings, pencil drawings, photographs, initials etched on rocks, and memorabilia including letters to loved ones create an eerie, wondrous and moving experience. Another highlight was the Horse Drawn Coaches exhibition at the Fine Arts Museum in Arras. Marvel at the spectacular collection of opulent carriages, lavishly adorned in gold, on loan from the Palace of Versailles.
Check out the local cafés on the square and Flemish gable and Art Deco facades rebuilt after WWI. Visit ‘Modern’Mobilier’ furniture shop on the Grand Place whose secret cellar is a mini museum with medieval pottery, bread oven, artifacts and photographs of the town destroyed by war.
Stay: Univers Hotel, a former Jesuit monastery in Arras - this quaint hotel offers exceptional regional fare at gastronomic restaurant Le Clusius. I relished superb rabbit with artichoke tapenade and the fabulous cheese course.
MONTREUIL - SUR-MER, LE TOUQUET:
The picturesque town of Montreuil-sur-Mer enchants with its cobbled streets and lovely houses. Tree lined paths with benches atop the city walls allow you to take in the lush hills and gorgeous light that inspired Turner’s paintings. Victor Hugo was so taken with the place, that he set much of ‘Les Mis’ in this very locale.
Check out the seaside resort Le Touquet, where each opulent mansion vies for most fabulous. Year round tourists golf, horseback ride, attend horse races, yacht, stroll the promenade in chic attire, shop in high end boutiques and play at the casinos.
Stay: Just off the beach, Hotel Westminster & Spa oozes indulgent luxury and old world charm with art deco rooms and suites, Nuxe Spa and photo gallery of luminary guests such as Churchill, Sean Connery and Marlene Dietrich. Michelin starred ‘Le Pavilion’ delivers superlative specialties such as luscious sea bass and scallops with parsnips and leeks - to die for.
Drive along the scenic Opal coast, stopping for a lunch of the freshest fish at La Sirene facing the English Channel, as you gaze at the azure sea and white cliffs of Dover. Then on to Calais, for a visit at renowned Center of Lace and Fashion, before returning the car and boarding the train back to Paris.
For more information, visit:
Tourism Office of Pas de Calais
Tourism Office of Paris
Tourism office of Arras
Tourism of Calais
Tourism office of Le Touquet