Area Guide to the Regions of France
Regional Guide to Nord-Pas-de-Calais
- Northernmost of the French regions
- Distinctive local culture with Flemish influences
- Excellent transport infrastructure linking it to London, Paris and Brussels
- Picturesque coastline with white cliffs and fishing villages
- Predominantly flat, fertile land traversed by numerous rivers and a network of canals
- Strong industrial tradition
- Lille, the regional capital, is a cultural, commercial and administrative centre and the fourth largest city in France
Nord-Pas-de-Calais is the northernmost of the French regions and is bordered by the North Sea and the English Channel to the north and northwest, Belgium to the northeast and Picardie to the south.
There are two departments within the région: Nord (59) and Pas-de-Calais (62). The regional capital Lille, the fourth largest French city, is situated near the French border with Belgium in the department of Nord.
The majority of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is flat with much of the land lying below sea level. A chain of low-hills crosses the region from northwest to southeast and the numerous rivers, many of which are connected by a network of canals, include the Authie, Canche, Escaut, Lawe, Liane, Lys, Sambre and Scarpe.
Google Interactive Map
Map of Nord-Pas-de-Calais with Departments
Department / Capital:
Nord (59) / Lille
Pas-de-Calais (62) / Arras
Nord-Pas-de-Calais is a region of distinctive cultural references that have been shaped by its geographical location.
The bustling Channel ports of Calais, Dunkerque and Boulogne give way to the Côte d'Opale’s sandy beaches and dunes, white chalk cliffs and picturesque fishing villages where the local markets feature freshly caught turbot, bass, mackerel and mussels. The seaside resort of Wimereux is relatively undiscovered and Le Touquet is regarded as Northern France’s most elegant holiday resort.
Inland, the flat verdant landscape of rivers and canals is dotted with water mills, wind mills and small rural villages, where fine locally produced Bières du Nord grace the traditional local bars known as estaminets.
The larger towns of Nord-Pas-de-Calais (Valenciennes, Lens, Douai, Béthune, Maubeuge, Arras, Cambrai and Saint-Omer) feature graceful Flemish architecture, beautiful brick façades and elegant central squares. Lille, the regional capital has a lively city centre and is a cultural, commercial and administrative hub. The city lies on the Paris-France Eurostar line and is therefore well situated and well connected to other major European cities.
Since the 19th Century Nord-Pas-de-Calais has been one of France’s most important industrial regions producing coal, steel and textiles. The most industrialised areas surround the major Channel ports of Calais and Dunkerque, while the flat, open plains to the north of the region are hugely important agriculturally. Here, large farms producing wheat and barley share the landscape with market gardens that line the canals and swathes of pastureland.
Carnivals and festivals throughout the towns of Nord-Pas-de-Calais celebrate the region’s heritage, its industrial past, its agricultural and fishing traditions and its local legends and historic legacies. The processions and festivities are amongst the most memorable and impressive to be found in all of France and demonstrate in a spectacular manner a regional pride and sense of community that is hard to come by.
Average Max and Min Temperatures
Nord-Pas-de-Calais has a mild climate due to its coastal location on the North Sea and English Channel. The weather is fairly consistent, with average temperatures in the low 20°C during the summer months and between 3-5°C during December and January. Although the summers are warmer than England, rainfall is spread fairly evenly throughout the year and accounts for Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ verdant countryside.
The traditional local culture of Nord-Pas-de-Calais has a distinctive Flemish influence that can be observed in the regional cuisine, dialect and festivals as well as in a landscape of windmills and canals.
Flemish, a Netherlandic dialect of the West Germanic language group, is spoken daily by an estimated 20,000 of the regions four million population, primarily in the area surrounding Dunkerque. The Flemish influence can also be seen in both family and place names throughout the region.
Carnival is an impressive display of costume and merriment, featuring huge processions where giant figures made of papier-maché celebrating various local legends, are paraded through the streets. The celebrations are accompanied by the local Bières du Nord, real ales that are as much a part of the Nord’s culture as they are England’s. The estaminet, a local bar that often has a games room and a variety of traditional pub games such as skittles, giant darts and Flemish boules is a hallmark of the region’s daily culture. Until the last century, every village featured at least one estaminet that brewed its own beer.
Lille is a thriving, bustling cultural centre with museums, art galleries and theatres of international standing. Numerous other museums throughout the region celebrate its industrial splendour and the région is in no hurry to shake off its image as the centre of the industrial North.
The modern administrative region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais is composed of all or parts of the historical provinces of Flanders, Artois, Boulogne, Cambrésis, Hainaut and Picardie.
Having been previously occupied by the Belgae, a Celto-Germanic tribe, the region was conquered by the Romans during the first century BC. The Belgae were drafted by the Romans to perform military and defence services between Boulogne and Cologne. A linguistic border developed within the region, with Romance dialects spoken in the south and Middle-Dutch dialects spoken in the North. The linguistic divide is still evident today in the place names and family names of Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th Century AD and the subsequent death of the Frankish King, Clovis in 511, the kingdom of the Franks was divided into three portions. Nord-Pas-de-Calais formed part of the Western Frankish Kingdom of Neustria and the Carolingian Counties of Artois, Boulogne, Cambrésis, Flanders, Hainaut and Picardie were established. Boulogne, Artois and Western Flanders were fiefs of the French Crown during the Middle Ages and prospered as manufacturing and trading centres throughout the 10th, 11th and 12th Centuries. The County of Flanders extended into Belgium and the Netherlands, but was divided when its western districts fell under French rule in the late 12th century.
Calais fell to the English throne during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), where remained the only French territory under English possession until ceded to France in 1558.
All of the territories (bar Calais) came under the control of the Burgundian Dukes during the 15th Century and subsequently passed to the Austrian Hapsburgs upon Marie of Burgundy’s marriage to Maximillian of Austria in 1477. The conflict for the possession of these territories that arose between the French Crown and the Austrian (and later the Spanish) Hapsburgs led to the Franco-Spanish Wars of the 17th Century and eventually to the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714). The territories of French Flanders, Artois and Boulogne were ceded to the French Crown under the Treaties of Nijmegen (1678) and Ryswick (1697).
The modern day departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais were established following the 1789 French Revolution and underwent a tremendous process of industrialisation to become France’s leading industrial region during the 19th Century with extensive coal mines, steel mills and textiles manufacturing. Up until the 1950s, Nord-Pas-de-Calais accounted for half of French coal production, a third of French textiles and one quarter of French steel, however the 20th Century saw a massive decline in industry and the subsequent re-structuring of the region’s industry and economy continues to this day.
The region also suffered greatly during both the First and Second World Wars. The plains of Nord-Pas-de-Calais bore the devastating atrocities of trench warfare during the First World War and were used as a launch base for the Luftwaffe and the V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on England during the Second World War. Occupied by German forces throughout the majority of both World Wars, the towns and villages of Nord-Pas-de-Calais suffered greater devastation than any other French region. Dunkerque, which was liberated in May 1945, was the last French town to be freed from German occupation. Cemeteries, monuments and memorials throughout the region commemorate the events that took place here and the soldiers whose lives were lost.
Nord-Pas-de-Calais is well-situated between Paris, Brussels and London. The Channel Tunnel terminal at Sangatte, the major passenger and freight terminals at Calais, Dunkerque, and Boulogne, the numerous TGV links (particularly at Lille) and the region’s excellent road and motorway network link it to all the major European cities.
Nord-Pas-de-Calais has a long tradition of industrial activity. Formerly known for coal, steel and textiles, Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ industries have diversified to keep it within the top three French regions in terms of industrial production. The service sector has expanded rapidly over recent years, particularly in Lille and free enterprise zones and grants have attracted numerous small and medium sized companies to the region.
Today, Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ industrial activity is dominated by the automotive, metallurgy, glass, textiles and chemicals sectors. Telecommunications, retail distribution and consumer services are also key industries within the service sector.
The automotive industry is the largest industrial employer within the region, with Renault, Peugeot and Toyota factories located at Douai, Maubeuge, Valenciennes and Onnaing. In addition, there are also numerous firms producing car components throughout the region.
Nord-Pas-de-Calais accounts for 30% of the national production of railway equipment with ANF, Alstom, Bombardier and Valdunes all located within this region.
The steel and textiles industries have long been important to the Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ economy and whilst Usinor and Vallourec have major sites at Dunkerque and Valenciennes, the highly mechanised textiles industries concentrated around Roubaix and Tourcoing continue to produce linen thread, embroidery, lace, woollen fabrics and carpets.
Oil-refining and inorganic chemicals industries are concentrated around Calais and Dunkerque and the two cities also host Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and France’s largest wind farm respectively.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is France’ leading fishing port and the renowned Bières du Nord that are produced throughout the region also contribute to Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ economy.
The well-irrigated plains of Nord-Pas-de-Calais are some of the most agriculturally productive in France. Large, highly mechanized farms produce 6% of France’s wheat and 5% of the nation’s barley. Other leading crops include flax, sugar beets, potatoes, chicory and hops, while market gardening is highly developed amongst the region’s network of canals.
Over half of the agricultural land is used for pasture and livestock farming is prevalent throughout the region. Nord-Pas-de-Calais is a leading producer of pork and has an important dairy industry that is mainly concentrated in the coastal lowlands.
Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ cuisine is markedly different from the tastes associated with typical French cuisine due to the strong Flemish influence.
Endives, leeks, potatoes, local cheeses and meats and the famous Bières du Nord form the basis of many of the dishes and beer, rather than wine is the local tipple. The names of local dishes will also be unfamiliar to those better acquainted with the cuisine of the more southern regions, for example Potjevleesch (a dish of chicken, rabbit and veal in a rich jelly that is typical in Dunkerque), Waterzooi (a rich fish stew made with carrots, potatoes, herbs and leeks, eggs, cream and butter) and Kippenwaterzooi (made with chicken, in particular the local and renowned Poulet de Licques).
Many of the traditional regional dishes make use of the local beers; the traditional French pot-au-feu is known as Carbonnade à la Flamande in Nord-Pas-de-Calais and the meat is cooked gently in beer, rather than wine and even one of the local cheeses, Tomme de Cambrai is washed with beer.
Other specialities include Andouillette de Cambrai (chitterling sausages), Maroilles tart (a flamiche tart with maroilles cheese), chicory gratin, anguille au vert à la Flamande (eel cooked with herbs) and last, but not least endive and ham gratin.
The coast provides excellent seafood and nearly every village along it has a fish market and freshly caught turbot, bass, eel, herring, mackerel, scallops and mussels are also regular features of the regions’ cuisine.
Gâteau Carpeaux (chestnut cake), La Gaufre à la Chicorée (chicory waffle) and rhubarb tart are typical regional desserts, while Nord-Pas-de-Calais’ most famous confectionary, Les Bêtises de Cambrai are delicious mint flavoured sweets.
The most famous of the regional beers are Grain d'Orge, Ch'Ti, Septante-5, Saint-Poloise, Ambre des Flandres, Belzebuth, Bière de Garde and Pot Flamand. The beer-making tradition is taken as seriously here as it is in England and up until the last century, every village was home to at least one pub that brewed its own Bière du Nord.
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