Much as we have enjoyed our visits to Paris, we have also had a great deal of pleasure visiting regional France. We have spent time in Northern France on two separate trips and these are our recommendations for some places you might like to visit.
Champagne Region, Northern France
Our first foray into Northern France was to the Champagne Region, naturellement! We had leased a vehicle for an extended journey within France and picked it up near Charles de Gaulle Airport to avoid the need to drive through Paris.
We based ourselves in the tiny village of Reuilly-Sauvigny and stayed with Bill and Meredith at their Champagne B&B.This was an excellent choice as our hosts know their area very well and had perfect recommendations for us to ensure we got the most out of our visit. Reuilly-Sauvigny has no shops but it does have the Auberge le Relais, a guest house with a lovely restaurant which finds its place in the Michelin Guide. Bill kindly booked us in to the restaurant, which is walking distance from the B&B and we enjoyed a delicious degustation dinner accompanied of course by a bottle of Champagne.
Bill and Meredith also recommended a champagne tour with a small family run champagne house, Champagne Domi Moreau. This was a wonderful experience, particularly as we happened to be in the region as vendange (picking) was beginning. But whatever the time of the year it is just lovely to be amongst the vines and a small Champagne house tour allows you to truly get ‘under the skin’ of this wonderful region.
We also greatly enjoyed some time in Epernay and of course we visited Reims and its famous Cathedral. Epernay is the home of many of the large well known Champagne houses such as Moet and Chandon, Pol Roger and Perrier, all located on L’Avenue de Champagne. This is some of the most expensive real estate in the world with thousands of bottles of premium champagne stored in drives below the chateaus.
Also in the Champagne region are many World War 1 memorials and cemeteries, more information on those for Australians can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. For New Zealand readers you have a wonderful resource with loads of information at the Nga Tapuwae New Zealand First World War Trails site.
The Western Front and Arras
Heading north west from the Champagne region we spent several days in the greater Somme area of the Western Front. We based ourselves in the lovely town of Arras and stayed in an airbnb there.
Whilst visiting the Somme battlefields and memorials was much more Rowan’s ‘gig’ than mine, I could not help be drawn in by the experience. The rows and rows of graves of unknown personnel is heartbreaking, as are the graves of those taken so young. Standing in the fields around the memorials it is easy to imagine how terrible it must have been fighting in such open territory, to say nothing of the cold and the wet. This is now known as good potato growing country and it is easy to see why.
I was particularly interested in the interpretative panels at the relatively new memorial at Le Hamel. These tell the story of Lieutenant General John Monash who mounted a highly successful attack based on his own strategy which has now been repeated many times. As I write it is very pleasing to see that Monash is now rising to the prominence he has long deserved and indeed Peter Fitzsimons has just written “Monash’s Masterpiece: The battle of Le Hamel and the 93 minutes that changed the world” which brings to life the story of Le Hamel.
But it wasn’t all war graves and memorials, we also enjoyed our time in Arras, particularly visiting the Unesco World Heritage Town Hall which is beautiful inside and out. The Town Hall overlooks the lovely Place des Heros, a square which hosts markets and is the location for many restaurants and bars located in buildings of the Flemish-Baroque style. A fine place for a Belgian Beer on a sunny day!.
Honfleur is a well known seaside town in Normandy and is very lovely in its architecture and surroundings. We found it very touristy and much less friendly than many other of the other places to we visited in northern France. An easy journey across from Britain we found it dominated by the British and had a sense that some of the business owners were weary of visitors and a little resentful. It was not our favourite place that we visited in this part of France, but we did enjoy some good food and pleasant outlooks across the port area.
We made a day trip to Bayeux from Honfleur and were so glad we did. Of course Bayeux is very famous for the Bayeux Tapestry. Seeing the Tapestry was one of those experiences that will always remain with me. My ability to retain dates in history was always poor, but for some reason 1066 The Battle of Hasting and The End of the Norman Conquest stayed with me. It was so incredible to see this historic event laid out in embroidery and maintained in excellent condition. It is huge and wonderful and if you have a chance to visit I do strongly recommend you do so (whether you can remember 1066 or not) 😉
But Bayeux is much more than the Tapestry, the City itself is quite lovely and we wandered through the streets admiring both the architecture and the natural environment. We would have been happy to have dwelled a little longer in Bayeux and perhaps stayed a few nights if time had permitted.
Northern France offers so much
This post just scratches the surface of what is on offer in Northern France; both Brittany and Normandy have so much to offer. Other spots on my wish list are Lille, Quimper and Amiens. I haven’t even touched on the food and cider, both of which the locals are justly proud of. Do put Northern France on your list and don’t be daunted by the climate. We visited in late September and the weather was beautiful. After our visit to Northern France we headed to South West France. Alternatively, whilst you in the north of France why not take the opportunity to visit one of our favourite European Cities, Bruges