After spending so many months of the year in the wine-soaked south of France, January was spent in the northern tip of the country, in the rural farmland around the port city of Calais. Here, the winter skies were gray and heavy, and the landscape was a deep, wet green. The landscape is made up of shallow hills, with the occasional view of the silver English Channel (or, La Manche as it is called in France). While incredibly different from the southern part of the same country, the Pas-de-Calais region has just as much complicated and rich history – especially considering that on a clear day, you can see the shining white Cliffs of Dover on the English coast. Close neighbors and an intertwined history make a region full of surprises. This is the Côte d’Opale – the Opal Coast.
The housesit I was charged with was in the quaint village of Hardinghen, about half an hour south of Calais. The village boasted a bakery, butcher, pharmacy, and small park where I could take the dogs. Being so close to the United Kingdom, the evidence is strong even in the architecture of the houses. The construction looks more akin to what you’d see in an English town than a quintessentially French one. The gray, rainy weather of course didn’t help this comparison, as I would describe the weather for the majority of my stay as “positively British”.
The house itself was enormous. The property was made up of an old stable block, and had the main house, three gîtes (French holiday homes), and several storage sheds. Because the house had been repurposed, it was an interesting shape, with stairs sometimes going up then down, then up again in the same hallway. That being said, it was a beautiful house, with a large woodfired stove and built-in “doggie windows” at floor level overlooking the front of the house – essentially a large gated car park area.
I always say this, I know, but the animals on this housesit stole my heart. Two border terriers, Mowgli and Genna, both with distinct and endearing personalities. Mowgli reminded me of a young curmudgeon, if that’s possible. If we wanted to go somewhere he didn’t, he’d trudge along begrudgingly. I found that the trick to address his whining was to sit on the couch, and he’d immediately jump up for cuddles. Genna was a 12-year-old with the heart of a puppy. She followed me everywhere in the house, and climbed on top of me during the thunderstorms. They were both incredibly well-behaved, as long as I kept them away from the chicken coop… And besides that one night they wouldn’t come inside and I went out to find them furiously digging under the fence. After some late night baths, all was well.
Occasionally I would take Mowgli out for longer walks, since Genna only wanted to walk around the village. We explored the Forêt de Guines nearby, though I was careful to make sure we never overlapped any hunting. Parts of the trails overlapped with the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage trail from Rome to Canterbury. On our walks we saw men training packs of hunting dogs, and a family training a young horse to pull a plow.
I was also charged with a 30-year old blind pony, as well as some chickens. I don’t know what it is, but I really like chickens. They make such soothing humming sounds, and a fresh egg every day is a nice bonus.
Most of my time spent in Hardinghen was spent relaxing, and avoiding the pounding rain and cold that took up the first half of the stay. Relaxing on a small farm with a crackling fire and lovely animals isn’t a bad way to spend the time. However, it was nice to get out and explore the region a bit. Sadly, being January, there were many historical sites that were closed for the month. The area is rife with English-French history, both in wartime and times of peace. That being said, there are always places to discover no matter what time of year.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is a medieval coastal town not 30 minutes from Calais. It’s most famous for its massive crypt beneath its cathedral, which Leo and I were eager to explore. Our first and arguably most important stop was lunch, however. While the south is famous for its wine and French Mediterranean fare, the Pas-de-Calais region shares a lot in common with its Belgian and English neighbors. There are far more beers to choose from, and meals are hearty and are meant to stick to your ribs to deal with the cold and rain. Both Leo and I ordered a “welsh rarebit”, one of the more well-known regional dishes. At its most basic, it’s a piece of toast slathered in melted cheese. The regional variant we tried was a thick sourdough slice simply swimming in a cheese sauce, a slice of ham or trout, and a perfectly poached egg on top. The dishes were still sizzling when they were brought to our table. After such a meal, it was a miracle we got up and out into the cold again.
The town’s cathedral is impressive, though not necessarily any more so than any other cathedral in France. The true attraction lies beneath the ground – the crypt of Notre Dame de Boulogne-sur-Mer. It is the largest crypt in France and one the the largest in all of Europe, and contains artifacts and traces of romanesque, gothic, and even Roman history. As you make your way through the maze of passages, the walls are covered in religious paintings depicting Biblical scenes and Christian saints. With all the poses of the saints and statues, there is definitely a “Dan Brown novel” vibe, and I was there for it. I will say that being immersed in over 2,000 years of history makes you feel pretty young. The next anti-aging fad?
Our next stop was the city’s château, not even a five minute walk from the cathedral. It was rather impressive with its tall stone walls and moat, and integrated seamlessly into the ramparts that surrounded the old town. That being said, I was slightly disappointed with the château itself. The many chambers and halls have been converted into a hodge-podge museum of sorts, with everything from Egyptian mummies to Native American artifacts. I had been hoping for a slice of life of the medieval history of the town, but alas. Still, not a bad way to spend the afternoon, and we wandered the ramparts afterwards enjoying the views of the town and sea as the sun began to set.
If we thought it was chilly on the ramparts, we were in for a chilly surprise for our detour along the coast. We zipped along in our Mini Cooper to watch the sunset at the beach, and the cold was absolutely biting. Spending most of the winter months in the south of France definitely spoils you, and the chilly sea winds meant we lasted about 5 seconds out of the car. Worth it for the views, though!
Eventually, we made it to the port city of Calais itself. I never knew too much about Calais, thought I did go through it once to take the ferry to England. As I said, many sites in the countryside were closed due to the winter season, but several sites in Calais were open and very much worth seeing.
Our first stop was the Museum of Lace and Fashion. The Pas-de-Calais region is famous for its lace-making, and the craft was an enormous influence on the region during the Industrial Revolution. The museum started with a walkthrough of the history of lace, and even included samples of centuries-old lace. Seeing the contraptions for making lace by hand, I appreciate the art more so now than ever. Of course, lace-making by hand could not keep up with the demand of changing times, so human ingenuity struck again and lace-making machines were born. The museum housed many such machines from the early 20th-century, and we were lucky enough to have a demonstration of the machines in action. Even after dozens of questions from the group, the process remained so complicated that I still don’t fully understand it. Instead, I’m left with awe at how such a delicate product can be made from the clacking behemoths.
The famous statue of the Burghers of Calais by Rodin was a short drive away. The statue lives in front of the belfry, a gorgeous building with an ornate clock tower that can be seen from almost all over the city. The statue depicts the six leaders of the city that were demanded as sacrifices to end the 14th-century siege of Calais. They were later spared, but their bravery is forever encapsulated in Rodin’s masterpiece. As we approached, we could hardly move for the masses of cars and people. It turns out there was some sort of fair going on, with carnival stands and rides and hundreds of families. I can’t get over how common this is in France – I feel like there is always some sort of carnival celebrating some obscure event in every town I go to. Even in Lyon, the Croix-Rousse neighborhood was clogged with the Festival of Chestnuts almost the entire time I was there. But I digress.
Unable to stomach finding parking, we drove randomly until we happened upon the lighthouse of Calais. As we looked up at it, admiring its beauty in simplicity, we saw a sign that it was open. We entered to find an extremely jolly lighthouse keeper, who showed us a video of the history of the lighthouse as well as old nautical artifacts. Then he pointed up the incredible spiral staircase and said, “allez-y!” Go ahead! Huffing and puffing as we went round and round, we reached the top and clung to the rails as the cold, salty wind of the English Channel (excuse me, La Manche) battered us about. Another lighthouse keeper greeted us at the top, and was happy to point out everything in view. And the view was indeed grand – we were lucky enough to see the white cliffs of Dover in the distance. He told us that over 500 ships pass by each day, and the lighthouse was critical in guiding the ships. We learned about the specific pattern of the lights – which is different for each and every lighthouse – as well as the complicated navigation of the shipping lanes. He seemed surprised with how long we stayed up there to ask questions. I can only imagine most people are all too eager to get out of the wind!
The Opal Coast is a stunning region, with verdant, soft hills similar to the English countryside, yet the eccentricities that make the French countryside so special. It’s the center-stage of a clash between two age-old cultures, and has more history around every corner. It’s certainly worth a visit for a chilly walk along the rocky coast, followed up with a warm welsh rarebit, tasty beer, and the generous nature of your French neighbors.
Your words tell a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing.
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