Northern France itinerary
I thought I’d share some hidden gems in northern France. So I’ve written some of my memories of a trip I took some time ago and hopefully it may inspire some of you to take on a similar itinerary.
I set off with some friends for a week away in the car to try and pack in as many sights and sounds as we could without spending most of the time in the car. It worked out pretty well all in all.
Northern France guide
Here I will guide you through my trip day by day, and give you some ideas on where you could visit on your trip to Northern France.
Day 1: Dover – St Omer
Having dodged the baulk of the traffic en route to Dover, we spent an hour aboard the ferry before the joy of seeing Calais and its roads free from cauliflowers or cabbages courtesy of the permanently disenchanted farming community.
St Omer lay just a few minutes away, along with our first alfresco refreshment of the trip. St Omer is an ideal pit stop, especially if you’ve already had a long drive to the Kent coast. It has plenty of hotels, a decent town square, some pretty landscaped gardens to stroll around and plenty of places to eat.
We arrived mid-afternoon and after checking in to our hotel we enjoyed the gardens then settled in for a well-earned drink in the square, followed by a typical dinner of the region; savoury pancakes stuffed with ham and cheese, some simply cooked fish in beurre blanc and chocolate mousse. All in all, a solid start.
Day 2: St Omer - Arras
Our next leg of the journey was short, just a few miles south to the town of Arras. Similar in size to St Omer, Arras has the same feel to it and has plenty of spots to stay and eat in. We first headed out to visit the First World War monument at Vimy Ridge and the nearby trench works that have been maintained as they were a hundred years ago.
The sight of the narrow trenches and the crater pocked landscape is very moving and thought provoking. The many, many names inscribed on the walls of the monument itself are every bit the same. For anyone who has an interest in history or who wants to pay some respects to a generation that endured so much, it’s well worth a visit.
Lunch in Arras followed and then a lazy afternoon and a just a couple of drinks around the town.
Beautiful towns in Northern France
There is no doubt that there are many beautiful towns in northern France and the great news for us is that makes them easier to drive to then the south of France, going as far as the southern coast of France will add many hundreds of miles to your journey.
Day 3: Arras - Epernay
The next stage of our journey was around 90 minutes and took us to the heart of Champagne country. We visited Epernay and took in a quick guided tour round the Dom Perignon cellars. However, to actually buy a few bottles of the legendary fizz we headed off the beaten track and into the hills to find some local smallholders. It didn’t take long.
An elderly lady was stooped over her broom, sweeping her drive as we pulled over and in some rather ghastly schoolboy French I inquired about the possibility of a “petit degustation” nearby. The old lady looked up and beckoned us in.
Thirty minutes later we left with several bottles for a pittance. The champagne was crisp and as good as anything six times the price. We tasted madame’s local version in her garage and as we began to leave, she tugged on my friend’s sleeve and handed us a bottle of pink. “Un cadeau” she said, smiling and thanked us for visiting. If you are going to buy while you are in the region, I couldn’t recommend this approach enough.
It beats the prices in Epernay or Rheims and it brings you into contact with some lovely people. Don’t worry if you’re French isn’t great; as long as you make some sort of token effort you’ll be welcomed as a friend and treated to some delicious wines.
Three and a half days in and all going well….in part 2 I’ll take you from dinner in the world’s smallest hamlet, to glorious chateaux and the rolling landscape of Normandy before the boat takes us home once again.
Following on we travelled from Calais to Champagne via St Omer and Arras. An amazing dinner, one of the most picturesque and complete Chateaus in all of France and a dalliance in the capital await before the home leg across Normandy and the boat back to England.
Day 3: Moussy
I've already told you how we took in trips to the Dom Perignon caves and bought ourselves some less pricey fizz out in the sticks. After loading the car up with the tempting refreshments we set off for our night in the region in the tiny hamlet of Moussy. It’s just a few kilometres south of Epernay and we stayed at the Auberge Champenoise. The hotel is a basic, no frills affair but the restaurant….oh the restaurant.
Having dumped our bags and freshened up, we headed downstairs to eat and were greeted by a beautiful dining room situated in a conservatory. White linen adorned the tables and bow-tied waiters buzzed through the room.
We dined on oysters, sea bass, duck (in a delicious peach sauce), bourgoyne aligote, delicious desserts, coffees, and a couple of cognacs. I’ve visited France many times and this remains one of the very best meals I’ve eaten there.
We retired for the night happy (wine/cognac) and almost as full as the day itself had been.
Day 4: Moussy – Pierrefonds
Next up was a change of direction as we swung west towards Paris. On the way we took in the small village of Pierrefonds. Perched on the hills above the village lake sits the chateau. It avoided the terrors of the religious wars and 20th century conflicts and remains in all its near complete glory as the centrepiece of the area.
The view is breath-taking, and the town has hotels to accommodate the curious, so you can stay over as well as just pass through. We took in a lazy day and a break from the car and could not have spent it in a more gorgeous setting.
Day 5: Pierrefonds - Paris
We had planned some time in Paris to take in the sights and legendary cuisine and we clambered back into the car that morning with a full itinerary. Having arrived at our hotel we did the usual touristy things, seeing Notre Dame, Concord, Arc and Eiffel Tower. We ate in a bistro in Montmartre and enjoyed the buzz of the capital with all its easy charm and spectacular architecture.
Day 6: Paris – Honfleur
The day began with a gentle drive through the Norman countryside before we ambled in to Honfleur for our final gastronomic treat, lunch by the famous quayside. The sun shone brightly, and we relaxed and laughed about the week we’d had.
It was the perfect way to round things off. Some sightseeing afterwards helped to walk off a few calories and then we bedded in for our final night. After that it was a quick jaunt round Le Havre’s hypermarket and onto the ferry home.
Weekend in Northern France
Our trip took us a week but you could certainly have a great weekend in Northern France if that is all the time you can afford. With a bit of careful planning you could get to experience some great sights, sounds and culinary delights that France has to offer.
If you are planning a French road trip you should check out these important resouces.
The trip is only an example of course and if it’s inspired you to undertake a similar journey you can always tailor it to visit some places that we did not. Le Touquet, Amiens, the Normandy beaches all spring to mind but the choice is yours.
If you plan ahead and sort out your hotels and have the ferry sorted it’s a low cost, low stress option for a week away with a few friends. I hope you enjoyed reading about my experiences and that you feel enthused to try something similar.
If you are going to drive through France, make sure you read our Checklist for all the items you need to take with you.
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