Spending one week in Northwest France
Why should you go to Northwest France, while most people take the autoroute du Soleil to the sunnier southern parts of France?
Well there are many reasons, I will list just a few. In Northern France you can find the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world. You can enjoy the Atlantic beaches, the nice little harbour towns and go back in history and follow in the footsteps of all the French kings, Jeanne d’Arc, and explore the sparkling wines in the Champagne region. The Great War left innumerable scars to its landscape, villages and cities. And the beaches of Normandy were the starting point for the liberation of Western Europe during the Second World War. North-western France doesn’t fit the stereotypical image people have of France. There are no lavender fields, mountains or Roman Amphitheatres. But this part of France has a lot of other things to offer. To help you explore this part of France and we’ve listed our favourite spots in this itinerary for one week in Northwest France.
North Western France is comprised of three administrative regions: Normandy, Ile-de-France and Hauts-de-France which merges the former regions of Picardy and Pas-de-Calais.
We start our trip through North-western France in Reims, but the ideal starting point depends on your point of origin. From Paris it takes just an hour to reach Reims by train or 1.5 hour by car. Start in Lille if you come from Belgium, the Netherlands or the United Kingdom.
The main draw of Reims is its impressive 13th century Gothic Cathedral. This was the place were, from 1027 almost all French kings were coronated. The most famous coronation was probably the coronation of Charles VII in 1429 which was made possible by the actions of Joan of Arc. The cathedral was shelled by the Germans in World War I but has been restored since. One apse contains beautiful stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall.
Abbey of Saint-Remi
The abbey of Saint-Remi was founded in the sixth century, although most of what you can see today stems from the 11th century. Besides the abbey there was an abbey church, which was also replaced in the 11th century by the Basilica of Saint-Remi. Saint Remi baptised Clovis in the earlier church. This was a monumental historic event as it secured the safeguarded the continuation of the Christian faith in France and Western Europe. The remains of Saint Remi and of Carloman, the brother of Charlemagne, are kept in the abbey.
Palace of Tau
The Palace of Tau was the bishop’s palace and the place where the French kings would stay before their coronations. The palace grew out of a Gallo-Roman villa that was converted into a Carolingian palace. The oldest still remaining part is the chapel from 1207. Nowadays the palace houses a museum with tapestries, objects from the cathedral treasury and other objects associated with the coronation of the French kings.
It’s an hour by car or train to get from Reims to Laon. Laon has been of strategic importance for over 2,000 years. Before the Romans built a fort here, the local tribe used its location to protect against the Belgea. During the First World War it was captured by the Germans and held until the last summer of the war.
The most prominent building of the city which can be seen from afar is the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon. This early Gothic cathedral is special because of its uniformity of style and it has escaped both World Wars unscathed. You can find other medieval buildings in the old town centre which makes for a nice city walk.
Compiegne is mostly known as the site of the armistice between France and Germany at the end of World War I and the reverse armistice between Germany and France after the defeat of France by Hitler in 1940. A copy of the railroad carriage can be seen at the original site of the armistices in the nearby forest of Compiegne. The original carriage was destroyed by Allied bombing after it was taken to Berlin by the Germans.
The Château de Compiègne was one of the three royal residences outside of Paris, the other being Versailles and Fontainebleau. Now it houses three museums, one of the palace itself, one on the second French Empire and an automobile museum.
Compiegne is an hour drive by car from Laon.
The beautiful gothic cathedral with the highest choir of a cathedral in the world. Work on the cathedral started in the beginning of the 13th century and the cathedral was left unfinished when work halted in 1600.
This ancient French city was founded by Gaulish tribes and became a major Roman city afterwards. When the Normans invaded France, they made Rouen their capital. During the hundred years war Rouen was in the hands of the English for some 30 years. During this time Joan of Arc was brought to this city to be put on trial and subsequently burnt at the stake at the central market square.
The city centre of Rouen still has a lot of medieval half-timbered houses. Making it a delight to walk the streets and back-alleys. On your way you’ll come across the Gros Horloge an astronomical clock which is decades older than the other famous one in Prague.
The main sight is Rouen cathedral, the Gothic cathedral is built on the site of an earlier Roman church and replaced a later Romanesque cathedral in the 12th century. The cathedral was severely damaged by British and American bombing during the second world war.
The cathedral was famously painted by Claude Monet in several of his paintings.
Just behind the cathedral lies another beautiful Gothic building, the church of St. Ouen. The church is even bigger than the cathedral and houses an organ by the famous French organ builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll.
Another church built in the flamboyant Gothic style is the church of Saint-Maclou. It lies on a small square surrounded by beautiful half-timbered houses.
Museums in Rouen
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
The biggest museum of Rouen is the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. It has a big collection of paintings from the 15th to the 21st century. Highlights are works by Velazquez, Monet and Modigliani.
If you’re interested in the story of Joan of Arc, a visit to the Historial Jeanne d’Arc is a must. It is an interactive journey which tells the story of Joan with modern means.
And a visit to Rouen is not complete without a visit to its marketplace where Joan was burned. There is a modern church in the middle of the square and a little statue at the site of the stake.
We follow the river Seine westwards towards the sea. As the river winds slowly through the Parc Naturel Regional de Brotonne we come upon two old abbeys. The Abbaye St-Martin de Boscherville and the romantic ruins of the abbaye de Jumieges which was founded in 654.
Where the Seine flows into the Channel lies the quiet little harbour town of Honfleur.
This charming town hasn’t changed in centuries. It’s a good place to get some calvados, the local apple brandy. Stay here or in one of the other seaside towns in the direction of Caen.
Caen started as a Gallic settlement, but it was during the Norman times that the city really took off. William the Conqueror made it his capital of his duchy, built an enormous castle and churches and abbeys.
Much of medieval Caen was destroyed by the Allies during the liberation of France.
But nowadays the abbeys have been beautifully rebuilt.
The best one is the abbaye-aux-Hommes, William started this building in 1066. The abbey is one of the most important Romanesque buildings in Normandy.
Memorial of Caen
If you’re interested in World War II museums or D-day, this museum is a must.
On a hill in the centre of town lies the castle of William the conqueror. He built it before his invasion of England. It served as the powerbase of the Norman Dukes until it was captured by the French King in 1204.
In Bayeux are two magnificent souvenirs of William the Conqueror. The greatest is the majestic and unique tapestry of Bayeux, this exquisite tapestry tells the tale of the Norman conquest of England. All the important moments of this history are embroided on this 70-meter-long tapestry.
The other souvenir is the Cathedral Notre Dame, which originally displayed the tapestry. The tapestry and the cathedral were both commissioned by Odo of Bayeux the half-brother of William.
Bayeux is close to the Normandy beaches. There are many museums nearby the several beaches, together with memorials and cemeteries.
We went to Omaha beach and the American cemetery there. Here you’ll find a very informative memorial centre free of charge with a good overview of the different events of the invasion.
Nearby lies the Overlord museum, this paid museum has a big collection of vehicles used in the invasion.
On the other side of the Seine lies a city with a completely different look than the idyllic harbour towns like Honfleur. Le Havre was almost completely destroyed by American bombing during the invasion in 1944. The architect Auguste Perret lead the rebuilding of the city which was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage in 2004. Auguste Perret was a teacher of Le Corbusier, and his style has a lot of similarities, the brutalistic use of concrete.
The most impressive building by Perret is the St. Joseph’s Church near the seaside. The church built in the shape of a lighthouse is an impressive piece of modernist architecture.
Another interesting building is the House of Culture, nicknamed the Volcano.
After so much cultural sights it’s time for a change and some naturel wonders. Therefor we go to Etretat and its chalk cliffs and the famous natural arches. So, go for a walk along the cliffside.
We end our day in Amiens, with its famous Gothic cathedral. This cathedral is the biggest cathedral of France, building started in 1220 and the cathedral was finished in relatively short time, only some 50 years, where most other cathedrals took centuries to finish. The beauty of this cathedral lies in its intricate sculptures.
Near Amiens lay many of the sad battlefields of the First World War. The infamous battle of the Somme was fought here, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still remembered as unknown soldiers. The scars of this horrific conflict are still visible in both the graveyards and the landscape. We visit the Thiepval Memorial, this huge memorial building commemorates the more than 70,000 missing Commonwealth service men lost during the battle of the Somme.
To the north of Thiepval lies the Arras, which grew rich from the wool trade in the Middle ages. It changed hands several times until 1640 when it was ceded to the French crown for good. The city was severely damaged during the first world war but much of its historic centre has been rebuild. The city has two buildings listed as two different UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The belfry of the town is part of the as part of the Belfries of Belgium and France group. The Vauban citadel is part of the Fortifications of Vauban group. The city also has two large squares, La Grand’ Place and La Place des Héros.
Lens was a mining town during from the 19t century until the 1980’s when the last mines closed. The surrounding area is still scattered with surreal pyramid like hills from this time. As a way to revitalize this part of France, an annex of the Louvre was opened here. This Louvre Lens is a very interesting museum. It has two parts, a big hall with the free collection and another hall for paid exhibitions. The beauty of the main collection is the fact that all the items are situated in one hall in chronological order.
Lille or Rijsel the Dutch name was originally part of the county of Flanders. It exchanged hands several times until it finally ended up in French hands at the end of the 19th Century. The shared heritage of this city is still visible in its buildings which have a more northern façade than buildings in most other France cities.
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
The Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille is one of the oldest museums of France. The large museum has a nice collection of paintings from the Middle Ages upon modern times. The collection includes works by Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Delacroix and Claudel.
Citadelle de Lille
The citadel was built by the military engineer Vauban, who built many similar fortresses along France its border at the order of Louis XIV. Many of his creations can be seen in the unique section of the Palais des Beaux-Arts which houses the models of various border towns.
Lille is a great place to admire some art deco style buildings. Some prime examples are the former fish restaurant ‘a la Huîtrière’ in the Rue des Chats Bossus, the old newspaper building ‘La voix du Nord’ at the place Charles du Gaulle and the bakery ‘ Maison Méert’ in the Rue Esquermoise. Maison Méert is also a great place to eat some waffles.
If you’re really into art nouveau, then make the trip to the neighbouring town of Roubaix. There the art nouveau swimming pool has been converted into a museum and it’s a delight to marvel at the architecture and the art in this building.
Also read our article about Bourges cathedral for more Gothic art!