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Battlefields, giants, and windmills: travels in the North Country

The North is known as le plat pays, the flat land. Hills hereabout are the merest ripples, rarely rising more than a hundred yards. Mont Cassel dominates the vast Flanders plain although its altitude is just 580 feet. In the North, what appear from a distance to be mountains turn out to be huge heaps of black slag, a legacy of the coal-mining industry that long fueled the region's economy. The low horizons, the piles of dross: these images recall the setting of Germinal, Zola's gripping portrayal of life in Northern coal mines at the end of the last century. But that is only the topmost layer of the North's rich and turbulent history.

All the way north, where France ends and Belgium begins, the very name of Flanders resonates with associations that date back much further than the sooty saga of coal miners and modern industrialization. It isn't easy to find one's way through the labyrinth of the North's prodigious past.

How can we follow the multiple trails of Celts, Romans, Normans, Burgundians, Hungarians, Vandals, Britons, Germans, Austrians, and Spaniards, all of whom marched into the North as conquerors, leaving destruction (and occasionally something of their art or culture) in their wake? These broad, open plains where no natural obstacles slow an army down, provided ideal battlefields for all-out war.

Because of its geographic position, the North was often the battleground where France and England played out their eternal conflicts. Often enough, France got the worst of it. At Crécy in 1346 the archers and new-fangled artillery of England's King Edward III massacred the French cavalry. After a hard-fought battle in 1347, England captured Calais. Rodin's powerful sculpture, The Burghers of Calais, commemorates the moment when six leading citizens offered their lives and the keys to their city in exchange for a promise that it would not be destroyed. In 1415 Henry V decimated the French nobility at Azincourt. Joan of Arc was taken prisoner at Compiègne in 1430. At Guîne the opulence of the summit conference (as it would be called today) where François I met Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, prompted England to join forces with Emperor Charles V against France. France met in battle here with the Spanish and the Austrians as well. Religious quarrels, in this region where the Reformation made significant inroads (Calvin was born in Noyon), provided yet another pretext for massacres. Much bloodshed also preceded the Treaty of Utrecht, signed under Louis XIV, which made the North a permanent part of France. The two World Wars took a terrible toll here, too, as the immense Allied cemeteries movingly attest (the American Memorial at Bellicourt, the Canadian Memorial at Vimy).

This thumbnail historical sketch should help to clear up the mystery behind the mix of Spanish, Flemish, German, and French place names in the North, and to explain the palette of architectural styles that ranges from German and English Gothic to Renaissance and Baroque. The classic Flemish style marks many of the North's town halls, and their bell towers that symbolize the cities' proud independence.
Flanders' seashore is known as the Opal Coast for the milky, shimmering light that bathes its white sands. Further inland, fertile fields reclaimed from the sea yield splendid harvests of grain, hence the prosperous look of the North's rambling, red-roofed farmhouses. Some are flanked by windmills, which used to number in the hundreds on these flat, windswept plains.

A tour of the heart of Flanders and Artois will take you from the harbors of Dunkerque and Boulogne, Europe's foremost fishing port, to the historic towns of Arras (famed for its tapestries), Cambrai, Douai (the coal capital, with its musical bell tower), and finally to Lille, a vital metropolis with ambitions to become a major player in the European marketplace. The textile and steel mills that made Lille's fortune have been replaced by high-tech chemical, electronic, and computer industries. A commercial crossroads for centuries, Lille also claims a remarkable cultural and artistic heritage, visible in the refurbished seventeenth- and eighteenth-century town houses that grace Old Lille, the Vieille Bourse--a jewel of Flemish architecture, also expertly restored--and the Hospice Comtesse.

Unlike the climate, the people of the North are warm and convivial. Carnival goes on all year, and each town trots out its “giant” for every festival or feast day. These huge figures crafted of wicker and papier-mâché are often inspired by legendary characters, such as Gargantua, the mascot of Bailleul, Cassel’s Reuze-Papa and Reuze-Maman, Steen-vorde's Jean the Lumberjack, Hazebrouck's Tisje-Tasje family, or Douai's Gayent, perhaps the most famous of them all. Hidden under the giants' costumes are human “helpers” who make the figures frolic and dance. The kermesses or fairs where the giants appear are liberally lubricated with local beers--Trois Monts or Hommelpap, produced in boutique breweries. You can sample them, along with hearty snacks served on traditional wooden boards, in what locals call an estaminet: an old-fashioned bistro often warmed by a pot-bellied stove and decorated with vintage musical instruments.
Flemish cooking reflects Northerners' warm-hearted nature, with comforting stews like carbonnade (beef braised in beer), potjevfleisch (a hearty meat terrine with herbed aspic), wine-stewed rabbit with prunes, and eel in a green herb sauce laced with wine. Northern cheeses--Vieux-Lille, beer-washed Maroilles, and peppery Boulette d'Avesnes--are famed for their pungent flavors (and strong aromas!).

Picardy: a far-flung suburb of Paris

It's hardly an exaggeration to say that high-speed transport has turned Picardy, the area north of Ile-de-France that extends from Champagne to the sea, into a far-flung suburb of Paris. Plateaus and verdant valleys form landscapes more varied than those farther north. The limestone that underpins the terrain bares its white teeth to bite into the sea, but inland it burrows under a mantle of fertile soil that nourishes grain and vegetable crops. In Picardy low-slung farmhouses shelter under strong slate roofs.
Agriculture, not industry, is Picardy's traditional source of wealth. Yet today Amiens produces tires, chemicals, and electronics, while its unique hortillonnages--market gardens set along a maze of canals--totter on the verge of extinction; a shame, for they have been cultivated here since medieval times. From spring to fall, boats ferry visitors through the gardens, to admire row upon row of lovingly tended peas, artichokes, leeks, beans... Birds, too, love the hortillonnages (the canals are aswarm with fish).

The capital of Picardy, Amiens was savagely bombed in World War II, and the town was rebuilt in a rather graceless style. Yet Amiens's Gothic cathedral stands as proud as ever, the largest church in France. Inside, be sure to examine the early Renaissance choir stalls, carved with thousands of curious, often droll and lifelike figures.

On the edge of one of the most beautiful forests in France, Compiègne (just 50 miles from Paris) claims a long and illustrious history: for 900 years it was a favorite residence of French royalty. The eighteenth-century château de Compiègne, designed by Gabriel and restored by Napoléon, was the scene of sumptuous festivities arranged by Emperor Napoléon III, who received all the crowned heads of Europe in opulently decorated apartments. This frivolous era is commemorated in the château's Second Empire museum.

History inhabits every mile of the roads that lead from Paris to Belgium and northern Europe, and out to the chalky cliffs that face the sea and England beyond. For centuries that island kingdom has sought to emerge from its insularity, while at the same time proudly protecting it. After William the Conqueror, no invader--not Napoléon, not Hitler--sailed from Calais or Boulogne to land triumphant in Dover.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, France and England, those eternal frères ennemis, have combined their talents to create a miracle of engineering that the entire world applauds. As the Eurostar train speeds through the Channel Tunnel that links the Continent to Britain, it obliterates the last traces of an age-old rivalry.

(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

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