Things to Do in Nord-Pas de Calais
The Cathedrale Notre Dame de la Treille takes its name from a 12th-century figure of the Virgin that has been long revered in the city. The cathedral was built by wealthy inhabitants of the city, starting in the late 19th century; building didn't finish until the 1990s! Sadly, the Virgin is no longer inhabiting the cathedral - she was stolen in 1959, and her church now gets by with a replica.
The cathedral features eight chapels in the neo-Gothic style featuring scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin and the saints. There's also a towering organ and, unusually, a great deal of 20th-century stained glass, including an asymmetric rose window.
Lille's Fine Arts Museum, or Palais des Beaux-Arts, is a giant - only the Louvre tops it for size among France's museums, and its collection is suitably illustrious. It was instituted in 1801 as part of Napoleon's push to bring art to the masses. It's housed in a splendid Belle Époque building dating from the late 1890s.
Stroll through the rooms and you'll find all the stars: Rubens and van Dyck, Picasso and Redon, Corot, Delacroix and David. There is also a wonderful decorative arts collection and a special curio: a selection of 18th-century models of fortified cities.
As a farming village located 8 miles north of Arras in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Ablain-St-Nazaire was almost completely destroyed during World War I. But the horrors of the war did not spare this tranquil village; one of the most striking monuments to have fallen under gunfire (with front lines only two kilometers away) was the Ablain-St-Nazaire Church, a 16th-century flamboyant Gothic masterpiece built upon the request of local lord Charles de Bourbon-Carency to honor Saint Nazarius and the role he played in the healing of the lord’s sick daughter.
The Ancient Monuments Commission of France listed the church in 1908, right before the war started, while the same committee opted against rebuilding the magnificent church 10 years later. The committee wanted to preserve the poignant ruins as a testament to the German brutality and ruthlessness — a bone-chilling sight scarred by the war, and where time seems to have stood still for the past century.
What were once dugouts for battalion headquarters, today serves as one of the largest historical cemeteries in the region. The Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery contains some 7,655 burials from World War I, and according to experts, nearly half of these remain unidentified. The cemetery includes roughly 7,000 graves from those who died while at war in Arras, as well as a handful from burial grounds in Nod Pas-de-Calais, but nearly 50 Canadians who died during the Battle of Vimy Ridge are also laid to rest here. In early 2000, Canada exhumed a body from one such grave and laid him to rest in Ottawa, where he now memorializes all lost soldiers.
The center of Lille, the Grand Place (or, as it's officially called, the Place du Général de Gaulle) is a magnet for tourists and a meeting point for locals. Celebrations, ceremonies, Christmas markets - it all happens here.
The plaza is surrounded by grand buildings in the Belgian style, including the La Vieille Bourse (once the stock exchange, now a peaceful enclave for booksellers and chess players) with its riotous fruit and flower ornamentation.
The focal point of the square is a monument depicting Deesse, the goddess particularly associated with Lille. Her statue commemorates the siege of the city by Austrian troops in the 18th century, and the bravery of the Lillois in refusing to yield their town to the invaders.
More Things to Do in Nord-Pas de Calais
Pozieres is a small village in rural France that was the setting of a two-week confrontation during the Battles of Somme of World War I. It is where, between March and April 1918, the German Fifth Army was driven further out into the fields of Somme by overwhelmingly large numbers of British corps that were on a mission to compromise the nearby German bastion of Thiepval. Although it technically involved the British Empire, Pozières is really an Australian battle - seeing as it involved over 23,000 corps and that the Australian flag flies over several buildings in recognition of the sacrifice of the ANZACs – even though the cemetery does not bare any Australian names; instead, Australian soldiers who fell in France and whose graves are not known are commemorated at the National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux.
Just outside the Belgian border with France stands a First World War cemetery built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission containing the graves of 250 British and Australian soldiers who died on July 19, 1916, in the Battle of Fromelles - a diversionary battle, which only occured in order to draw the attention of the Germans away from the larger attacks elsewhere in Somme. It involved units of the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division, but alas, the Germans were well-prepared and the British Empire troops suffered great losses. Dating back from just 2009, Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery was the first new Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery to be built in commemoration of World War I in over 50 years; the last such cemeteries having mostly been in remembrance of the Second World War.
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