Northern France and the Paris Region :
Where to go?
Artois, Picardy and Île-de-France (the region around Paris) all lie within a vast geological area known as the Paris Basin, which borders Flanders and the great plain of Northern Europe. The landscapes of the Basin comprise forests, lush alluvial valleys with slow-flowing rivers, and limestone plateaux providing rich arable land. The climate is mild in summer and temperate in winter, with damp springs and autumns.
This region, to the north of Île-de-France, comprises three separate départements: Somme, Aisne and Oise.
Somme really is a land of contrasts, from the towering chalk cliffs of Mer-les-Bains and Ault to the leafy valleys of the Thiérache. It is a region with the best reserves of game-filled ancient forest in Northern Europe, its biggest tidal estuary, and the largest expanse of sand dunes. Wide skies, secretive marshlands, cosy villages nestling among rolling farmland and orchards, or the open country of the Haute Somme characterise the area.
To the east, Aisne is identified by large farms, often complemented by a sugar refinery or a distillery. St-Quentin, the administrative and industrial centre of the département, is the principal town. The voluptuous landscape of Aisne is lush with cereals and the bocage of dairy cattle, rolling green hills and fields of gold that ripple away to the horizon. Among the folds, tiny communities, mostly of less than 100 souls, gather around a series of Middle Age fortified churches, built as a quick and temporary defence against the passage of plundering neighbours.
To the south, marking the transition to the Île-de-France, the Valois region of Oise has a mantle of forests and miles of wheat fields invariably bright in spring with poppies and other wildflowers. The Oise may be close to Paris, but it doesn’t live in its shadow. In the Vimeu region, the chalk has decomposed into flinty clay, and the cold, damp ground has created a mixed landscape of farmland crisscrossed by hedges and trees, cider-apple orchards and small, scattered villages. Near Beauvais the chalky, silt-covered plateau suddenly reveals a verdant hollow: the Pays de Bray, a wooded area interspersed with meadows where stock-farming is the main activity.
Rivers and Valleys
The verdant, wide-mouthed valleys are bisected by the Somme, Authie and Canche rivers.
These waters flow so slowly they have difficulty in making their way, losing themselves in ponds and marshes full of fish and waterfowl. The floors of the valleys are a mix of old peat bogs, rows of poplars, arable and stock-farming fields and in a few places, on the outskirts of towns like Amiens, floating vegetable gardens (hortillonnages) surrounded by canals.
Towns and cities have developed along the valleys: Montreuil on the Canche; Doullens on the Authie; Péronne, Amiens and Abbeville on the Somme.
The capital of Picardy is Amiens, a great industrial centre with factories producing tyres, electronics, video games, domestic appliances, car parts and chemical products. In Oise the main town is Beauvais, and in Aisne it’s Laon.
To the south, near Ault, the Picardy plateau meets the sea, ending in a sharp cliff of white chalk banded with flint.
The bay, not surprisingly, is a huge and dangerous place to be, though it does seem to be suffering from coastal erosion. In 1878, it comprised 86sq m/33sq mi; in 1993 that was down to 73sq km/28sq mi, and today is about 70sq km/27sq mi – one estimate puts it at 40sq km/15.4sq mi. The tide goes out as much as 14km/8.7mi, the second largest ebb in France, leaving behind tricky sandbanks, muddy channels and large expanses of sea grass; when it comes back in it does so rather more quickly than it went out.
North of the Somme Bay a maritime plain called the Marquenterre area has been created by debris torn from the Normandy coast and carried northward by the currents, gradually forming an offshore bar. Only the Somme, Authie and Canche rivers have carved a passage to the sea; there are therefore few large ports but several seaside resorts, the largest of them, Le Touquet, seated beside the dunes.
The coastal plain lies between the dunes and the old coastal bar, which is marked by a noticeable cliff. The drained and dried plain is now used for fields of wheat and oats, and for raising salt-pasture lambs on the grassy shores known as mollières.
In the past St-Valery-sur-Somme, Le Crotoy and Étaples were important ports; today they harbour only fishing boats and yachts.
The northernmost region of France, Nord-Pas-de-Calais comprises two départements: Nord and Pas-de-Calais. Locally, but now generally throughout France, the region takes in the former provinces of Artois and Flanders, though the borders are not easy to define.
The former province of Artois lies on an extension of the Picardy plateaux, a rise of land running northwest to southeast. It ends in an escarpment of about 100m/328ft (Vimy Ridge, Notre-Dame de Lorette Hill), which divides the Paris Basin from the Anglo-Belgian Basin. The great plain of Flanders begins at the foot of this escarpment.
The well-watered hills of Artois are however bare to the south-east, in the Ternois region where there are outcrops of chalk; to the north-west, the chalky top layer of soil has decomposed into flinty clay resulting in lush, damp countryside, which includes Hesdin Forest and mixed agricultural and meadow land.
The Boulonnais region forms an enclave in the chalk layer, revealing outcrops of harder, older rocks. The landscape here is very different from neighbouring areas. In the north, the Upper Boulonnais forms a chalky plateau which in places reaches over 200m/650ft in altitude. In the area where the land forms a hollow, the Lower Boulonnais, the wooded countryside is dotted with whitewashed farms. The clay has created meadows that are used for rearing the dappled-grey ‘Boulonnais draughthorses’ and for other stock-breeding. The soil also supports the Desvres and Boulogne forests, while the Hardelot Forest grows in sandier soil.
Boulogne, France’s foremost fishing port, stands at the mouth of the River Liane. To the north, the edge of the calcareous plateau forms the cliffs of the Opal Coast.
Hainaut and Cambrésis
Hainaut (capital: Valenciennes) and Cambrésis (capital: Cambrai) are extensions of the chalky plateaux of Artois and Picardy. They are also covered with a thick layer of silt that is ideal for growing sugar beets and wheat, with excellent per-acre harvests. The plateaux are divided by wide river valleys such as those of the Scarpe, Sambre, Selle and Escaut (Scheldt). Meadows of fodder crops and pasture give them the look of farming country. The forests of St-Amand and Mormal appear where there is flinty clay, the result of decomposition of the chalk.
Thiérache and Avesnois
These two relatively hilly regions form the tail of the Ardennes uplands, covered at the western end by marl and chalk mixed with marl. The Thiérache is a damp region, part forest and part pasture. When carefully drained the cold, non-porous ground provides pasture for cows. The dairies produce butter, cheese and condensed milk.
The Avesnois is crossed by the River Helpe Majeure and River Helpe Mineure, tributaries of the River Sambre. This region resembles the Thiérache, but is marked by summits rising to over 250m/820ft in places. It is also an area of pastureland famous for its dairy cows and cheeses, especially Maroilles.
The Flemish plain, which continues into Belgium, is bounded to the south by the hills of Artois and to the east by the plateaux of Hainault and Cambrésis.
The wet and windy Blooteland (bare land protected by dunes separating the area from the sea) has been gradually reclaimed from the sea since the Middle Ages. The engineers, including the famous Coebergher, who came mostly from the Low Countries, drained the land gradually using great dams, canals and pumps, thus creating the marshes (Moëres). Today it is a low-lying region where the grey clay yields crops of sugar-beets, cereals, flax and chicory, and the nearby pastures are grazed by sheep, pigs, horses and cattle. The flat countryside, scattered with great isolated farms built around square courtyards, is dominated by belfries, bell towers, windmills and, on the coast, the factory chimneys and harbour cranes of Dunkirk and Calais.
Known as Houtland (wooded land) in contrast to the bare coastal area, the ‘Flemish lowlands’ consist of lush countryside divided by rows of poplars, willows or elms. The censes, white-walled Flemish farms with red roofs, stand out against this green background.
A series of summits extends into Belgium, comprising the Monts des Flandres range. In addition to providing beautiful meadows where cows, horses and pigs thrive, the rich soil is also used for growing various crops such as cereals, fruit and vegetables in gardens among the St-Omer canals, and plants for industrial processing (hops near Bailleul, flax in the Lys Valley, chicory, sugar beets).
However, two small areas between Lille and Douai are different: the bare plateaux of the Mélantois and the Pévèle regions. The coal fields stretching from Béthune to Valenciennes have given rise to a ‘black country’ marked by slag-heaps, brick mining towns and mine-shaft frames.
Between the Lys Valley and the River Escaut (Scheldt) lies the industrial conurbation of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing-Armentières. Once a major textile centre, it is currently undergoing extensive urban renewal.
Pays de France
This arable plateau extending between St-Denis, Luzarches and the Dammartin-en-Goële ridge was in the heart of royal territory. The layer of marl covering the subsoil has made the area extremely fertile, and the huge fields are planted with wheat and beet.
Parisis lies between the River Oise and River Seine and the Pays de France. The area was once occupied by the Gauls, who gave it its name and christened the French capital. Parisis is an alluvial plain with few rivers that slopes toward the Seine. It is dominated by limestone hillocks covered in sand or grit.
Beyond the industrial suburbs of Paris, market gardens and orchards spread along the limestone slopes of the plain, while the sandy stretches are forested.
Geographers and historians have often grouped this region with Valois, but in fact it was part of the Crown territory, the central core of Île-de-France. Senlisis, which is bordered by the Oise, the Dammartin-en-Goële ridge and the Valois itself, is one of the most picturesque regions near the capital. Arable land is found on the silty soils, while the sandy areas have favoured the development of forestry.
Valois is surrounded by Senlisis and the Oise, Automne and Ourcq rivers. It acquired strategic importance as early as Roman times and has remained one of the most important regions in French history. First a county, then a duchy, Valois was twice given to one of the king’s brothers. On two occasions the descendants of this royal line, known as the Princes de Valois, acceded to the throne.
Multien is an area of rolling landscapes and ploughed fields bounded by the River Marne, the Valois and the Goële ridge. It was the scene of fierce combat in September 1914.
Three rivers border this limestone platform: the Oise, the Epte and the Seine. West of the River Epte is the Normandy Vexin. The loess covering is an extremely fertile topsoil which favours cereal cultivation, especially wheat, and vegetable crops. Cattle rearing is concentrated in the valleys planted with poplar trees. The Buttes de Rosne, a series of outliers stretching from Monneville to Vallangoujard, are wooded. They include the strip of land running north of the Seine.
Mantois is an enormous plateau situated between the River Eure and River Oise. It consists of forests to the east and arable land to the west. The small towns dotting its many valleys are well worth a visit.
Bounded by Mantois, Beauce, Fontainebleau Forest and the Seine, the Hurepoix region has suffered from recent urbanisation. However, by avoiding major roads and referring to map no 106, you will enjoy exploring its varied landscapes.
The Gâtinais is defined by the River Seine and the Hurepoix, Beauce and Champagne regions. The French Gâtinais, a clay plateau, lies east of the River Loing while the Orléanais Gâtinais (to the west) is an area of sand and sandstone. This second area is covered by Fontainebleau Forest, popular because of its splendid groves and sandstone boulders. The lush valley of the Loing, which attracted a number of well-known artists to the area (Corot, Millet), is dotted with charming small towns.
French Brie is located between the River Seine and River Grand Morin and has Champagne Brie as its northern border. Historically, the former belonged to the king of France, while the latter was the property of the Comte de Champagne. The area is watered by four meandering rivers – Seine, Marne, Petit Morin and Grand Morin – and has many large farms specialising in large-scale wheat, sugar-beet and vegetable cultivation. French Brie contains sites as varied as the Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte and Disneyland Paris.
Île-de-France has some magnificent forests, including Rambouillet, Compiègne and Fontainebleau, which feature among the finest in the country. The forests form a ‘green ring’ around Paris that is a delight for weekend hikers, bikers and horse riders, among others.
Woods and forests have a timeless appeal: lush greenery in springtime, shaded groves in summer, the deep russet tones of autumn or the crisp frosts of winter. Forests also provide a multitude of fauna and flora to study, or flowers, fruit, nuts and mushrooms to harvest in season. Many also have charming picnic areas. Those who take time to understand the lifecycle of a forest also understand its infinite variety.
State and Private Forests
Three types of forest exist in France: state, private and local. The most interesting for walkers are the state forests, as they have an extensive network of roads, paths and lanes, and their magnificent groves form a picturesque setting. The aim of the forest rangers is to preserve the natural habitat. The most beautiful French forests used to feature protected forest zones known as ‘artistic reserves’ in which unusually striking trees were left untouched by the axe, even when they died. This practice was given up in favour of ‘biological reserves’. Forests on private estates are not open to the public, apart from the roads that run through them.
Like all living things, trees breathe, reproduce and need nourishment. Mineral nutrients are drawn from the earth by the roots and distributed to all parts of the tree via the sap running through the trunk and leaves.
Different trees require different kinds of soil. Chestnut trees, for instance, cannot survive on limestone sites, whereas oaks will flourish on a variety of soils.
Trees, like other plants, breathe through their leaves and reproduce through their flowers. Flowers will bear fruit if they are fertilised by pollen of their own species. Very few trees have hermaphrodite flowers – presenting both male and female characteristics – like roses, acacias, etc. Consequently the pollen is usually carried from the male flower to the female flower by insects, or sometimes by the wind. Trees may also reproduce by their shoots; thus, when a youngish tree trunk is razed to the ground, a number of stool shoots will emerge from the stump. Conifers do not produce offshoots.
The trees of Île-de-France fall into two categories: deciduous and coniferous.
Deciduous – These trees shed their leaves every autumn and grow them again in the spring. Beeches, oaks, hornbeams, birches and chestnut trees belong to this category.
Coniferous – In place of leaves, coniferous species have needles which they shed regularly throughout the year. The needles are renewed every four to five years. Their sap contains resin – they are also known as resinous trees – and the fruit is generally cone-shaped. Pines, cypresses, cedars and fir trees are all conifers, as is the larch, which loses its needles every year.
Trees of the Île-de- France Forests
Most species of deciduous trees can be found around Paris. The most common are listed below.
Oak – One of the most esteemed forest trees, the oak’s hard but beautiful wood is used both for carpentry and ornamental woodwork. In former times oak bark was much sought after by local tanners. Some of the oaks tower 40m/ 132ft high with trunks over 1m/3ft in diameter. Trees can be felled up to the age of 250 years.
Beech – Although it resembles the oak in its habit, beech is slightly more elegant. The wood is mainly used for everyday furniture and railway sleepers but it is also popular as fuel. The trunk is cylindrical, the bark smooth and shiny; young shoots have a crooked, gnarled appearance. Beeches grow as tall as oaks but are not commercially viable beyond 120 years.
Hornbeam – A remarkably tough species, the hornbeam resembles the beech; it also lives to the same age, but is shorter and its bark features numerous grooves.
Chestnut – This tree can grow to great heights and can live for several hundred years, but is generally felled much younger as very old chestnut trees become hollow and prone to disease. Its wood was traditionally used by the cooperage industry for making staves, posts and stakes; nowadays it is used for the production of chipboard. Chestnut trees will grow only on siliceous soil.
Birch – Even when it reaches 25m/82ft in height the birch retains a graceful, slim trunk of white bark – which peels off in fine layers – and shimmering leaves. Damp, sandy soil is an excellent terrain for all varieties of birch. Although it is excellent firewood, it is mainly used in making wood pulp for the paper industry.
Scots Pine – This species, the most commonly found conifer in Île-de-France, is ideal for reafforestation, particularly in sandy terrain. Since the mid-19C it has been planted in plots of land where there is meagre or non-existent vegetation. Scots pines have short needles (4–6cm/1.5–2.5in) which grow in pairs, smallish cones (3–5cm/ 1–2in) and reddish-ochre bark.
Foresters often plant Scots pines alongside exotic or Mediterranean (maritime pine) resinous species. A great favourite is the Corsican pine, a tall, handsome tree with a perfectly straight trunk. It can grow to 50m/165ft, but old trees develop large grey patches on their bark.
The Science of Forestry
If a forest is not tended, it will invariably deteriorate. In order to develop fully and reach their proper size, trees must be given breathing space and be placed in an environment which meets their specific requirements. The first step in a reafforestation campaign is to plant fir trees, which have few needs and produce wood in a very short time. Their roots retain the earth, otherwise washed away by surface water, and the needles build up thick layers on the ground. Next, hornbeams, birches and beeches are planted to increase the fertility of the soil, and finally oaks. Many of the beech groves are left as this species is considered to be commercially profitable.
Rotations – The prime concern of foresters is always to have trees ready for felling. Consequently, when trees are felled foresters ensure they are immediately replaced with seedlings. For example, a forest may be divided into ten units, and every five years the unit with the oldest trees is cleared and then replanted. Thus, within 50 years the forest is entirely renewed while remaining commercially viable, a technique known as rotation.
Forest managers try to avoid exposing a large sector of the forest, as leafy plants such as hazel and mulberry trees can set in and choke the young shoots. Two, three or four groups within each sector are formed according to the trees’ approximate age, and a programme of successive felling is planned. This ensures that only limited areas are deforested at any one time.
Whatever the rotation for a given forest, its appearance is bound to change depending on the thickness of the vegetation and the forestry techniques applied. There are three types of plantation in Île-de-France:
Groves – After the land has been sown, the weaker shoots are choked by the stronger ones in a process of natural selection. The trees, planted fairly close to one another, spread vertically.
After some time the land is cleared around the finer species to encourage them to develop, and eventually these are the only ones that remain. This grove, where the widely spaced trees are all the same age, is called a futaie pleine; the rotation is rather long, 50 or even 80 years for very tall trees. Futaie jardinée is another type of grove, in which the trees are planted and cut at different times, so that the sector features a variety of ‘age groups’; older trees are always felled first.
A fully matured grove is a truly impressive sight, with its powerful trunks and its rich canopy of foliage producing subtle effects of light and shade.
Copses – The trees are younger. Rotation ranges from 5 to 30 years, depending on whether pit props, logs for heating or firewood is wanted. A copse is a sector of forest where a group of mature trees have been cut down. The shoots growing around the stump develop into a multitude of young, bushy, leafy trees.
Copses with Standards – If, when cutting a copse, the finest trees are left standing, these will dominate the new shoots. If they survive a series of fellings, they will grow to be extremely strong. The utilisation of copses with standards produces both fuel wood (from the copses) and timber for industrial purposes (from the older species).
Fauna and Flora
Forests contain not only trees but also countless varieties of plants and animals. Hunts are still organised in certain forests.
Nature lovers will find forests fascinating as the rich, damp soil is remarkably fertile, sustaining moss, lichen, mushrooms, grasses, flowers, shrubs and ferns.
Flowers – April is the season of laburnum, hyacinths and daffodils. May brings hawthorn, lily-of-the-valley, columbine and the delightful catkins of the hazel tree. In June there is broom, heather, campanula, scabious and wild pinks. During the autumn, russet and gold leaves are as attractive as the forest flowers.
Fruit – Wild strawberries and succulent raspberries ripen during July and August, while blackberries can be harvested in August and September together with the new crop of hazelnuts. October is the time for sloes and sweet chestnuts.
Mushrooms – Some varieties of mushrooms – Russula virescens, chanterelle comestible and mousseron – are always edible. Other species are difficult to identify and may be dangerous. If in doubt, mushroom pickers should consult a professional mycologist or a local chemist (pharmacien), who is trained to identify mushrooms.
Gardens in Île-de-France
Three successive trends defined the official canons of ornamental gardening in Île-de-France, the home of many royal residences.
During the 16C gardens were not considered as an essential part of an estate, but merely in the same category as outbuildings. They were generally of geometric shape and resembled a chessboard, where each of the squares contained carefully trimmed spindle and box forming arabesques and other elaborate patterns. These motifs were called broderies. Gardens were enclosed within a sort of cloister made of stone or greenery, from which visitors could enjoy a good view of the garden. Paths featuring fragments of marble, pottery and brick cut through the grounds. Though water did not play any significant part in the general appearance of the gardens, there were basins and fountains encircled by balustrades or tall plants. They were there to be ob-served in their own right and for people to admire the ornamental statues and water displays.
Most of them have now disappeared, at least in Île-de-France. There is, however, an outstanding example in Villandry in the Loire Valley.
17C–early 18C: the Formal Garden
Although André le Nôtre cannot be credited with ‘inventing’ the formal French garden, he was the one person who raised this art form to absolute perfection. Its purpose was twofold: to enhance the beauty of the château it surrounded and to provide a superb view from within. The garden’s main features were fountains, trees, statues, terraces and a sweeping perspective.
The château was fronted by a ‘Turkish carpet’ of parterres, with flowers and evergreen shrubs forming arabesques and intricate patterns. These were flanked symmetrically by basins with fountains, usually adorned with statues. Fountains were also placed on the terrace bearing the château and the upper lawns, which was the starting-point of the central perspective along a canal or a ‘green carpet of lawn’ (tapis vert), lined with elegant groves of pretty, tall trees.
The groups of trees planted along the perspective were designed to be perfectly symmetrical. They were crossed by a network of paths, with clearings at the intersections offering splendid vistas extending into the far distance. Hedges lined the paths, concealing the massive tree trunks and providing a backdrop for marble statues. As hedges were fragile and expensive to maintain, most were later removed or greatly reduced in height from their original 6–8m/20–26ft. Each grove of trees featured a ‘curiosity’: perhaps a fountain with elaborate waterworks, a colonnade or a group of sculpted figures.
The enormous variety of designs and styles used for the parterres and surrounding trees, bushes and hedges ensured that these formal gardens were never monotonous. They were conceived as an intellectual pursuit, giving pleasure through their stately proportions and perspectives, the skilful design and the sheer beauty of each detail.
Late 18C–19C: the Landscape Garden
In the 18C, manipulating the landscape into rigid geometric patterns was no longer fashionable. The tendency instead was to imitate nature. The landscape garden – also called the Anglo-Chinese garden – consisted of lush, rolling grounds dotted with great trees and rocks, pleasantly refreshed by streams and tiny cascades. A rustic bridge might cross a river flowing into a pond or lake covered with water-lilies and surrounded by willow trees, and a mill or dairy might add the final touch to this Arcadian scene. The 18C fascination for philosophy, characteristic of the Age of Enlightenment, was also reflected in contemporary gardening, which saw the introduction of symbolic or exotic monuments or fabriques (a technical term originally referring to architectural works depicted in paintings).
Antique temples and medieval ruins were particular favourites, while tombs and mausoleums became popular just before the Revolution. Chinese and Turkish sculptures were also fashionable. An unfinished temple, for instance, would remind visitors of the limits of science, while an oriental pagoda standing beside a crumbling tower symbolised the fragility of human achievements.
Sentimentality, romance and melodrama were popular features of many art forms. Such trends also affected landscape gardens, giving rise to a number of new sights including the secret lovers’ grotto, the bench of the tired mother, the grave of the rejected suitor, etc.
Most of these estates were ravaged during the Revolution, and few of their fragile monuments survived. Efforts are now being made to restore what was left. The most outstanding example of an 18C folly in the region is the Cassan Pagoda at L’Isle-Adam.
Particularly fine gardens may still be found at Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly, Courances, St-Cloud, Sceaux, Champs, Fontainebleau, Rambouillet and Ferrières.