Things to see and do - Northern France and the Paris Region
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The Region Today
The Region Today
Northern France and the Paris Region make up for an interesting array of similarities and differences.
Culturally speaking, Picardy has much more in common with Nord-Pas-de-Calais than with its southern neighbour, Île-de-France. Its traditional language, ‘Picard’, so closely resembles its northern counterpart, ‘Chtimi’, than they are nearly undistinguishable. But its geography closely links it with the Parisian Basin, its agricultural flatlands and forests. Many Parisians seek to escape the Capital for peaceful weekend hideways in nearby Oise, while many Picards may be attracted by the Paris employment eldorado.
On the other hand, the culture of Nord-Pas-de-Calais has some unique features of its own, like the still wide use of flemish. Its rich privateer past has given birth to some of the wildest festive Carnival celebrations, not to mention a tradition of hospitality that is proverbially unequalled in France, and the famous football rivalry between Lens ‘Blood-red and Golden’ and Lille’s ‘Mastiffs’.
But be reassured: a narrow link of nearly impassable muddy cobblestone exists between the three regions: the Paris-Roubaix, one of France’s oldest and most popular cycling races which run almost each year since 1896.
Nord-Pas-de-Calais is one of France’s most populated regions. With a birth rate significantly higher than the rest of the country, its demography is one of the youngest and most dynamic. Its dense population is mostly urban: 9 out of 10 inhabitants live in one of the numerous city centres. Among those, Lille emerges as a metropolis, attracting workers from no less than fifteen medium-sized neighbouring towns.
Belgians came there before 1910, but it is the huge 1920s immigration wave of Italians and Poles, who did the hard work in coal mines, that comes to mind when speaking about migratory currents in the area. With the decline of the mining industry, the migrating trend has slackened, but the region still attracts many North-African migrants.
A vivid contrast with its northern neighbour, Picardy has one of the weakest demographic growth rate of the country, despite one of the highest birth rate in Europe. Stuck between two greatly attractive industrial basins, the region steadily loses its inhabitants. Only the southern département of Oise sees an increase in its population, many former inhabitants of neighbouring Île-de-France or Paris settling there to escape rising real estate prices while retaining the ability to work in their original region.
Paris and Île de France
Although Île-de-France covers only 2.2% of the surface area of France, over 18% of the French population resides in the region. This huge concentration of around 12 million inhabitants has gradually focused around the natural junctions of the Seine, Marne and Oise river basins. These large, slow rivers separate vast plateaus bearing rich countryside including the Brie and Beauce areas, and the large forests of Fontainebleau, Halatte, Rambouillet, Marly and St-Germain.
These natural areas have somehow managed to escape the urban sprawl which, today, tends to concentrate around the new towns of Cerg, Pontoise,Créteil, Évry, St-Quentin-en-Yvelines, Marne-la-Vallée and Melun-Sénart.
Metropolitan France is divided into 22 administrative regions (including Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardy and Île-de-France) which are further divided into départements. The regions are ruled by regional parliaments with extended budgetary powers. Those were created in the 1980s, in an effort by the state to counterbalance the otherwise overwhelming power of the capital city.
Oddly enough, Paris is a département city, with 20 local mayors and a Parliament, the Conseil de Paris, whose counsellors appoint the mayor of Paris. Still, the Police Commissioner, a highly ranked civil servant, prevails over the mayor in public order matters. This situation originates in the aftermath of 19C Commune de Paris, when Paris revolted once more against the state and elected its own parliament. Horrified by the ensuing bloodsheds, Third Republic conservative legislators decided to make short of the freedom of action of the Conseil de Paris. They also decided that the Paris budget be approved by the state, effectively making the city a penniless beggar. Laws in the early 1980s have fortunately changed that.
A long-standing major trading area, with havens lying on one of the main maritime trade routes to Northern Europe, Nord-Pas-de-Calais acquired wealth from textiles and trade since medieval times and thus enjoyed a great deal of autonomy throughout history. Although industrial employment is now decreasing overall, the area’s small and medium-size enterprises modernise in order to tackle the export market and take full advantage of the proximity of vast European markets and the ease of access afforded by the Nord-Europe high-speed train, the Channel Tunnel and the dense network of roads. This ideal localisation has attracted a great deal of foreign investments, with the likes of Coca-Cola, MacCain or Rank Xerox settling in.
Going back to the Middle Ages, the textile and clothing industries now find it hard to cope with massive low cost imports from low-wage countries, such as China. Despite these difficulties, the Nord-Pas-de-Calais area still supplies the entire national production of linen (Lys Valley) and high-quality products like famous Calais and Caudry lace.
The glassware and crystal industries still number a few regional jewels, the best-known of all being the internationally renowned Arques works.
Coal extraction in Nord-Pas-de-Calais started in the 18C. With the increasing needs of 19C Industrial Revolution, the coal mining industry became an essential element of the region’s economy. The conical black slag heaps (terrils) , of which 300 now remain, became a distinctive feature of the landscape, along with brick-houses miners townships. Competition from emerging cheap labour countries and a drop in productivity in the post WW II era led to the decline of the northern mines. Seen by many as a regional drama, the last pit closed down in 1990.
Closely connected regional iron and steel industry also suffered from competitive imports of raw materials with higher mineral content. The local government is actively looking for alternative solutions to make up for the job losses and to transform the mining landscapes . Successes include the steelworks in Dunkerque or the ultra-modern Pechiney aluminium plant in Gravelines.
French rail equipment is produced mainly in the Valenciennes and Douai areas. The now threatened automotive industry has plants in Douai (Renault), Maubeuge (MCA), Douvrain (Française de Mécanique) and Hourdain (Peugeot-Fiat).Services, such as logistics, distribution or tourism account for more than half of total jobs. Mail order is also an important sector of employment, with half of the ten largest French companies, including La Redoute and Trois Suisses, operating from the area.
Food-processing industry is now the region’s leading industrial sector. Regional produce supplies flour mills and biscuit factories in the Lille area. The sugar beetroot industry has shaped a new specific industrial landscape on the plains near Cambrai and Thumeries. Canning factories produce 30% of the total national production of tinned vegetables and ready prepared meals and 50% of canned fish, the latter specifically around Boulogne, France’s leading fishing port.
Agriculture is still the best known aspect of the economy of Picardy. A mainly rural area, with over two-thirds of its rich soil dedicated to open plains, Picardy holds, as one may expect, the French first rank for sugar beet and plays a prominent role in the production of other staples, such as like potatoes, peas and grain.
Food processing plays an important role in many areas: canning factories, based in the Santerre area at Estrée, Rosières and Péronne, are essential local job providers and so are Saint-Louis sugar refineries in Roye and Eppeville.
But Picardy has a powerful and long-standing, if less obvious, industrial tradition in many other domains: over 300 small and medium-sized plants employing about 20 000 people operate in the plastic transformation, rubber and composite materials industries. Metallurgy accounts for one half of the region’s industrial workforce and more than 1 700 enterprises. Five internationally recognised and government-aided industrial groupings exist in the region: light metallurgy in Vimeu; glass transformation in the Bresle Valley; machine-tooling in Albert; industrial boilers in Ham and car components in Thiérache.
One of the region’s most remarkable features is the strength of its craft industry, an ancient yet very lively tradition, especially in the domain of tapestry, stained-glass windows, etc.
Finally, new sectors like logistics or call-centres have recently appeared in Picardy. Located in one of the best connected areas of Europe, they will certainly have an important impact on local job forces in the years to come.
Paris and Île-de-France
France’s economic heavyweight champion, Île-de-France’s Gross Regional Product, accounts for one third of the country’s GNP, exceeding those of Sweden or Belgium. The region concentrates more than five million jobs (over 15% of the national labour force), of which four million are in the private sector. Its educational system welcomes 60 0000 students at university level each year. Nearly 75 000 new companies are registered yearly; to assist them in their development, government-sponsored agencies called pépinières d’entreprises have been created in the region.
Covering more than 50% of the regional territory, highly mechanised agriculture only accounts for 0.5% of the local workforce, which says something about the size of the average farmland. The western plains of Brie and the seemingly endless plateau of Beauce, south-west of Paris, are nicknamed the granary of France, and for good reason: their silt soils are among France’s best for the massive production of wheat and colza, a non-drying oil. Other regional produce includes beetroots and other fresh vegetables, decorative plants and flowers, especially Brie’s roses. Animal production of meat or dairy is negligible, with Seine-et-Marne famous Brie cheeses making a notorious exception.
The food-processing industry is understandably strong in the region, with more than 500 companies present.
France’s foremost industrial area, with more than 650 000 jobs in various branches, Île-de-France is paradoxically one of the country’s least industrialised regions, with a scant 14% of the workforce and 6% of the companies engaged in industrial activity. Nor is that a temporary phenomenon: the sector has been steadily losing plants in the region since the 1980s.
The automotive industry is the leading actor, French carmakers Renault and PSA, along with their vast network of suppliers, generating one regional industrial job out of four.
The aerospace and defence industry also plays a prominent role, with companies like EADS, Dassault Aviation, Arianespace or Safran plants and research centres recruiting amongst the students of 17 regional universities and numerous high-level specialised engineering schools.
Energy specialised companies, like Total or EDF, the French national electricity producer, are also major employers.
Business and services make up for the overwhelming majority (more than 80%) of Francilian jobs and companies. Education and social welfare employs 1.5 million regional civil servants. Private enterprise includes electricity, phone or water-supplying companies as well as a host of consulting companies, the latter a fast-growing actor in the region’s economy, accounting for nearly 500 000 jobs. Banking and other financial activities account for little more than one half of that job tally (270 000 jobs), telling much about the region’s lack of specialisation.
One of the most visited cities in the world, Paris’ largest economic sector is tourism. The capital attracts 31% of Île-de-France’s jobs in the private sector, with average wages slightly higher than in the rest of the region but well above the country’s average. Geographic inequalities are also reflected within the city: wages offered in the 8th arrondissement are 82% higher than in the more popular 20th arrondissement .
Food and drink
The Cuisine of Picardy
Soups are the great local specialities, in particular those made from tripe, pumpkin (potiron) or frogs (grenouilles) , as well as the famous vegetable soup soupe des hortillons and the stuffed pancakes in a creamy mushroom sauce (ficelle Picarde) . The people of Picardy and Artois love their vegetables: beans from Soissons, Laon artichokes, St Valery carrots, peas from the Vermandois and leeks, which are used in a delicious pie, the tarte aux poireaux.
Starters include duck pâté in a pastry case (pâté de canard en croûte) – prepared in Amiens since the 17C – snipe pâté (pâté de bécassines) from Abbeville and Montreuil, eel pâté (pâté d’anguilles) from Péronne.
Duck, snipe and plover, eel, carp and pike from the River Somme are often on the menu. Seafood (shrimps known as sauterelles , cockles called hemons) is common, as well as sole, turbot, fresh herring and cod, often cooked with cream.
Flemish cooking, washed down with beer and often followed by a glass of gin or a bistouille (coffee with a dash of alcohol), contains several typical dishes:
- rabbit with prunes or raisins and pigeon with cherries;
- home-made potted meat made from veal, pork fat, rabbit and sometimes chicken (potjevleesch) ;
- mixed stew of veal, mutton, pork offals, pork fat and vegetables (hochepot) ;
- braised beef in a beer sauce flavoured with onions and spices (carbonade) ;
- eel sautéed in butter and stewed in a wine sauce with herbs (anguille au vert );
- small, smoked herrings, a speciality of Dunkirk (craquelots) .
Among the other specialities of the north of France are chitterling sausages (andouillettes) from Arras and Cambrai, trout from the River Canche and River Course, and cauliflowers from St-Omer.
Cheeses of the North
Local cheeses, except for the one from Mont des Cats , are strong. Most come from the Thiérache and Avesnois region rich in pastureland. The best is Maroilles , created in the 10C by monks from Maroilles Abbey: it has a soft centre with a crust soaked in beer, similar to cheese from Munster. The other cheeses in the region are derived from it: Vieux Lille , also called Maroilles Gris (grey Maroilles); Dauphin (Maroilles with herbs and spices); Cœur d’Avesnes or Rollot; and the delicious Boulette d’Avesnes (Maroilles with spices, rolled in paprika). Flamiche au Maroilles , a creamy, highly flavoured quiche, is one of the most famous dishes from the northern region of France.
The Brie region in Île-de-France is famous for its soft cow’s milk cheeses with surface mould. There are two types, Brie and double- or triple-cream cheeses ( Lucullus , Grand Vatel , Gratte-Paille , etc.) often made from the fat left over from the production of Brie, a legendary cheese that has enjoyed a reputation for excellence since the 13C. Brie was as popular with the commoners of Paris as with royalty, and it was the outright winner of a competition organised during the Congress of Vienna in 1815 bringing together all the best cheeses from throughout Europe. There are certain characteristics common to all Brie cheeses: they are made from partially skimmed raw cow’s milk; the rind is white with reddish marks; the cheese is soft in texture and pale yellow in colour; the fat content is approximately 45%; and the maturing period does not exceed seven weeks. Setting these features aside, several varieties of Brie have developed and they differ depending on the area of production. The best-known are Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun.
The local pancakes (crêpes) , waffles and sweet breads ( tartines and brioches ) can make entire meals in themselves; the brioches with bulging middles are called coquilles .Tarts, such as the delicious tartes au sucre sprinkled with brown sugar, are often served for dessert. Sweets are accompanied by the light, chicory coffee which people from the region drink at any time of the day.
Gambrinus, the king of beer, is greatly revered in the north of France, as is St Arnould, the patron saint of brewers. Beer (la bière) was already known in Antiquity. In Gaul it was called cervoise . During the Middle Ages brewing beer was a privilege of the monasteries.
It spread enormously in Flanders under John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Flanders, who developed the use of hops.
Gin is still produced in Houlle, Wambrechies and Loos. Another drink produced in Loos is an apéritif called chuche-mourette , consisting of crème de cassis and gin.
A rather demanding plant in terms of sun exposure and soil quality, grape never made it to the plains of Picardy or Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Quite unexpectedly however, in the early 19C, the vineyards of Île-de-France were the country’s largest. West of Paris, beyond the skyscrapers of La Défense, is a suburb called Argenteuil, which produced a wine known as Piccolo.
Massively consumed by Parisians in the guinguettes off the banks of the Seine River in the 19C, the beverage gave its name to the French word for ‘boozing’: picoler . By the end of the Second World War, the vineyards of Île-de-France had almost completely disappeared, fallen victim to merciless phylloxera, and unable to compete with the increasingly popular wine production from southern France. Only a few patches remain today, the largest being the Clos Montmartre, grown on the slopes of Paris Butte Montmartre, on a little plot beneath the famous Sacré-Coeur Basilica. The small annual production (roughly 850 half-bottles) is sold at the Grape Harvest Festival held in October.
Northern Folklore and Traditions
The people of Picardy and the north of France belong to the ‘Picardy nation’ that used to spread from Beauvais to Lille and from Calais to Laon, extending as far as Tournai and Mons. The common language of this ‘nation’ formed a bond between its inhabitants, who are known for being hard workers with a taste for good food and lively merrymaking. Even now, the slightest excuse is found to celebrate or get together in an estaminet (the Walloon word for a café) for a beer or two. Natives of Flanders, Artois, Lille and Picardy all have this same fondness for gatherings which is reflected in their many group activities: carnivals, celebrations, patron saint’s days, village fairs and associations (each village has its own band).
The Ducasse or Kermesse
The words ducasse (from dédicace , meaning a Catholic holiday) and kermesse (‘church fair’ in Flemish) now both designate a town or village patron saint’s day. This holiday has preserved aspects of its religious origins (Mass and procession) but today also includes stalls, competitions, traditional games, jumble sales, etc.
Carnival time is an occasion to dress up in costume and watch parades of floats and giant figures. It traditionally takes place on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) – as in Dunkirk, where it lasts for three days – but in reality, carnival parades take place throughout the year in the North of France.
Giants originate from various myths, legends and stories, and include:
- legendary founders , such as Lydéric and Phinaert in Lille
- famous warriors like the Reuzes from Dunkirk and Cassel, said to originate from Scandinavia
- historic figures , such as Jeanne Maillotte in Lille, the inn-keeper who fought off the ‘Howlers’; the beautiful Roze in Ardres, who saved the town from dragonnades; the Elector of Bergues, portraying Lamartine; Roland in Hazebrouck, one of Baudouin of Flanders’ Crusaders, who distinguished himself at the taking of Constantinople
- famous couples , like Martin and Martine, the two ‘Jack o’ the Clocks’ of Cambrai; Colas and Jacqueline, the gardeners of Arras; Arlequin and Colombine in Bruay; Manon and Des Grieux in Hesdin
- popular figures , like Gédéon, the bell ringer of Bourbourg, who saved the belfry chimes from being stolen; the pedlar Tisje Tasje of Hazebrouck, symbol of the Flemish spirit, with his wife Toria and his daughter Babe Tisje; Pierrot Bimberlot in Le Quesnoy; and Ko Pierre, a drum major, in Aniche
- legendary heroes : Gargantua in Bailleul; Gambrinus, the king of beer, in Armentières; Yan den Houtkapper, the woodcutter who made a pair of wooden boots for Charlemagne, in Steenvoorde; Gayant of Douai, said to have delivered the town from brigands
- representatives of trades , like the vegetable gardener Baptistin in St-Omer; the miner Cafougnette in Denain; and the fisherman Batisse in Boulogne
- or simply a child , like the famous Binbin in Valenciennes.
Giants are often accompanied by their families – as they do marry and are given large families – and are surrounded by skirted horses, devils, bodyguards and wheels of fortune. Sometimes they have their own hymn, such as the Reuzelieds in Dunkirk and Cassel.
Materials – Traditionally the giants’ bodies are made from a willow frame on which a painted papier-mâché head is placed. Once dressed in their costumes, the giants are then carried by one or more people, who make them dance in the procession. The tallest is Gayant in Douai, who is 8.4m/28ft tall.
As giants are often now made of heavier materials (steel tubing, cane, plastic), they are frequently pulled along in carts or on wheels, rather than being carried.
Chimes in town belfries, which regularly sound out their melodic tunes, lend a rhythm to life in northern French towns. Since the Middle Ages, when four bells were tapped by hand with a hammer, there have been many additions: a mechanism, a manual keyboard, pedals, all of which have made it possible to increase the number of bells (62 in Douai) and to increase the variety of their sounds.
Carillon concerts are held in Douai, St-Amand-les-Eaux and Maubeuge (east of Valenciennes).
Traditional Games and Sports
Traditional entertainments remain popular: marionettes, ball games, real tennis, ninepins, darts, lacrosse (an ancestor of golf), archery (which is also a traditional sport of the Valois area), cock-fighting, pigeon-breeding, etc. A popular bar game is the billard Nicolas , where players squeeze a bulb to blow a marble across a round playing area.
In the Middle Ages archers were already the pride of the counts of Flanders, who would have the archers accompany them on all their expeditions. As soon as individual towns were founded, the archers formed associations or guilds. They appeared at all public ceremonies, dressed in brightly coloured costumes, brandishing the great standard of their association.
Today archery is practised in several ways. A method particular to the North is vertical or ‘perch’ shooting, which consists of firing arrows upwards to hit dummy birds attached to gratings suspended from a pole. At the top of this pole, about 30m/98ft off the ground, is the hardest target of all, the poppinjay (papegaï) . Archers must hit this bird with a long, ball-tipped arrow and the winner is proclaimed ‘King of the Perch’. In winter the sport is practiced indoors: arrows are shot horizontally at a slightly tilted grating. Still grouped in brotherhoods, the archers gather every year to honour their patron, St Sebastian.
The art of the crossbow, which also dates from the Middle Ages, has its own circle of enthusiasts organised in brotherhoods. Their gatherings, colourful events featuring these curious weapons from another time, are often given evocative names such as the King’s Crossbow Shoot.
This feathered arrow measuring 50–60cm/20–24in is thrown into a tightly tied bundle of straw which serves as a target. It is the same principle as for the game of darts, which is played in many cafés.
The Game of ‘Billons’
A billon is a tapering wooden club about 1m/3ft long, weighing about 2–3kg/4–7Ib. Two teams throw their billons in turn towards a post 9m/29.5ft away. The aim is to land the narrower end of the club nearest to the post and this may be achieved by dislodging the billons of the opposing team.
Teams face each other in cafés, and knock down the cork and wood ‘targets’ with their metal paddles. The best players participate in competitions at local festivals.
Pigeon fanciers (coulonneux) raise their birds to fly back to the nest as quickly as possible. For pigeon-racing competitions, which are very popular, the birds are carried in special baskets to a distance of up to 500km/310mi and must then return to their dovecote at record speed. A pigeon can fly over 100km/62mph on average.
Singing Finch Competitions
Finches have also become part of the folklore in the north of France, where they participate in trilling contests. Some can trill as many as 800 times an hour.