Visitors come from all over the world to pay their respects at the Remembrance sites of The Western Front 14-18. But the five regions involved – Northern France and Picardie, Champagne-Ardenne, Lorraine and Alsace – also offer an inspirational range of cultural visits from cities and cathedrals to architecture and natural heritage.
In Northern France, the neighbouring departments of Nord and Pas de Calais boast 47 museums awarded the prestigious Musée de France label, the highest number of any French region after Paris-Ile de France. Regional and cultural capital is the vibrant city of Lille, renowned for its fine art and contemporary art museums, its design and fashion industry. Then there’s Arras with its huge, galleried market squares; bell tower viewpoint; and underground passages.
Not far away in the former mining district, now revitalised and listed by UNESCO, Louvre-Lens is the first out-of-town satellite for The Louvre in Paris with works displayed in a unique timeline across the ages. Further from The Western Front, but still barely an hour away by car, is the chic Opal Coast resort of Le Touquet-Paris Plage, and ports such as Boulogne and Dunkerque, packed with history, heritage and authentic local life.
Regional capital of Picardy, Amiens boasts the largest cathedral in France, started around 1220 and renowned for its glorious statues. And whilst two simple
words – The Somme – together conjure up the horrors of the Great War, the Bay of the Somme is all about open water and big skies, a gloriously unspoilt area in which to walk, cycle and get close to nature.
Enjoy cultural visits? Aisne is the fourth most important department in France for historic monuments, including more than 80 in Laon, dozens of fortified churches, industrial heritage, and castles, in addition to the sites connected with the Great War.
Head east into Champagne-Ardenne and Reims is a must-see. For centuries, Kings of France were crowned in the magnificent Gothic cathedral, and the town center is home to many famous champagne houses, all open for tours and tastings. If they are not based in Reims, the big brand names are to be found in nearby Epernay. Leave time though to visit Troyes with its ancient half-timbered houses and modern factory outlet shops, a reflection of the town’s long-established textile industry.
Heading towards the Vosges Front, the Lorraine region offers glorious countryside for walking and cycling, where once soldiers contested strategic land close to the German border. Today you can enjoy outdoor sports from VTT – mountain biking – to vélo-rail, a uniquely French pastime of trundling down old railway tracks on a pedal-powered vehicle. And follow the quiet trails beside the Meuse from source to mouth.
The rich cultural heritage in Lorraine covers much more than reminders of that first international conflict. Learn how the epic of Joan of Arc began in Domrémy and Vaucouleurs, admire the architecture from the 15th and 18th centuries at Bar-le-Duc, and explore the area around Saint Mihiel.
Art lovers won’t want to miss the Centre Pompidou and Chagalls’s stained glass windows in Metz Cathedral, nor the Art Nouveau gem that is Nancy, in particular grandiose Place Stanislas. Amnéville and the elegant thermal towns of Vittel and Contrexéville offer invigorating and natural spas for those who seek a relaxing break. And the small lakeside resort of Gérardmer is a delight, family-friendly and a great base for walking in summer and skiing in winter, along with the neighbouring snow-sport resort of La Bresse.
And there’s more urban splendour in the pretty town of Colmar in Alsace, where every step is a photo opportunity as you wander between half-timbered buildings and beside picturesque canals.