Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is a region of Europe that was the heart of coal extraction for over three centuries from the 18th – 20th century and marked the period of significant industrialisation in France. With the decline of coal in recent times, you might expect this region to be in terminal decline but what the French have done is the reinvigorate the area with cultural, environmental and social initiatives to make the region rightfully a tourist destination in its own right. We took a journey to towns like Valenciennes, Porte du Hainaut, and Cœur d’Ostrevent to uncover the revitalisation of this province.
We started off our tour with a bike ride through the former Rieulay mining site, which has been transformed into one of the most respected and popular green woodland areas around (well for those who know how to ride a bike anyway, I was hiking instead). Then we walked to Les Chevrettes du Terril nearby which is an up-and-coming organic goats cheese farm where you can be up and personal with the animals as well as enjoy occasional outdoor concerts on their farmland space.
Next, we journeyed to Lewarde to check out The Mining History Centre, which is the largest mining museum in France. Where you might expect proceedings to be dull and lacklustre, it was actually extremely fascinating walking through a recreated shaft and seeing the conditions coal miners used to work under throughout the various ages. Money has been heavily invested in this project to use the latest multimedia technology to bring the history of the mines in the area to life.
One convenient hotel nearby to consider is Hotel du Pasino Saint-Amand-Les-Eaux, which has a number of restaurants and bars adjacent to the hotel that also closes late in the evening for those who might return late from their sightseeing adventures.
Apart from creating green spaces, former coal mines have been turned into digital centres of excellence such as at Arenberg Creative Mine, where they specialise in CGI and animation for the TV industry. Most of the buildings here are UNESCO World Heritage listed and also on this site is the set of the major French film, Germinal and you can still see many of the scene sets which have been lovingly retained. Just next to the mining site, you can see the famous cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix cycling race and is one of the toughest endurance cycling races on the calendar.
Other things to do in this part of France include walking up the slag heaps to get a panoramic view of the neighbourhood. You can also experience what it is like at an authentic mining cafe by dining at La Roselère, who serve some sumptuous platters of charcuterie and cheese.
Being very close to Belgium have meant microbreweries springing up in the region aiming to create that special homemade brew to rival the Belgians. We went down to craft brewery Brasserie D’Amblise, which is one of the smallest breweries you will ever come across but the owner is extremely personable and will happily discuss what are the secret ingredients in making the perfect craft beer.
Our final stop was at Valenciennes, where we came across 2 remarkable hotels which are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Le Grand Duc was the former house of a mining company director but has now been lovingly restored as a boutique hotel with 6 individually designed rooms. The owner Philippe who is an artist himself has added his own creative touch with dazzling artwork at every corner of the house and you can even enjoy a sumptuous black coal-themed meal to help you appreciate the significance of the region.
The other hotel we visited was the recently opened Royal Hainaut Spa & Resort Hotel, which was a former hospital that has been converted into the most luxuriously elegant hotel in the city. We dined at the beautiful La Galerie Brasserie where we tried a deconstructed version of Lucullus de Valenciennes, which is traditionally a tasty combination of foie gras and smoked beef tongue.
Finally, you can't leave the city without visiting Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes. The museum has a fine collection of sculptures from Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, who was born in the town as well as countless paintings from renowned Flemish artists.
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