Carnaval de DunkerqueCarnaval de Dunkerque
©Carnaval de Dunkerque|Ville de Dunkerque

The art of celebration

You really get a sense of the exuberance of the “people of the north” as you move through the towns and villages of Hauts-de-France. It’s not unusual to unexpectedly come across vibrant celebrations and festivals. It could be carnivals held by the folk of Dunkirk, complete with parades of giants – known as “gayants” in Picard or “reuze” in Flemish – that embody the soul of the city. Or maybe you’ll discover the colour of the annual Braderie de Lille, famous for its moules-frites (mussels and chips). The friendliness and sense of celebration on display here is not a myth: it’s in the DNA of the region. Join the fun but – above all – come as you are!

Northern France _ Lille _ flea market © Maxime Dufour - Office de Tourisme de LilleNorthern France _ Lille _ flea market © Maxime Dufour - Office de Tourisme de Lille
©Northern France, Lille, flea market |Maxime Dufour - Office de Tourisme de Lille

La Braderie de Lille – much more than mussels!

It’s been described as a giant street market and the largest car boot sale in Europe – call it whatever you like, but la Braderie de Lille is not to be missed! The origins of this annual shopping extravaganza – usually held on the first weekend in September – can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Once a year, housekeepers were allowed to sell old items and clothes belonging to their masters – and a great French tradition was born.

While the history of the market is clear, the origins of the word braderie are subject to more debate. What’s certain is that this market is steeped in tradition and it’s become a melting pot for more than 2 million people who come each year from across Europe and farther afield.

Put yourself in the shoes of the Bradeux, who come to Lille hunting for bargains from the amateur and professional stallholders. Join them in the hunt for a rare, original item or just something that catches your eye as you make your way through the hustle and bustle of more than 50 miles (80km) of stalls.

You’ll see children selling old toys or books for a couple of euros, stalls full of funny hats and eccentric outfits, and people who talk you into sharing a beer or tasting some delicious moules-frites.

La Braderie breaks records every year: 500 tonnes of mussels, 30 tonnes of French fries and tens of thousands of litres of beer are enjoyed here. How local restaurants deal with the mountain of mussel shells at the end of the day is another story!

It’s all this and more, but – above all – it’s a chance to experience a wonderful local tradition, a weekend of fun and friendliness in a cracking atmosphere.


Gayant, the giant of Douai

Imaginary heroes, historical figures and even animals – the huge wicker puppets measuring up to 50 feet (15m) that take centre stage during Douai’s Festival of Gayant are always crowd favourites.

Although it’s hard to pin down the origins of these giants, evidence of Douai’s giant can be traced back to the 16th century.

The Festival of Gayant – held on the first Monday and Tuesday after July 5 each year – must be seen to be believed. The giant and his wife Marie Cagenon, and their children Jacquot, Fillon and Binbin, bring the streets to life with a well-oiled ritual of folk music and dance.

While the festival itself is focused on two days, the festivities last for fifteen. The parade is bookended with traditional games, concerts, carillon organ music, a children’s festival, street entertainment, sports events, sightseeing walks and night markets.

On Sunday mornings, you can join the throng outside the town hall and meet the giants and their accompanying drummers. The beats and chants are sure to get you singing and dancing along with the locals!


The Dunkirk carnival, dining and dancing in the streets

Dressed in wigs, skirts and fishnet stockings and swaying to the Hymne to Jean Bart, a song synonymous with the city’s maritime hero, the carnival lovers of Dunkirk set off on a final rigodon, a lively folk dance through the streets. This is just a taster of the annual Dunkirk carnival, a festival that’s so special it’s recognised by UNESCO.

This ancestral tradition of the festival harks back to the start of the 17th century, when Dunkirk was a major cod fishing port. Faced with the dangers of six-month voyages, the ship owners would lay on a feast for their crews and their families prior to setting sail.

Today, the people of Dunkirk “do carnival” each weekend from February to mid-March, attracting more than 50,000  festival goers for the highlights of the carnival. The costumes are elaborate – often prepared a year in advance. Locals – regardless of their background or standing in the community – join in the fun across Dunkirk, as well as in neighbouring towns and villages.

Enter the colourful whirlwind of the 3 Joyeuses, one of a series of parades that take different routes on the final weekend in February. Another highlight of carnival time are the “chapels” – local houses that open their doors by invitation to share the revelry during la bande à Malo, a parade held in nearby Malo-les-Bains. It’s every bit as memorable as the 3 Joyeuses.

Bring a decent pair of shoes, though, because the scrum that forms when the drum starts to beat is quite something. And consider a flamboyant costume – remembering that anything goes during carnival!

Lille / Hauts-de-France

Series Mania - A festival for TV series enthusiasts!

And here’s one for screen enthusiasts… When it comes to TV series, what’s your genre? Are you one to get locked into a light-hearted series to restore feel-good factor? Or do you like to get embroiled in something escapist, like an intriguing Agatha Christie (of which one or two have been filmed right here in Hauts-de-France, for the record). Well, if you’re a series fanatic, or if you’ve got a young and ambitious creative in the family, Series Mania festival unfolds the red carpet for you, offering the perfect opportunity to indulge your passion getting up close and personal with directors, actors and screenwriters, watching previews on the big screen, exploring niche themes in conferences and masterclasses and finding out more about the characters who keep you on the edge of your seat, episode after episode. This annual festival takes place in Lille, so be sure to make the most of the opportunity to wander the inspiring streets of Vieux Lille afterwards: a sure-fire way to end the day on a high note.