© Lille, Promenade en famille à la Citadelle | CRTC Hauts-de-France - AS Flament

The unexpected charm of fortified sites

Let the region’s fortified sites surprise you – discover charming places to walk and fascinating sites of historical significance. The towns, citadels, churches and museums go beyond simply telling the story of Hauts-de-France’s strategic importance. These sites tell a richer, deeper story of a heritage formed largely under the guidance of Vauban, the most acclaimed engineer in French history.

This journey through French history provides a change of scenery and a chance to visit a wide range of interesting and unusual places.

Le Quesnoy

01. Le Quesnoy, a town covered in oak

Le Quesnoy – in the heart of the Parc Naturel de l’Avesnois – has been known as the “town covered in oak” since the Middle Ages. Le Quesnoy is not far from the forest of Mormal, where oak trees reign supreme, but there’s more to the town than beautiful trees. What make this site so special are the wonderfully conserved ramparts. During a walk along the fortifications you’ll see first hand the art of defence employed between the 17th century and beginning of the 20th century. It was in Le Quesnoy that the ingenious Vauban experimented with his system of hydraulic defences, using locks and dams to allow controlled flooding of dykes in order to block the route of invaders. Today, Vauban’s work lives on. Take the family for a day out at the local educational farm or visit the bird observatory and reed beds. Alternatively, take in some fresh air as you walk the mile or so (2.5km) around Le chemin sur l’eau lake path. For a real treat, visit at the beginning of August during the carnival parade of Bimberlot to see the giants Pierrot Bimberlot and Maori join the locals in a procession along the ramparts. Come and see the fortified towns of Hauts-de-France reborn!

Lille

02. The Vauban Citadel in Lille, the queen of all citadels

 

 

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed fortifications of Vauban form a small town, its 5 strongholds or bastions built in the shape of a protective star on the green fields of le Champ de Mars, known as the “lungs” of the Lille metropole area. The area was fortified by Vauban on the orders of Louis XIV after he had conquered Lille. The so-called “queen of citadels” formed the centrepiece of innovation and technical advances as the focus of defence moved from high walls to thick and solid boundaries that could absorb the impact of cannon balls. Between 1668 and 1673, work at the site progressed apace: more than 2,000 men placed 60 million bricks, 3.3 million concrete blocks and 60,000 feet of sandstone; they also dug the 1.2-mile (2km) Canal de la moyenne-Deûle. The unique fortifications are significant for another reason as well: it was the first time Vauban designed barracks where soldiers could live within the fortifications themselves.

Why not take a short walk to discover more about this place and all its history? Meet the ducks and water birds as you walk the length of the ramparts. Perhaps you will see a grey heron or the emerald shimmer of kingfisher. For a closer look at the fortifications, you can walk through the Bois de Boulogne, which surrounds the citadel. The park is popular with walkers, joggers, cyclists and families – it’s an ideal place to enjoy some green space. If you spot some sheep or goats grazing peacefully – don’t worry! They act as natural lawn mowers for the 172 green acres (70 hectares)! For more of an adrenalin charge, try the zipline that whizzes some 32 feet (10 metres) above the ground. It’s yet another way to turn history into an adventure.

Thiérache

03. Walk in the woodlands around Thiérache’s fortified churches

Want to get back to nature? Then head to Thiérache! With fortified churches, beautiful forests and flowing rivers, there are plenty of heritage sites and natural wonders to get you off the beaten track. Travel by horseback, bike or simply walk along the Ancien Axe Vert de Thiérache, a 24-mile (39km) largely car-free route that forms part of the longer Euro Velo 3 bike route. This is a great way to discover some of the 60 fortified churches that were often constructed by villagers who were tired of the looting and ravages of war. Jewels of bricks and stone that closely resemble fortresses, these churches – complete with their dungeons, towers, turrets and firing slits – really stand out as you pass through the villages. Even so, they are all unique. Among them, the Château-fort de Guise, an ancient stronghold of the famous Dukes of Guise, will amaze you with its intimidating dungeon and its 42 acres (17 hectares) of fortifications. Find time also to visit the Church of Saint Martin in Montcornet, which bore witness to the transition between the Roman and the Gothic eras, the imposing Notre Dame de Plomion and the flamboyant Gothic style of the Notre Dame de Vervins, as well as the church of Saint Médard in the charming village of Parfondeval – all will lift your soul.