The Nord-Pas de Calais region comprises two departments, Nord and Pas-de-Calais. The area once belonged to Flanders and Artois provinces before becoming part of the southern Netherlands and the Spanish Netherlands; it has been definitively French only since 1713. As a crossroads between England and the market towns of Flanders and Holland, the area was long a trading and textile centre before become one of France’s major manufacturing hubs during the Industrial Revolution. The decline of heavy industry has taken a heavy toll on the Nord, a former mining and steel-making region, but its strategic location – which made it a battleground in all the major wars that devastated Europe – has proved to be a major asset in recent years. The Channel Tunnel has put the area back on the map as the heart of Europe, between Great Britain, the Benelux countries and France.
The Nord-Pas de Calais, which has an urbanisation rate of 83%, is a dense, heavily populated region with eight cities of over 100,000 inhabitants. It is also metropolitan France’s youngest region because 36.5% of the people are under 25. That is mainly due to France’s highest fertility rate, 1.87 child per woman.
This department, which corresponds to the former province of French Flanders, has 2.5 million people and a population of density of 435 inhab./km² , making it France’s second-most populated region after the Paris metropolitan area.
The Nord is an industrialised department based on three sectors: coal, steel and textile. However, it is also agricultural and an environmental trailblazer because of Saint-Amand-Raisme, one of France’s first natural parks.
District capitals: Avesnes, Cambrai, Douai, Dunkirk and Valenciennes.
A frontier harbor, Dunkirk (meaning “church on the dune”) has suffered through the upheavals of history, like all cities of the region and maybe even more so because of its maritime vocation. A martyr town during World War II, claimed since the Middle Ages by all the powers with views on its territory, it was only in 1662 that it became French for good, under Louis XIV.
Hometown of the famous corsair Jean Bart, Dunkirk has turned its troubled past and privileged location, at the crossroads of French, Flemish and even British cultures, into uncommon character and strong personality. The local idiom is the perfect symbol of these multiple influences, owing as much to Flemish as to sailor slang.
In 1940 took place the horrendous battle of Dunkirk, when British troops were encircled by German forces coming both from Holland and from the Ardennes. The evacuation of the British army and some French troops was one of the first tragedies to make an impact in the early stages of World War II. Overtaken by the Germans, the town was then subjected to allied bombings until its liberation in 1945. 70% of the town laid in ruins, though Jean Bart’s statue still stood. While Germans melt most statues in France to recover the metal, this one was spared as Jean Bart’s sword, pointing to England, was used to direct German planes.
Always a highlight of the year, the Dunkirk Carnival is one of the most famous in France and probably the most festive. It is said to have been started by fishermen who had a little fun the night before heading off to fish for cod in the treacherous Sea of Iceland for fear they would not make it back.
Carnival tradition still includes sailor songs, the musicians wearing yellow oilskins like the cod fishermen. Herring is also thrown in front of the Town Hall, recalling the great fishing campaigns of days gone by.
Since 1955, the city has held the Four days of Dunkirk, one of the most prestigious stage races in France.
Starting point since 1978 (continually since 2002) of a sailing race much inspired by the Tour de France, Dunkirk welcomed the Tour in 2001 for its Taking Off, Christophe Moreau winning the Prologue. 18 stage finishes have taken place here, mostly massive pack sprints.
The town is sometimes dubbed the “Flanders’ other Bruges” since reclaiming the surrounding marshes.
In the 13th century, Bergues became one of the major towns in Western Flanders, before being ravaged by fires and wars like other cities in the area. In turns Flemish and British, the city became French for good with the Aix-la-Chapelle Treaty in 1668.
5 km long, the ramparts were naturally the work of Vauban and still do the city proud. The belfry, symbol of the city’s independence, it was bombed by the Germans in 1944 and rebuilt identically in 1961.
Lamartine, famous poet and politician, was elected as the local Member of Parliament in 1833.
The town played a key role during World War I as General Antoine, commander of the allied forces, set up his headquarters there in Bouly de Lesdain chateau. During the summer of 1917, he hosted many world leaders, such as King George V, the Prince of Wales, Prime Minister Lloyd George, King Albert I of Belgium, French President Poincaré, General Pétain and several French ministers.
Western Flanders, Belgium’s westernmost province and the heir to Flanders earldom, comprises eight administrative units—Bruges, Dixmude, Ypres, Courtrai, Ostende, Roulers, Tielt and Furnes – and 64 towns. All of Belgium’s North Sea coastline lies within the province, making it a popular tourist destination. The superb heritage of Bruges and Ypres, as well as modern towns such as Courtrai, are other tourism assets. This is also a green region, especially in Westhoek.
Its inhabitants are dubbed the Pig-Headed (keikoppen), as they only reluctantly submit to adverse conditions. Throughout its history, Poperinge has shown a truly remarkable spirit of independence.
In the memory of Tommies, who nicknamed it Pop during World War I, Poperinge holds a very special place. Only town in the area not to be occupied by the Germans, it constituted a safe haven for British soldiers taking time off from the front. Influenced by the local rebel spirit, some of them even refused to return to combat. The mutineers were shot in the front courtyard of the town hall, and Poperinge cemetery still has 17 tombs bearing the sole inscription “at dawn”.
A martyr town during World War I, Ypres has joined Hiroshima in proclaiming itself “city of peace”. It was in this town of 32,000 inhabitants, 5th largest in Western Flanders, that the German army first tried out the ill-famed mustard gas. Three beastly battles, in 1914, 1915 and 1917 were fought in Ypres. The last one brought about half a million casualties, for the gain of but a few hundred yards. After the battle, the town was submitted to intense shelling from the artillery and left in rubble. Monuments such as the Cloth Hall (13th century) and the Town Hall were rebuilt identically.
For Tour de France buffs, Gistel is the hometown of Sylvère Maes, winner of the Tour in 1936 and 1939. A rugged roadster who had plied his trade in the harsh universe of cyclo-cross racing, Sylvère Maes (no relationship to Romain Maes, winner of the Tour the preceding year) had only a victory in the 1933 Paris-Roubaix to his credit before proving himself a formidable climber in the Tour. In 1936, he got the better of Antonin Magne in the Pyrenees, while in 1939 he shone in the Alps, conquering the Izoard and Iseran passes to outduel René Vietto. Maes later captained the Belgian team.
Like Gistel and Tohrout, Ichtegem lies on the classic itinerary of the Tour of Flanders. In 2006, the town was named “Dorp van de Ronde”, meaning “town of the Tour”, Ronde being the nickname of the Tour of Flanders. It is also in Ichtegem that has been run, since 1945, the Circuit of the Flemish Ardennes, now called the Three days of the Western Ardennes; Jimmy Casper won it this year.
With Lichtervelde we once more cross the path of the Tour of Flanders. Every year in September, the town stages the Omloop van den Houtland, not to be mistaken with the Houtland Circuit run in the neighbouring town of Torhout until 1971. German rider Arthur Gajek won last year’s Omloop.
Tielt was the hometown of Briek Schotte, world cycling champion in 1948 and 1950, one of the greatest one-day classics riders to ever grace the road. Two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders (1942 and 1948), he died on the day of the 2004 Ronde, which the Belgian press saw as only too fitting. Tour de France fans will recall his victory in the last stage of the 1946 Tour, and his duel with Gino Bartali for the yellow jersey in 1948.
Eastern Flanders, one of Europe’s most populated regions, has six districts – Alost, Audenarde, Eeklo, Ghent, Saint-Nicolas and Termonde – and 65 towns. Like the capital, Ghent, which means “confluence”, it stands at a crossroads, boasts a unique heritage and is extremely active both economically and culturally. Contrary to what its name suggests, the area is in the centre, not the east, of Flanders. The name “Eastern Flanders” has a historical origin. In the Middle Ages, Ghent, now the province capital, was the capital of Flanders earldom, which more or less corresponded to the present-day provinces of Eastern Flanders and Western Flanders.
Eastern Flanders enjoys an ideal economic situation and geographical location. On the international level, it lies within the Rhine-Meuse-Escaut delta, one of the world’s busiest maritime, industrial and commercial hubs, which still offers potential for growth. Nationally, it is in the Antwerp-Brussels-Ghent golden triangle, where most of Belgium’s economic activity is focused.
Eastern Flanders’ roads, rivers and railways are major international arteries connecting it to the rest of Europe. The textile and garment industries, which made the province great, are forever inseparable from it. The University of Ghent has made the area a breeding ground for state-of-the art technologies, which is now its leading employer.
Deinze, where IOC President Jacques Rogge resides, has more than one claim as a cycling town. Not only is it the starting point of the Cat’s Race, which finishes in Ypres, it was also the birthplace of Rudy Dhaenens, world cycling champion in 1990 and a pretty good classics rider, having twice finished on the podium in Paris-Roubaix. Rudy Dhaenens died in a car crash in 1998, at the age of 37, while on his way to the Tour of Flanders, which was created by another native son of the area.
Deinze was the birthplace of Karel Steyaert, better known as Karel Van Wijnendaele, rider and sports journalist at the Sportwereld newspaper, who founded the Ronde in 1913. Van Wijnendaele died in 1961, the year Rudy Dhaenens was born.
Close to Deinze can be seen one of Belgium’s most stunning edifices, Ooidonk Chateau, a masterpiece of 16th-century Hispanic-Flemish architecture.
Ghent is Belgium’s third largest city, behind Brussels and Antwerp. Capital of eastern Flanders, it played a major political and economic role in the Middle Ages, being the world’s second most populated city after Paris. Today, Ghent still holds its own, being Belgium’s third largest port, after Antwerp and Bruges. Less reputed than Bruges with tourists, its architectural heritage is no less impressive and it remains one of the most stunning tributes to Flemish splendour.
Viewed from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent’s spires make up a stunning skyline: St Nicholas church, the belfry and the cathedral, dedicated to St Bavo, patron saint of the city. In St Bavo can be admired Jan Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, considered a masterpiece of Flemish painting.
Though cycling is amongst the favorite sports in Ghent, football is also very much present. La Gantoise, the local team, is one of Belgium’s oldest clubs. Its famous blue jersey bearing an Indian head has earned its players the nickname of Buffaloes. La Gantoise won the Belgian Cup in 1964 and 1984.
Ghent is the birthplace of Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC.
Like all major Belgian cities, Ghent has a very special relationship with cycling. The velodrome is one of the town’s monuments. A six-day event is held there every year under Patrick Sercu’s direction, one of the most prestigious competitions of the kind. World Championships were held on the track in 1988.
On the road, Ghent is the starting point for two major races, Ghent-Wevelgem and the Het Volk, won this year respectively by Marcus Burghardt and Filippo Pozzato.
The Tour made two previous stops in Ghent, in 1951 and 1958, with victories for Luxemburg Jean “Bim” Diederich and Frenchman André Darrigad.
Many riders in this year’s Tour will feel at home in Ghent where Patrick Lefevere’s Quick Step team is based.
Ghent is also the hometown of Walter Godefroot, manager of the Astana team. More surprising, British riders Bradley Wiggins and Matthew Gilmore were also born here, not too far from the velodrome where their fathers rode on the six-day circuit.