Takeaway

France’s favourite village

Archana Singh | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

Small is beautiful: Cassel’s most famous residents — giants Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman — are paraded around the village on religious festivals   -  ISABELLE D’HULST

Hardly anyone outside the country knows of little Cassel, which is all about Gallic scenery and ambience

Spring is in full bloom in France. The days are sunny but the wind is still nippy. Francophiles are everywhere enjoying jours ensoleillés (sunny days). Having explored the City of Lights and French Riviera in the past, I decide to focus on the region dubbed the best-kept secret of the country — Northern France.

While strolling down the atmospheric streets of Lille, a city in the French Flanders, I ask Pierre-Yves, my local friend, “France is no doubt one of the most visited countries in the world. Is it possible to find a slice of la France profonde (deep France)?”

With a sparkle in his eyes, he replies, “What if I told you France’s most charming village is less than three hours away from Paris? And hardly anyone outside France knows about this medieval village that is all about Gallic scenery and ambience.”

Those magical words are enough to prompt me to pack my bags and leave for Cassel the next morning. A village of just 2,300 residents, Cassel shot to fame when it won the hugely popular Le village préféré des Français (The favourite village in France) contest in 2018, beating more famous rivals such as Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy and Roussillon in Provence.

After driving for an hour from Lille through lush green flat countryside decked with bright yellow and red wildflowers, we reach a small village with big views.

During the short drive, Pierre-Yves acquaints me with the geography and history of Cassel. It sits atop Mont Cassel — often referred to as the Everest of French Flanders — in a region otherwise as flat as the proverbial pancake. This prominent position has always made it a military must-have, from AD 1071 all the way up to the World Wars.

A winding cobbled road ascending sharply and sinuously takes us straight to Grand’Place Square, surrounded by historic buildings and the Notre-Dame collegiate church in the Flemish Gothic style. Restaurants with tempting menus and boutiques selling cheeses and local beer entice us. We choose sightseeing over gastronomic pleasures but the unexpected showers derail our plan a wee bit. Instead of heading to the highest point of the town straight away, we decide to visit the tourist office of Cassel in the main square. Hélène Elleboudt, the tourist office advisor, is delighted to see us despite being busy at work.

Citing the historic significance of the town, Elleboudt explains, “Cassel has existed since Roman times. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became an important fortified stronghold for the rulers of Flanders, which was continuously fought over between French and Dutch until France annexed it in the 17th century.”

She adds that Cassel is a holy grail for history buffs as it played a pivotal role during World Wars I and II, which resulted in much of the village being destroyed. Thankfully, Cassel managed to rise from ruins and give its heritage a new lease of life.

Village affair: An 18th-century wooden windmill at Mont Cassel   -  ARCHANA SINGH

 

As the rain stops, we thank Elleboudt and start climbing the stairs to reach the highest point of Mont Cassel — 176m above sea level. Moulin de Cassel, an 18th-century wooden windmill, a rare relic from another era, stands majestically on the site of the former castle. Just behind it is the horseback statue of the WWI hero Marshal Ferdinand Foch. From the peak of Mont Cassel, we enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. To the north lies the Dunkerque flatlands, interlacing with sparkling silver waterways; to the south and west, flat fields and hedged farmhouses; to the east, a spectacularly flat Belgium.

The moody weather forces us to walk down and take shelter in the Museum of Flanders, which proudly showcases the best of local art, history and folklore. Here we are introduced to Cassel’s most famous residents, two 20-foot-tall “giants” — Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman — that are paraded around the village on Easter, Mardi Gras and other religious festivals. The wood and papier-mâché figures were built in the 1800s and gained a place in Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2005.

Though Cassel won the favourite village award for its historical significance and views of the beautiful countryside, its real charm lies in the fact that it is typically Flemish, and is inhabited by friendly folks who are in tune with their Flemish roots. Spending a day here made me realise why Northern France is called the country’s le secret le mieux gardé (the best-kept secret).

 

Also read: Driving Monet home

Archana Singh is a freelance writer based in Delhi

  • Getting there
  • By car: About 2h 40m from Paris, 35 minutes from Lille and 45 minutes from Calais.
  • By train and bus: About 3 hours from Paris, and about 2 hours from Lille and Calais.
  • See/Do
  • Stroll on the Grand’Place Square.
  • Climb the highest point of the town to see Le Moulin de Cassel.
  • Visit the award-winning gardens, Le Jardin du Mont des Récollets.
  • Visit the Museum of Flanders.
  • Relish Flemish cuisine in the estaminets (traditional cafés and restaurants).
  • BLink Tip
  • From Cassel, you can go to the following places:
  • For lover of history: Bergues, Dunkerque, Pierrefonds and Amiens.
  • Nature lovers: Gerberoy and the twin capes of Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez.

Published on July 12, 2019
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