Coutances Cathedral can be seen all the way from the island of Jersey
Europe is renowned for its rich history and diverse culture, and the best way to explore this side of the continent is during European Heritage Days. You can be at the start of a journey of discovery in just 35-minutes when you cross the channel with Eurotunnel le Shuttle.
With the key to Europe's top monuments and landmarks, I recommend that you immerse yourself in France's fascinating past during this two-day event. Entrance to the attractions will be at a special reduced price, or in some cases free. You'll even have the opportunity to visit sites that are usually closed to the public – as they open their doors exclusively for this event!
This year the event takes place on 20th and 21st September – I've pulled out a few of my favourite places that you simply must visit:
Beffroi de Calais
The town hall of Calais and its belfry has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2005, with its doors opening to the public in 2011. If you're feeling energetic, you can climb the 175 steps to the top, but if not don't worry, there's always a lift to take you up. At the top of the parapet, you will be met with some of the most beautiful panoramic views of Calais and its surrounds, and you can even see the English coast in the distance on a clear day! Take a look around the rest of the town hall whilst you're there, which has just undergone a great deal of renovation. The stained glass window and gold leaf statues are particularly deserving of admiration.
Beffroi de Calais
Boulogne-sur-Mer is a charming little port town on France's north coast, and well worth a day visit. An afternoon can easily be spent wandering the ancient cobbled streets of the old ‘Ville Haute' part of town, with the highlight being the 13th century fortified castle. Inside the Château-Musée you will find all manner of trinkets and curios, from 19th century Inuit masks to ancient Grecian urns. And if you were wondering about all the ancient Egyptian artefacts, Auguste Mariette, the founder of Cairo's Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, was born in the town.
This Tudor-style castle is located in the Pas de Calais region of France and is just a short 40-minute car journey from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle's French terminal, making it the ideal place to visit on European Heritage Days. The castle has been fully restored for the public to explore and enjoy – it's surrounded by a vast nature reserve, Condette Marsh, containing wetland, grassland and meadows. There's over 300 plant species, 80 types of bird and a castle that's bursting at the seams with history – making it a diverse day out.
Mémorial du Souvenir, Dunkirk
In 1940, after the fall of France to the German army, the Allied troops along the north coast of France were surrounded. In one of the most impressive rescue missions in military history, code-named Operation Dynamo, more than 338,000 troops were evacuated between 27th May and 4th June in what Winston Churchill hailed as a “miracle of deliverance”. To get a feel for just what those soldiers went through, pay a visit to the Mémorial du Souvenir museum in Dunkirk. This not-for-profit museum is staffed by volunteers who hold personal ties to this period, which adds to the poignancy of the place. There are plenty of artefacts from WWII, including uniforms, photographs and weapons, and there's also a 12-minute film that you won't soon forget.
Take a stroll along the beach where Operation Dynamo took place, Dunkirk
If you're looking for something a bit different, then why not drive to the former coal mining town of Oignies. Not only is it less commercial and more authentic than my other suggestions but it's also full of fascinating history. Inhabited since early Christian times, Oignies has been home to the troops of Nazi Germany during both WWI and WWII, making it a poignant town to visit. During the weekend you'll have the opportunity to visit the historic monuments, a coal mining museum and soak up stunning scenery of the town's famous nature reserve.
The coal mines of Oignies
One of the best-preserved castles in the country, Château d'Harcourt gives a captivating insight into French history. It's situated within the Eure region and can be accessed in less than three hours from Calais. With roots in the 12th Century, it's no wonder this castle is listed as an important historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture. It also holds France's oldest arboretum, containing over 470 species of tree; nine of which are classified as 'remarkable trees.' Whether you visit for history or nature, this free day out is bound to leave you feeling inspired!
Located in the town of Coutances near Normandy, this gothic style Roman Catholic Cathedral is definitely worth a visit. Standing at 295 feet tall, the building can be seen all the way from the island of Jersey! It has a fascinating and varied past and, amazingly, it managed to remain undamaged during WWII despite the rest of Coutances being badly hit. This cathedral is steeped in history – make sure it's on your list.
Featured in the opening scenes of the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, this cathedral is great for film enthusiasts. It's located in the town of Strasbourg in Alsace – a scenic five-hour drive from Calais. The cathedral is home to one of the world's largest astronomical clocks – if you're there at lunchtime you'll be treated to a spectacular procession, the Parade of the Apostles. Finish your visit by climbing up to the cathedral's viewing platform for unbeatable panoramic views of Strasbourg, from what used to be the world's tallest building.
These ideas give you a taster of what you can get up to in France on European Heritage Days. The only difficult part will be deciding which sites to visit first!
Click here to find read more about which sites are taking part.
Beffroi de Calais © isamiga76
Château-Musée, Boulogne-sur-Mer © Jean Christophe Blanquart
Dunkirk © Jean Christophe Blanquart