Weekend Getaway in Saint-Omer: Where Culture, Food & Nature Await
I have very fond memories of my time in beautiful Saint-Omer; this idyllic town in the heart of Pas de Calais region is both underrated yet extremely worthwhile for all the Francophiles out there, including myself. Far from being just a pretty face, Saint-Omer has substance (it is, after all, a designated Town of Art And History) and between the culinary and cultural outings, Saint-Omer makes for a perfect 48-hour escapade in Northern France.
Day 1 – Culture & Food
First things first – what’s a getaway in France without a hefty dose of cheese? I made sure to time my visit with the weekly Saturday market on Place du Maréchal Foch, flanked by the stately city hall and plenty of small cafés, where I loaded up on savoury local cheeses like Saint-Bertin and Tome de Clairmarais. When in Rome, right?
Saint-Omer boasts a particularly rich cultural scene, which can be enjoyed in a myriad of ways; either at the Hôtel Sandelin Museum (a stunning 18th century hôtel particulier that currently houses an exhibition on the infamous Agincourt Battle, which I highly recommend) at the Roman Catholic Notre-Dame cathedral or, alternatively, at Maison du papier in Esquerdes which recalls five centuries of papermaking – where I was strongly encouraged and instructed to create my own!
Science aficionados are not left behind either, with the famous Arc International glass factory in Arques and the 3D planetarium / history bunker in Helfaut.
Obviously, a food-oriented trip in Saint-Omer wouldn’t be complete without visiting a local distillery. After all, the region is famous for its eau-de-vie, genièvre de Houlle – a sweet juniper-flavoured digestif often thought to be gin’s ancestor. The Distillerie de Houlle, just outside Saint-Omer, offers insightful guided tours of its installations and, of course, a legendary tasting session that left me wanting more.
But the real centrepiece of this summer’s cultural outings in Northern France will undoubtedly be the “Shakespeare – What Else?” exhibition at Bibliothèque de Saint-Omer; a local librarian recently discovered a rare and valuable copy of the playwright’s First Folio, which had unsuspectingly been filed away with other 17th century books in the archive's 200 years ago. The formally authenticated treasure contains the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays and will be the main attraction of the exhibition, which is
dedicated to Anglo-Saxon literature.
Day 2 – Great Outdoors & Nature
Although Nord-Pas-de-Calais doesn’t boast the Riviera’s year-round sunny weather (it did rain the whole time I was there, but at least I had cheese), there are plenty of ways to spend your weekend outdoors. I must admit, it would be a shame to let the weather stop you from enjoying Saint-Omer’s luxuriant nature, if only for the brand new Maison du Marais and its guided boat tours of the region’s wetlands - a must!
Amateur cyclists with a sense of humour will certainly appreciate the ridiculous looking yet highly entertaining car-bikes, which can be rented for a 10-kilometer ride along the defunct Boulogne-sur-Mer train tracks in Pays de Lumbres.
But what I loved the most about my time in Saint-Omer was undoubtedly the short trek to the enigmatic Abbey of Saint Bertin ruins; it was such an eerie, mesmerising feeling to walk freely among the stones that used to be a Benedictine monastery in the 7th century, imagining what life would have been like back then and admiring the miraculously still standing tower. Fun fact: Saint-Omer city hall’s was built with stones from the abbey in the early 19th century.
And this, right there, is why I enjoyed my time in Saint-Omer so much; relics of history mingle with gastronomic odysseys in one of France’s greenest areas, in the best possible way. For sure, the weather could be more pleasant, but the epicurean experiences that are so typical of Saint-Omer far outweigh the occasional rainfall, in my opinion.