Fancy a “charbonnay”? How the French coal belt reinvented itself as a tourist destination | Holidays in France

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A A holiday at the Cité des Électriciens in northern France might not sound like a glamorous getaway, but there are some real surprises to be discovered in the unspoiled Belgian border region, a short drive from Calais or from Boulogne. The Louvre has created a satellite museum in Lens, while the lesser-known town of Bethune boasts fabulous art deco architecture, craft breweries and exciting young chefs reinterpreting local recipes. The sandy beaches and dunes of the wild Côte d’Opale are never far away, but what takes my breath away is discovering a vineyard halfway up from an old slag heap, all that remains of the coal mines of the region. Rightly so, the winemaker dubbed his crunchy white wine not Chardonnay but Charbonnay – a pun on the French for charcoal, coal.

The City of Electricians is in fact more a matter of miners than of electricians. The village was built especially in the 1850s for the local mine families – Émile Zola’s novel Germinal would later outline the conditions the miners were forced to endure. It was one of the many model cantons of the French and Belgian coal belt, built by mining barons. Its name dates back to the turn of the century, when the local post office requested that the streets be named, to facilitate mail delivery – hence Edison Street and Marconi Street, among others.

La Cité looks like a miniature town today, with neat rows of red brick rather than Lego houses. It was officially reopened in 2019 after a restoration of 15 million euros over six years, but the pandemic then intervened and it is only now that it is finally fully open to visitors. The 43 houses that once housed families of miners have been transformed into an imaginative base for exploring the surrounding countryside.

A renovated chalet at the Cité des Électriciens. Photography: John Bruton

A Small Cottage is a comfortable B&B (€ 60 a night), and a row of houses has been converted into four spacious self-catering gites, with retro furniture and wallpaper. There is also a space for artists working on community projects, who organize workshops and lectures for local schools. And above all, 10 houses are reserved for low-income families.

A special place goes to two permanent exhibition halls. One is a purpose-built modern space illustrating the long history of mining here until its recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2012. The other recreates the daily life of the City , in five original houses through oral history recordings, photos and many recalls that behind this utopian experience, the mine owners were exploiting what the French call “controlled freedom”. So while there were opportunities for education, sports, vegetable gardens and modern housing, workers were also encouraged not to drink and to start families, in order to provide for the next generation of miners.

Mines and shafts once dominated the nearby town of Bruay-La-Buissière, although most have been demolished since their closure in 1979. But the surrounding countryside is still marked by volcano-type slag heaps, rising up to 150 meters, although now covered in dense vegetation. However, the slag heap outside the hamlet of Haillicourt looks eerily different from the rest, with crisp lines of steep terraces just below the summit, which turn out to be one of the strangest vineyards in the world.

“It has been eight years since the first harvests on our historic slag heap,” says Flavien Desette of the Haillicourt town hall, “and our chardonnay, which we have called ‘charbonnay’, receives honorable reviews and appears on the wine lists of restaurants. from the neighborhood. France, so now many other wineries are planning to plant vineyards here.

Production so far has been limited to around 3,000 bottles, and tours of the vineyard and the tiny vaulted cellar under the 18th century priory of Haillicourt can be arranged through the town hall. Visit during the harvest and you will see 50 villagers picking the grapes by hand and then squeezing them by hand. At certain times of the year, the slag heap literally begins to smoke, thanks to the combustible but fertile mixture of shale and earth. It is a fairly unique terroir.

The cuisine of young creative chef Maxime Leplat.
The cuisine of young creative chef Maxime Leplat. Photography: John Bruton

The Cité des Électriciens is located between two contrasting historic towns in northern France, Lens and Béthune. Both are close to the major battlefields of World War I and had been largely razed by the time the peace was signed. Béthune has been beautifully rebuilt in an art deco style, in particular the sumptuous town square whose medieval belfry has miraculously survived and is now part of Unesco’s world heritage. The Grand Place is the life and soul of the city, lined with bistros, brasseries and tavern bars. And just off the main square, a magnificent mansion has been brought back to life by a young creative chef, Maxime Leplat and his wife, Noémie. The sumptuous ground floor with its high ceiling and crystal chandeliers is divided into a relaxed space bistronomystylish dining room – offering a three-course lunch for € 29 – and a gourmet section where Maxime is determined to earn his first Michelin star.

Adventurous foodies who sign up for the tasting experience are taken straight to the kitchen and to a marble table facing the towering bearded figure of Maxime. While his enthusiastic assistants rush to prepare the dishes, the chef concocts half a dozen unexpected entrees, often paired with local craft beers, which include a delicate macaroon of tomatoes and shrimps, a molecular version of the traditional mackerel with mustard, a beef stew in a marshmallow and a mini croque-monsieur with spicy local Maroilles topped with marinated herring. The biggest surprise, however, is the bill at € 48 per head. During the long confinement, Noémie and Maxime renovated four rooms above the restaurant into trendy guest rooms (double € 95).

The Louvre-Lens museum.
The Louvre-Lens museum. Photograph: Michael Jacobs / Alamy

Lens did not do so well in its post-war reconstruction and finds itself in a messy mix of styles that has long left the city best known for its fanatical football club. Everything changed when an agreement was made with the Louvre to build here its first satellite museum in France, which opened in 2012. If the futuristic architecture of the Louvre-Lens is breathtaking, what really surprises the visitor is the contrast, like a visual experience. , with the Paris museum. The huge permanent collection, 20% of which rotates every year, is housed in a unique, revolutionary open space. I have certainly never seen a museum space like this: in one room you go from paintings and sculptures dating from 3500 BC to those created in 1850.

Benoît Diéval from the local tourist office declares: “The museum has really profoundly changed Lens. Not just by opening up a new world of art to the people, but by having a huge impact on the local economy. This means not only jobs in the museum, hotels and restaurants, but also the stimulation of a whole series of community projects of startups in the fields of design, textiles and craft beers.

The museum is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2022, so a visit this fall could avoid the inevitable long lines next year.


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