We usually speed through Pas-de-Calais on the Eurostar. But there are compelling reasons to stop awhile. Simon O'Hagan goes for a walk
Here is a story I heard while I was walking in a forest just outside Hesdin, in the Pas-de-Calais. If it hadn't happened in the countryside you might call it an urban myth. So we'll call it a rural myth (though the French companion who told me the story had no doubt that it was true).
Two men were driving along a road when a wild boar ran out in front of their car. There was a terrific bang and the poor creature was left sprawled on the tarmac. The men stopped and got out. The boar was not dead, but it had been knocked unconscious. Could anything be done for it? The men weren't sure, but they lifted it up and put it in the boot of the car and continued their journey.
Soon afterwards, they heard noises from the boot. The boar was coming round, and it wasn't happy. The next thing the men knew, the animal was forcing its way out of the boot - via the back seat. The men slammed on the brakes and fled, leaving the boar to complete its exit from the car, which it pretty much destroyed it in the process. The moral of the story: don't give lifts to boars.
Let me be clear: the boar-in-car tale was set hundreds of miles from the forest where we were walking. But perhaps it was the sheer tranquillity of the spot on this late July morning that got us thinking about what wildlife may be lurking: boars, no; snails, yes.
A few feet ahead of us, a pair of them - huge things - were entwined in a manner that would have done David Attenborough's Life in the Undergrowth proud. We looked down at this extraordinary sight, and then up, to the tops of the trees, a couple of hundred of feet above. In that moment, it seemed, lay the essence of the forest experience. Yet amazingly, we had popped across from England only that morning and were a mere hour out of Calais.
The Pas-de-Calais is the roughly oblong-shaped département that extends south-east from the Channel and has Arras at its opposite end. People generally associate it with the drab, flat landscape you pass through on the Eurostar or on the motorways that take you south. But those heavily farmed fields are a very poor advert for a département that contains, away to the west, the magical area called Les Sept Vallées, and the forests that make for such great walking.
Les Sept Vallées may not be la France profonde - everywhere is a bit too tidy and prosperous for that - but it has a feeling of remoteness delightfully at odds with its position.
Hesdin, the main town here, is an attractive place with an imposing hôtel de ville that dates from 1572. For a lot of British people, it is synonymous with the Wine Society, which until 2005 was based here.
The town is small enough for a forest walk to be possible from its centre. The edge of Hesdin is a stroll away, and soon the last houses are left behind as the land rises towards the forêt domaniale, with its myriad trails and glorious trees. For two and a half hours, we were in a private, silent world in which every rustle of a leaf seemed magnified. In spring, the forest floor is covered with bluebells.
Locals tell you every valley has its own character, and the possibilities for exploring them are almost endless. You could spend a week in Les Sept Vallées and still walk only a fraction of the mileage on offer. The journey out of Calais will never be the same.
The author travelled courtesy of Eurotunnel (08705 35 35 35; eurotunnel.com), which offers fares from £49 one way, and Pas-de-Calais tourist office (00 33 3 21 10 34 60; pas-de-calais.com). He stayed at Le Commanderie, in Les Sept Vallées (00 33 3 21 86 49 87), and also at the Hôtel du Centre, in Wimereux (00 33 3 21 32 41 08).
Les Sept Vallées
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Luscious wooded landscape bisected by the River Canche that flows into the sea at Le Touquet. Superb network of trails, none too taxing. Walks in the forest on the edge of Hesdin have a particular appeal. The small, historic town has a good choice of restaurants to round off a morning's walking.
HOW DO I FIND IT? tourisme7vallees.com.
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? The cuisine at most airports leaves a lot to be desired, but not this one. Situated in Le Touquet-Paris Plage International airport this gourmet restaurant is worth a detour. Dishes on the menu include local langoustine, foie gras, confit of duck and fish soup.
HOW DO I FIND IT? (00 33 3 21 05 23 22; aeroport-letouquet.com).
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? This jauntily hued bijou hotel overlooks the Baie de Somme from the seafront at Le Crotoy. The décor is simple and tasteful - New England meets Gallic chic - while the restaurant serves seafood and the likes of the famous local salt marsh lamb.
HOW DO I FIND IT?
Hotel Restaurant Les Tourelles, 2-4 rue Pierre Guerlain, Le Crotoy, Baie de Somme (00 33 3 22 27 16 33; lestourelles.com). Doubles start at €57 (£40) per night, room only.
The Wine Society
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? This handsome shop has moved to some handsome new premises at the back of the Hotel Hermitage in the town of Montreuil. You can buy a wide array of wines from the experts.
HOW DO I FIND IT? Hotel Hermitage, Montreuil-sur-Mer (00 33 3 21 06 74 74; thewinesociety.com). Open Monday to Saturday 8.30am to 6pm. Closed Sundays.
The Baie de Somme Railway
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? This steam train takes you on a one-hour ride following the arc of the bay from the pretty town of Le Crotoy through St Valery-sur-Somme before it terminates at Cayeux-sur-Mer. The towns were fashionable long before the Cote d'Azur. Open in March.
HOW DO I FIND IT? (00 33 3 22 26 96 96; chemin-fer-baie-somme.asso.fr). Single fares cost around €14 (£10).
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? The stretch of coast between Calais and the River Somme can lay claim to having some of the best beaches in France with miles of unspoilt sand and endless horizons where the sea seems to melt into the sky.
Try the popular Stella or Berck beaches for a stroll or a dip if you are feeling brave.
HOW DO I FIND IT? Both beaches are a few kilometres south of Le Touquet. See pas-de-calais.com for details.
Azincourt Medieval History Centre
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? The Battle of Agincourt was one of the bloodiest battles of the 100 Years War, when King Henry V defeated the French on 25 October, 1415. You are able to visit the battlefield and adjacent visitors' centre, which brings the great battle magnificently back to life.
HOW DO I FIND IT? 22 rue Charles VI, Azincourt (00 33 3 21 47 27 53; azincourt-medieval.com). The centre opens daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission €6.50 (£4.60) per adult.
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? This vast network of tunnels starts from the tourist office in the town hall. The tunnels were expanded from chalk quarries during the First World War. In 1917, 25,000 soldiers used them as a secret route to the front. Today, shops, restaurants and nightclubs line some passages.
HOW DO I FIND IT? Office de Tourisme Arras (00 33 3 21 51 26 95; ot-arras.fr).
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? Hesdin is a charming town at the point where the Canche and Ternoise Valleys meet. Its market, held every Thursday, is the busiest in the Sept Vallées. Look out for local specialities like pavé hesdinoise, a crunchy type of chocolate, and locally cured meats.
HOW DO I FIND IT? Office du Tourisme des Sept Vallées, Hôtel de Ville, Place d'Armes (00 33 3 21 86 19 19).
WHAT'S THE ATTRACTION? A Chambres d'Hôtes thatstarted out as a Knights Templar fort and is decorated with suits of armour, wall hangings and other ornaments of the mediaeval era. Beautifully situated by a river in pretty Loison-sur-Crequoise, 10 miles from Montreuil.
HOW DO I FIND IT? Allée des Templiers, Loison-sur-Crequoise, 62990 Pas-de-Calais (00 33 3 2186 4987). Doubles start at €70 (£50) b&b.Reuse content