In French Flanders, Hazebrouck is a low key but likeable town that sums up the best things about the region.
Hazebrouck’s superb museum is in a gabled 17th-century convent, and in and near the town are churches, open farms, breweries and windmills where you can slow down and get in touch with the old ways.
You’ll also get to know about Jules Lemire, a Hazebrouck clergyman who made a lasting impact on French society at the start of the 20th century by campaigning for a day of rest on Sundays.
And if you visit in April you’ll see how parties are done in French Flanders at the Fête de la Mi-Carême, when the town brings out its ceremonial “giants”, huge puppets that are paraded around streets.
Lets explore the best things to do in Hazebrouck:
1. Musée des Augustins
At Hazebrouck’s lovely Flemish-style Augustinian Convent, this museum has a trove of French, Flemish and Dutch painting in sumptuous gabled halls from 1616. There’s also precious sacred art from the Church of Saint-Éloi, as well as an ethnology room that recreates a traditional Flemish kitchen with its earthenware, brass and pewter vessels and cooking implements.
And outside the festival season the museum is also where you’ll meet Hazebrouk’s Géants du Nord, tall ceremonial effigies that are part of a tradition going back to medieval times.
2. Église Saint-Éloi
The oldest monument in the town dates from 1432, and like a lot of the buildings in the region has lived through some torrid times.
The same century it was completed the church was almost completely destroyed by French troops under King Charles VIII. The spire has taken the most punishment; this was raised once more in 1512, but was destroyed again by the German offensive in 1940. It wasn’t until 1994 that it was finally replaced.
The church is well worth your time for its elegant wood panelling and blend of brick and reddish sandstone.
Seek out the 18th-century furnishings like the organ case, baptismal font, choir stalls and marble statue of Saint Teresa of Avila.
3. Bois des Huit-Rues
There’s enough Second World War heritage in this wood near Hazebrouck to earn it a French “monument historique” listing.
The concrete and brick buildings that surprise you amid the undergrowth are what’s left of a V-1 rocket site that was built in 1943. No rockets were ever launched because the facility was detected and bombed early on by the Allies.
But various storage buildings and a launch ramp are marked with wooden plaques to indicate their original purpose.
Military historians and urban explorers can fill their boots in this place.
4. La Maison-Musée de l’Abbé Lemire
The clergyman who lived here had a lasting effect on the French lifestyle; as a member of the Chamber of Deputies in the early 20th century Jules Lemire helped introduce a raft of employment reforms.
These guaranteed Sunday rest, family allowances and the regulation of working time.
His house has limited opening hours, so check with the tourist office in Hazebrouck.
But when it’s open there are free guided tours leading you through his library, private chapel and a reconstruction of his office in Paris.
On the facade there’s a sculpture of a lion with a hare between its paws; this is from the town hall that burned down in 1801 and symbolises Flanders’ protection of Hazebrouck.
5. Le Jardin Public
As a social reformer Jules Lemire threw his weight behind this public park that was finally opened in 1929, a year after he died.
During his time as deputy mayor Lemire had been campaigning for a place for children, parents and the elderly could “go and breathe” in the middle of an industrial town.
Lemire’s efforts were recognised by the town, which installed this memorial for him, carved by the prolific Felix Desruelles and inaugurated on the same day the park opened.
Nearly 90 years later it’s a calming oasis with lawns, various tree species flowerbeds and a generous pond.
6. Fête et la Foire de la Mi-Carême
Every April Hazebrouck’s mid-lent festival and fair commemorates a semi-mythical event that happened in the Middle Ages: Hazebrouck’s advocates successfully ordered the local lord to share the nuts grown on his land that he wanted to keep for himself.
This is still marked by an agricultural parade.
There’s a procession headed by Hazebrouck’s beloved Géants du Nord ceremonial giants, Roland d’Hazebrouck (symbolising Hazebrouck’s protector) , Tisje Tasje (Flemish popular spirit), Toria (Tisje Tasje’s wife) and finally Babe Tisje and Zoon Tisje (Their kids). And throughout the celebration you can bring your own kids to the fair with bumper cars, old-school amusements and carousels.
7. Église Notre-Dame
Like the Church of Saint-Éloi, this building was hit the Second World War, but here the damage here was irreparable and it had to be rebuilt completely in 1959. The new building is composed of red brick and it’s easy to recognise as the bell-tower is separated from the body of the church.
In the interior, take a closer look at the new altar, which is made from hammered copper and symbolises bread and fish.
But the reason you need to visit is for the crypt, where the decoration from the destroyed church has been salvaged, including the choir stalls, white marble altar and seven surviving sculptures of the 12 apostles.
8. Other Sights
If you know the Nord region well, one thing that may strike you about Hazebrouck is the lack of a belfry.
This is because the old town hall burned down in 1801, and was replaced by an imposing neoclassical building with an arcade and portico but no tower.
It’s a photo-friendly building though, as is the Palais de Justice, a Neo-Gothic edifice from the end of the 19th century.
Check with the tourist office to see if you can get inside and admire the monumental staircase and voluminous courtroom with masterful woodwork.
And then the Rue Piétonne (pedestrian street) is a dash of daily life in Hazebrouck: This animated little thoroughfare has cafes and all the local shops people love in France like a patisserie, boucherie and stylish boutiques.
If you need further proof of where you are in the world, there’s an 18th-century windmill a couple of kilometres before you cross into Belgium.
The mill was built in 1774 and for more than a century it was used for pressing oil, before being sold off and refitted to grind flour.
This machinery is still on show and in working order, in a building that has survived storms, wars and 240 years of aging.
The mill is open any time by appointment, but you can also just show up on certain days in summer.
10. Maison de la Bataille de la Peene
French Flanders has always had to deal with war, and this was true in the 16th and 17th centuries when the French and the Dutch Republic were vying for control.
This museum documents a battle known in English as the Battle of Cassel, which took place outside Hazebrouck on April 11 1677, when France won the day.
A quarter of the Dutch contingent of 32,000 was killed or wounded.
And the defeat could have been worse if the French army hadn’t delayed their pursuit of the fleeing Dutch by plundering William of Orange’s supplies.
The museum on the battlefield offers context about the conflict and the story of the day.
There’s also a broader exhibition introducing you to the culture of French Flanders.
11. Ferme des Récollets
A rural attraction for the family, the Ferme des Récollets has a farm shop with fresh produce and gives you the chance to see how a farm works.
You can visit the dairy where they make two kids of artisanal cheese (Récollet de Cassel and Coeur des Récollets ) and then go downstairs to nose around the cellar where this cheese matures.
Kids can meet and touch tame farmyard animals including sheep, goats, rabbits and a donkey.
And in season you can grab a basket and head out into the fields to pick your own strawberries and raspberries.
12. Beffroi de Bailleul
In this region the belfries are all listed as UNESCO sites.
Many are historic and have hardly been touched since medieval times, and others like Bailleul’s have needed reconstruction after countless wars.
But all symbolise an ancient communal freedom for these towns to build their own walls and control them with a watchtower.
Bailleul’s earliest belfry was erected in the 1100s, but despite being pulled down by war and fire it has always been rebuilt in the exact same style.
The current tower is from 1932 and stands at 62 metres in height, housing a carillon of 35 bells at a total weight of more than five tons.
Drag yourself up the 202 steps for views of the town and the Monts de Flanders behind.
13. Musée Benoît De Puydt
Also make time for Bailleul’s museum, which has an art collection that may catch you off guard.
The museum was set up in 1861 when the rich collector Benoît De Puydt donated both his home and the art that adorned its walls to the town.
There are pieces by the Gothic primitive painter Gérard David, and Renaissance masters like Herri Met de Bles and Breughel the Younger.
Added later was an ensemble of works by Pharaon de Winter, a turn-of-the-century artist who was born in Bailleul and became Director of Drawing at the Lille School Fine Arts.
Along with these paintings there’s wonderful sculpture, ceramics, lacework and furniture.
14. Brasserie du Pays Flamand
Beer has always been the drink of choice in French Flanders but the local industry had waned since the start of the 20th century.
That has all changed since the craft beer revolution, and a few new breweries have opened around Hazebrouck in the last ten years.
The Brasserie du Pays Flamand is set in a former distillery and brews white, brown, amber as well as a lambic triple.
Book a tour as a group, or come on Friday afternoons to their bar which is housed in the distillery’s converted stables.
15. Local Specialities
A love of beer isn’t the only thing French Flanders shares with Belgium.
The cuisine is almost identical too, but with a few local accents.
This goes for the gaufre fourrée, a vanilla infused waffle that has an oval shape and originated in Lille’s bakeries.
For a satisfying main try carbonade flamande, a rich beef stew, made with beer and served with French fries.
Or there’s the other old classic, moules-frites: This is mussels normally cooked in white wine and also with a helping of fries on the side.
Curiously, a popular snack in this part of France is the “welsch”, a Welsh rarebit, or a cheese, beer and mustard sauce slathered onto bread.