The last mine in Lens closed in 1986, and though the industry that was once the lifeblood of the city is gone, it is not forgotten.
There are two monumental slag heaps on the horizon, that look like they might have been made by an ancient civilisation, the cityscape has masses of brick houses for miners and the former offices for the Lens mining company are a University faculty.
Lens is finding a new direction, as the Louvre-Lens makes clear, with its world-class exhibition and permanent collection.
There’s also a powerful new museum about the First World War, apt because Lens was right on the western front.
Lets explore the best things to do in Lens:
Where a pithead used to be is an ethereal minimalist construction that stands as the first satellite attraction for the fabled Louvre Museum in Paris.
The museum opened in 2012 and so far attendances have exceeded expectations.
There’s a large space for temporary exhibitions lasting three months, and the likes of Rubens and Leonardo da Vinci have both featured in the past.
The permanent exhibition is also absorbing, as it’s one long corridor that proposes a journey through the history of time, starting with Mesopotamian sculpture and slowly guiding you to the modern age.
2. Lens’ 14-18 Centre d’Histoire Guerre et Paix
Employing the latest museum techniques and calling on an impressive array of archive footage (more than 60 hours), 5,000 photographs and contemporary maps, this museum offers context about the First World War.
The modern building is structured around cubes of black concrete described as “chapels”, and informs visitors about all of the main points, from trench warfare to the offensives of 1918 that eventually brought the conflict to an end.
There’s also a commemorative space for the 600,000 casualties in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais from 1914-1918.
3. Les Terrils Jumeaux, 11/19
Close to the Louvre-Lens are two gigantic black pyramids, the largest slag heaps in Europe, and a constant reminder of Lens’ coalmining history.
If you’re wondering what the numbers mean: 11 denotes the amount of mine shafts below the metal headframe (dating to 1894), while 19 was the number beneath the concrete concentrating tower, which was installed in 1960. Nature has started to reclaim the slagheaps, with 159 animal species recorded and plants from Oceania and Africa.
With challenging slopes, they’re not an easy proposition to climb, but the scenery from the peaks will quickly make you forget the toil.
4. Église Saint-Léger
A church has stood at this location since the 900s, but every one of them has suffered from war damage, whether it was the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, the First World War or the Second World War.
As we see it now Saint-Léger is an 18th-century neoclassical design rebuilt brick by brick in the 1920s after being razed by shelling in the First World War.
The only item that survived is a statue of the Virgin Mary from the 17th century.
It was picked from the rubble and is in the chapel devoted to the Great War dead.
5. Gare de Lens
If you enter or leave Lens by train maybe you could allow a couple of minutes to get an eyeful of the station, which opened in 1927 and encapsulates the art deco fashion of the time.
The architect was Urbain Cassan, and he had a bit of a job on his hands to counter the dangers of subsidence caused by mining.
His answer was to make the building modular so the whole wouldn’t be compromised should the ground sink beneath one part.
With its circular arches (wheels) and 23-metre clock tower (chimney) the station was intended to evoke a steam train.
And inside there are beautiful tributes to Lens’ mining industry, with cubist mosaics created by Auguste Labouret.
6. RC Lens
The local football team has won the French league title in the last 20 years and has a very rich heritage.
But in recent years Lens have flitted between the Ligue 1 and Ligue 2, the top two tiers of French football, and currently find themselves in the latter.
And yet, the future does look exciting for the “Sang et Or” (blood and gold), partly because they’re stadium got a swish renovation in time for Euro 2016, when it hosted four matches and can hold 35,000 fans.
If they do make it to Ligue 1 see if you can witness the passion and colour of the Derby du Nord against Lille OSC.
7. Nécropole Nationale de Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
On the road from Arras to Béthune, and little more than ten minutes from Lens ,is the largest military cemetery in France.
There are 20,000 individual marked graves, as well as eight communal graves where some 22,000 unknown soldiers have been interred.
The cemetery is on the site of a swathe of land that was occupied by the Germans for most of the war, and saw huge losses in 1914 and 1915, some of the worst in the Artois region.
The cemetery was inaugurated in 1925 along with the 50-metre Lantern Tower, which symbolises the flame of remembrance.
In 1914 a new international monument, the ring of memory was established, with the names of the 600,000 soldiers who fell in this part of France between 1914 and 1918.
8. Canadian National Vimy Memorial
The Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 has great significance in Canada as this was when the four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force took part in the same offensive for the first time.
So later the site was chosen for the Canadian war memorial , commemorating their soldiers who have no known grave.
The memorial, with its twin white pylons rising to 30 metres, was completed in 1936 and the entire site was restored 10 years ago.
Canadian students come to work at Vimy Ridge in the summers, giving tours and providing snippets of information.
What’s equally fascinating and poignant is how the trenches on the battlefield have been frozen in time with concrete.
9. Lille Sights
France’s fourth city is less than half an hour by road and has an old centre calling out to be explored.
It’s another chance to take in the unusual architecture in this part of France, with its gabled houses and mannerist flamboyance.
The Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) needs to be your first port of call.
It is from the mid-17th century and has 24 richly ornamented houses around a central courtyard now filled with booksellers and people engrossed in chess matches.
The monument faces Grand Place which hosts vital northern institutions like the Théâtre du Nord and the Voix du Nord newspaper and yet more marvellous Flemish-style monuments.
10. Lille Culture
It’s no exaggeration to declare Lille’s Palais des Beaux-Arts one of the best French museums outside Paris.
The influence of the Low Countries is unmistakable here too, with contributions from van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens, but also earlier Dutch and Flemish painters like Dirk Bouts and Jehan Bellegambe.
Donatello, Goya, Delacroix and Courbet are all present, for a feast of art a brief road trip from Lens.
There’s also a modern art museum in the suburb of Villeneuve d’Ascq, known as the LaM. Here Picasso, Braque and Miró are all represented, but the museum stands alone for its enormous Art Brut collection, spread over five different galleries.
11. Beffroi de Béthune
In 2005 UNESCO listed 23 of the belfries in northern France and Belgium as World Heritage Sites.
This puts 12 in a 50-kilometre radius of Lens, and if you can you should consider setting off to see one or two.
Béthune is just up the road, and the belfry here dates to the 14th century, sitting alone at the centre of Grand Place.
You can consult the tourist office for in-depth information, or even book a guided tour to the top.
Stick around to hear the 35 bells of the carillon chime.
Grand Place meanwhile is as sweet as they come, with gabled houses, brasseries and cafes.
At just 18 kilometres to the south, Arras is even easier than Lille.
Lots of things combine to make this city an indispensable day out.
First off, the two main squares, Grand’ Place and Place des Héros don’t have an equivalent in France.
They’re both wrapped in gabled Flemish baroque townhouses, with arcades on ground level.
The 15th-century gothic belfry is part of that UNESCO inventory and can be scaled for sweeping panoramas, but you can also descend below the city streets to enter the “Boves”, chalk caves that have been used for storage and shelter since the 900s.
13. Beffroi de Douai
By this time you may have caught the belfry bug, so an excursion to Douai will be in order, and it’s just a few minutes west of Lens.
Douai’s 14th-century belfry is one of the most remarkable of the local UNESCO-listed belfries.
This has much to do with the carillon, which was installed in 1391 and was expanded in the 1970s to become one of the largest in Europe, with 62 bells.
Some of these bells are as old as the belfry itself.
Entrance grants you access to the viewing platform at the top, but on the way up you’ll enter the old ceremonial halls decorated with damask and tapestries or carved wooden panelling.
And you can see the carillon in action for yourself.
14. Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai
There’s so much to love about the fine arts museum in Douai.
First there’s the serene venue, which is a 16th-century renaissance palace later used by Carthusian monks before being occupied by the military after the revolution.
The richness of the art displayed inside is startling for a town of Douai’s size.
It’s not just art historians who have heard of the renaissance master Paolo Veronese or the 18th-century French still life specialist Jean Siméon Chardin.
The museum has a cache of 10,000 works, from the 17th-century Dutch school through the 19th century and artists such as Delacroix, Courbet, Camille Corot, Sisley, Pissarro and Renoir.
Knowing that Lens was part of Flanders for much of its history, there are loads of similarities with Belgian cuisine in this part of France: Chips accompany a great many dishes, and several main courses are simmered with beer.
Two classics in this style are coq à la bière and carbonade flamande.
The region around Lens has some 20 breweries, and, along with Alsace, is the only in France that maintains a tradition for beer.
Jenlain, 3 Monts and La Gloudale are three local names to look for.
Then, for a dessert or snack, waffles are sweetened with vanilla and brown sugar, and come Lille-style, in an unusual ovular shape with a finer mesh pattern than Belgian-style waffles.