Just shy of the Belgian border in the Nord department, Valenciennes is a city noted for culture and creativity, which gave it the nickname, “Athens of the North”. For hundreds of years this relatively small place churned out painters, sculptors and architects who helped shape French culture forever.
You can sample the works of figures like Carpeaux and Watteau at Valenciennes’ fine arts museum, and view invaluable early French manuscripts by appointment at the Bibliothèque Municipale. Valenciennes stood in the path of two World Wars, but restored its monuments and has just revamped its centre with a trendy shopping mall.
Lets explore the best things to do in Valenciennes:
1. Musée des Beaux-Arts
In a city that has long prided itself on its culture Valenciennes’ fine arts museum is a treat.
It opened in 1801, presenting the works of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture and today is loaded with works by French, Flemish and Dutch masters.
One that everybody will know is Peter Paul Rubens, and he’s accompanied by a host of familiar names like Bosch, van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Sébastien Bourdon and Camille Pissarro.
Valenciennes’s biggest contribution to the art world was Antoine Watteau, born here in 1684 and one of the first to paint in the Rococo style.
His work, La Vraie Gaieté is on show at the museum.
2. Fosse Dutemple
Valenciennes, like a lot of the eastern Nord region, lies above rich coal seams which were first exploited in the 18th century.
The industry was waning by the 20th century and almost all sign of it is gone today.
But if you’re interested in this chapter of the town’s past there are dozens of sites to visit with hints about what went on here across two centuries.
The best of these is Fosse Dutemple, a UNESCO site for its colossal reinforced concrete headframe, which was placed above the shaft just after the First World War.
3. Watteau Monument
By the Church of Saint-Géry on the Rue de Paris is a refined little garden around a fountain with a dignified statue of Antoine Watteau.
Here he is shown with paint brush and palette in hand on a decorative plinth with muses and scrolls.
The statue is from the 19th century and was crafted by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, another of Valenciennes’ notable artists.
Carpeaux shot to prominence in the 1850s when he received a series of commissions from Napoleon III. Here you’re also just a couple of steps from Watteau’s birthplace, at 39 Rue de Paris.
4. Place d’Armes
In the very centre of Valenciennes, Place d’Armes is a grand square and the bedrock of political and commercial life in the city.
The striking town hall will hold your attention right away.
That ornate facade was fashioned in 1867 by Henri Lemaire, another son of Valenciennes who made waves in the art world.
Among other things he crafted the facade of the Gare du Nord in Paris.
Scraping the sky in the north end is Litanie, a 45-metre metallic needle on the site of Valenciennes’ belfry, which collapsed in 1840. Up close you’ll notice countless sentences cut from the metal; these were written by Valenciennes’ citizens and are accompanied by recordings of their voices from a speaker.
5. Église Saint-Géry
The oldest church in the city was built in the first half of the 12th century for the Franciscan order and is listed as a French Historical Monument.
Some changes were made to the building in the 1800s, when the bell tower was added.
But, inside the nave is close to how it was in the church’s earliest days: Get a closer look at the 12 columns made with “pierre bleue” limestone and topped with capitals that represent each of the apostles.
The church took heavy damage in the Second World War but was restored stone for stone in the decades that followed.
6. Maison Espagnole
For a time between the 16th and 17th centuries Valenciennes was under the yoke of the Spanish Netherlands.
It was during this period that the handsome timber-framed Maison Espagnole was built.
The building with its graceful corbels and leaded windows, had been on the corner of Rue de Mons and Rue des Capucins, but was carefully dismantled and rebuilt here on Rue Askièvre in 1964 when the city’s streets were being redirected.
You can pop in to see the interiors because it now hosts Valenciennes tourist office.
7. Basilique Saint-Cordon
This church has been going through restoration for the last few years, but it’s still a good idea to come and admire the outside.
It was erected in the 1850s by an Alexandre Grigny, who worked on a multitude of building across the Nord region, as well as the Note-Dame Basilica in Geneva.
The building here is a striking piece of Neo-Gothic architecture with a lofty tower and stonework inspired by Northern France’s most revered medieval cathedrals at Chartres and Amiens.
8. Centre Place d’Armes
Recently Valenciennes has done a lot to spruce up the city centre, echoing similar projects at the heart of other French cities over the last decade or so.
The biggest job was the Centre Place d’Armes, a stylish shopping centre with all the classic high street stores like H&M, Zara, Sephora and fnac.
The mall is right on Valenciennes’ main square, so if it’s a rainy day or you fancy an afternoon of shopping you could easily while a way a few hours in here.
9. Bibliothèque Municipale
No ordinary library, Valenciennes’ Bibliothèque Municipale is in the old Collège de la Compagnie de Jésus, which was founded in the 16th century.
The stately Baroque architecture is from the 17th century, but things get even more exciting inside.
If you’re curious you can arrange to see the Jesuits’ library, which has been preserved as it was when it was founded in the 1700s.
Among the 350,000 manuscripts and volumes is something very special: The Sequence of Saint Eulalia, which is from 880 and the earliest piece of hagiography to be written in the French language.
10. La Maison Du Prévôt
Another rare vestige of Valenciennes’ distant past is the Provost’s House, which is also registered as a French Historic Monument.
It’s a delightful brick mansion with limestone quoins, mullioned windows and a turret with a spire.
The house goes back to 1485 and was built for the Abbot of Hasnon, who held the title of Provost of the Notre-Dame church.
This church stood across the road but was wrecked in the Revolution, leaving the House of the Provost stranded as a mysterious scrap of Valenciennes’ faded medieval history.
It takes no more than 15 minutes to reach this sensational old spa town hiding in the forest in the Scarpe-Escaut Regional Park.
Unmissable in every sense is the titanic abbatial tower in the town, which is all that’s left of an old monastery.
Step back and be awe-struck by all 82 metres of this monument, which took shape in the 1630s and is clad with delicate ornamentation.
And then head inside, because there’s a museum with more than 300 pieces of fine earthenware produced by the town’s vaunted 18th-century faience factories.
12. Scarpe-Escaut Regional Park
The park that encloses Saint-Amand-les-Eaux is the oldest of France’s 48 Regional Parks, but is important for another reason: On the Belgian border it joins up with the sprawling Plaines de l’Escaut Nature Park to create a seamless region of unblemished countryside that you could wander for days in a mosaic of orchards, streams edged by willow trees, dense old woodland and wetland.
In some places there are hints of centuries old mines that have slowly returned to nature.
Like Fosse Dutemple, many of these have earned UNESCO World Heritage Listing.
On the A2 autoroute the city of Cambrai is within half an hour of Valenciennes, and more than merits the short journey.
Even if you don’t already know the city you may be aware of the name as a decisive First World War battle happened here in 1917, and was the first time tanks were ever used in conflict.
But modern Cambrai has a cultivated and upmarket character, with a splendid Baroque cathedral, a UNESCO-listed belfry and a first-rate fine arts museum.
This is set in a distinguished 18th-century mansion and is noted for its sculpture, with two pieces by Rodin and another from Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
14. Matisse Museum – Le Cateau-Cambrésis
About the same distance to the south, along country roads through wide open farmland is the town in which Henri Matisse was born.
The artist himself founded the museum here in 1952 shortly before he passed away.
If you’re a fan of his work you shouldn’t think twice about making the journey as the museum has the third-largest collection of his work in France.
There are 170 pieces, covering the course of his career from the dawn of the 20th century to the 1950s.
His contemporary, the cubist Auguste Herbin is also well-represented, having donated 65 of his paintings in 1956.
15. Local Delicacies
At a restaurant in Valenciennes it pays to be brave and try the city’s most famous culinary exports: Lucullus is smoked ox tongue, simmered in a broth and then covered with foie gras.
It is normally served on toasted bread and comes as a starter.
Better suited to younger palates is goyère au maroilles, a luxurious and fluffy soufflé topped with local maroilles cheese.
Being so close to France it’s no surprise that beer is made in this area, and the Brasserie des Sources in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux uses the town’s spring water for a variety of brews from the Germinal lager to the lambic Abbiatale de Saint-Amand.