Maroilles country in Northern France
Maroilles is more than its infamous cheese says Sharron Livingston
Ever since I was given a lift home from France back in 2004 I have tried to avoid, at all costs, being within 100 yards of a box of Maroilles - an ancient cheese known throughout France as vieux paunt (old stinker).
The driver had stocked up on Gallic goodies, including a couple of boxes of this soft cow's milk cheese. It looks appealing with its orange-red washed rind and tastes great with a salty quality and lemony tang, but on a warm day, during a long car journey, this cheese can be oppressive.
On this day the aroma wafted out from the boot and hung heavily in the air all the way back to Blighty. The memory is so vivid that it seemed to me that a trip to the town of Maroilles in Avesnois in northern France, with the same driver, would be risky, but hopefully therapeutic.
Like champagne, maroilles cheese was invented by local monks and with regal approval from several French kings, its fame has gone from strength to strength (much like its aroma during that journey) since its birth in the 10th century.
Eleven centuries later the town's mayor came up with a plan to increase tourism, since its pretty landscape and quaint watermill was not enough of a pull. By thinking out of the (cheese?) box he came up with a new hook which he hung on the local cheese heritage. Up went a museum with a factory where tourists learn about the landscape, the history, the manufacture and even sample the cheese. The venture is supported by 22 other maroilles-making towns in the region.
It's a great idea especially as these parts of France are beautiful and well-suited to a driving holiday through its rural routes.
It is a joy to take in the local eccentricities such as its own Ch'ti dialect where "c" is pronounced like "sh", staying in quintessentially French accommodation, eating in out-of-the way restaurants, and knowing that there will always be a dollop of maroilles somewhere in the vicinity.
The landscape is defined by hedgerows, meadows, farmland, cows and lots of rain – the ideal conditions for creating the perfect cheese. And it is cooked into all sorts of dishes such as soupe au maroilles, tarte au maroilles and you could have a cheese platter and grapes to round off the experience. Some wash it down with La Dreum beer and bizarrely, others dip it in strong black coffee.
An overnight stay at Auberge de la Vieille Maison in Pont Sur Sambre was charming enough. It has five pleasant bedrooms (and free WiFi). But its piece-de-resistance is the magnificent mural on the ceiling and walls of its breakfast room which the owner Claudie Pean, says she painted herself.
Artist, Felix Delmarle was borne in this town and his later works (1950s) were influenced by Mondrian. I mention this because dinner that night was at the gastronomic restaurant Aux Berges de Sambre and many examples of his Mondrian-style work are on display there.
Nearby is the city of Bavay, home to Europe's biggest Roman excavation. It's 2000 years old, 240 metres long and 110 metres wide – the same as four football fields. That's impressive but even more so is the technology used to depict the history of the town. An interactive 3D film called return to Bagacum 11, combined with a tour of the excavated site is a sensational way to learn this history. Archaeologists found the complete foundations of a basilica - the Roman "town hall", an underground gallery, and porticos of other buildings making it one of the best finds of Roman remains in France.
Romans did not drink beer, considering it too down market. But what if they could visit the micro-brewery at Au baron restaurant in Gussignies on the banks on the river Hogneau by the Belgian border? They produce three types blonde, ambrée and brune and a 75cl bottle costs 6.70 euros. I tried the Cuvée des Jonquilles which drinks well with their mushroom and marrow starter which naturally is cooked with maroilles.
The village of Feron, whose quiet streets are accessorised with brick and blue stone architecture, may not be big, but it is clever. Hidden in a huddle of studios are a glass blower, basket weaver, porcelain painter, ceramicist and art restorer and I visited them all – coming away with the odd trinket or two - during a tour powered by a pony and trap and run by Mme Lorelei Godbile. I made a note to come back in August for the Féron'arts festival when for four night this otherwise sleep town is alive with jazz and rock concerts, theatre and dance and where empty barns and cellars are turned into studios by visiting artists to show off their wares.
The rain started just as the tour ended and so a planned cycle along the greenway (voie verte) at Liessies had to be abandoned. It was wet and I was cold. Still an aperitif by the fireplace at Chateau de la Motte followed by dinner and an overnight stay meant waking up to wonderfully verdant views relaxed and ready for something completely different.
Heading for the marshy region that Le Quesnoy, one of the largest fortified town in France and still in tact, was captured by the Germans and used as a garrison town during the four years of the Great War. It was liberated by New Zealand soldiers on November 4 1918 who scaled the 18m-high ramparts on ladders. A small section, reached by a rather lovely walk along the Avenue New Zeland and then down to the ramparts reaches the place that not only has the memorial but will forever be, literally, a part of New Zealand.
It was a highly enjoyable walk but this came to an end when the aforementioned driver said it was time to head back to Calais to catch the P&O ferry home.
But first it was a stop-off at a quaintly rustic Relais de Moneuse in Bavay where lunch featured the region's cheese. Happily the driver had had his fill and so the drive home was scented only by spring time flora of the lush Avesnois landscape.
We travelled with P&O Ferries who offer short break fares (for up to five days) from £49 return for a car and up to nine passengers from Dover (UK) to Calais (France).
The village of Maroilles is situated in the Nord region of France. In addition to the hotels mentioned above, you can search more hotels in Nord-Pas de Calais.
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