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Where everyone's a big cheese... on a tour of the Avesnois region of France

Claudie Pean surrounded by her artwork
Claudie Pean surrounded by her artwork

Claudie Pean surrounded by her artwork

by Norman Smith

Recently, visiting a part of northern France with which I was not too familiar, the first of several surprises came when I met a charming woman who has created a most unusual work of art - an hotel.

It's the Auberge de la Vieille Maison, in Pont sur Sambre - only five bedrooms, but a place that Claudie Pean has turned into a haven of extravagant colour and elegant comfort in the Avesnois region - an area where culture and nature combine on a grand scale, and which the tourism people are promoting in a bid to attract Olympics visitors.

Claudie's auberge is a delight. She has covered the interior with striking, hand-painted murals and decorative panels and, not content with that, she turned her hand to the ceilings, applying her work in a combination of art deco and other styles.

One of the hand-painted ceilings
One of the hand-painted ceilings

One of the hand-painted ceilings at the Auberge de la Vieille Maison

A striking place - and you can expect good food with the artistic comfort. Claudie, a widow, runs the hotel with help from members of her family. (Phone: 00 33 3 27 67 25 26).

In the same small town, pretty good food also at the Aux Berges de Sambre (www.auxbergesdesambre.net).

The journey to pastures new - and there are plenty of lush pastures in Avesnois - began with a small group of like-minded Francophiles as we lunched our way from Dover to Calais in the Brasserie aboard P&O Ferries' newest super-ship, the Spirit of France.

It's £150m worth of sea-going style that makes you believe this is the only way to cross the Channel.

From Calais it was just over two hours' drive to our first stop, the region's celebrated village of Maroilles, home of the jealouslly protected Maroilles cheese - soft, smelly and very tasty.

It can be produced only in certain restricted localities, but appears in recipes all over the place, with some worthies even dipping it in their coffee.

You can get too much of a good thing, I suppose, but it does go well with the local beer.

The cheese was created by Benedictine monks in the 16th century and it now has its own museum and exhibition centre with animated and sensory displays to take you through production, from the meadows to the table.

You get the feeling the French are rather proud of it all, and they're at their best with bells and whistles exhibitions.

There is more to Maroilles than its cheese, however, with a carefully restored watermill and beautiful gardens providing other sights, sounds and flavours.

Two horse-power or one donkey-power to tour the arts village of Feron
Two horse-power or one donkey-power to tour the arts village of Feron

Two horse-power or one donkey-power to tour the arts village of Feron

While you get some idea of the wildlife-rich and varied landscape of Avesnois by car, far greater appreciation comes on foot, by bike or on horseback, particularly in the region's huge nature park.

That artistic auberge I mentioned is unique, but there is no shortage of places to stay while exploring in town or country and plenty of spots for a bite to eat too.

Try the Aux Mout'anes, at Saint Hilaire sur Helpe. It's in the sticks and is a gite with a panda symbol that signifies wildlife care (www.lesmoutanes.fr).

Perhaps the jewel in the crown of this part of France is the ancient Roman forum excavated in the modern city of Bavay.

The forum was one of the biggest in the Roman Empire and this site gives a fascinating glimpse 2,000 years into the past.

A superb museum houses historic treasures that tell their own stories, while a 3D film, Return to Bagacum 11, takes you into ancient Roman life with the help of excellent computer-generated figures and scenes.

You can wallk through some of the excavated site, spotting the occasional Roman soldier on the way, and English-speaking guides help you to make the most of an intriguing experience. A place not to be missed and you can get more information on 00 33 3 59 73 15 50.

After the trip to ancient Rome, lunch in a brewery seemed a good idea and we headed for Gussignies to sample the delights of the Au Baron, a restaurant with its own micro brewery. A truly refreshing spot beside a spring in lush countryside (00 33 3 27 66 88 61).

Part of the excavated forum in Bavay
Part of the excavated forum in Bavay

Part of the excavated forum in Bavay

Arts and crafts fit well in this countryside and in the village of Feron you get plenty.

It's a centre for artists, artisans and actors; of grand works, glass beads and dramatic performances in a restored barn. The place comes to vibrant life in the summer with events for all the family. You can be taken on a tour by 2CV or by single donkey power. Children love it and Princess, the donkey likes the occasional hug.

Weather permitting, you can hire bikes not too far away in Liessies, in the regional park, and take in more of the splendid countryside cycling along the voie verte (green way) of Avesnois.

Rain saw to it that my stamina wasn't tested, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm for more elegance and culinary skills to savour at the nearby Chateau de la Motte.

An excellent hotel that has been run by the same family for more than 70 years, it is in a beautiful setting surrounded by woods and ponds (www.chateaudelamotte.fr or phone 0033 3 27 61 81 94).

Having been to ancient Rome, it didn't seem unreasonable to go to New Zealand, or at least a small part of it in the fortified town of Le Quesnoy, which was our next destination.

The town was founded in the 12th century and the fortifications were built up over hundreds of years, now forming a huge site of ramparts and waterways where all sorts of activities and events are staged. You can explore the ramparts and get guided tours.

Le Quesnoy was captured by the Germans in the First World War, but in November 1918 New Zealand soldiers scaled the fortifications with ladders and liberated the town. A memorial was erected for their sacrifices and a small part of France was given to New Zealand in their honour.

History apart, this is a bustling town with lots to see and do - more than we could cover, but our appetites were whetted. You can find out more at the tourist information centre on 00 33 3 27 20 54 70.

Just time for a quick run back to the Bavay area, a farewell flavour of Maroilles tart and some delicious duck at Le Moneuse, a cosy restaurant with an ambience that tells of good food (00 33 3 27 57 79 91), and then it was time to head for Calais and another chance of shopping bargains with P&O.

It was an eye-opening journey, just reinforcing the fact that the more you get to apprciate France, the more you discover.

P&O Ferries' short break fares (for up to five days) start at £49 retrurn for a car and up to nine passengers.

You can get Club Lounge comfort for a £12 supplement and priority boarding for another £6 when booked in advance.

Shopping and restaurant choices to suit a wide range of tastes and budgets. Return sailings 24 hours a day. Contact www.poferries.com or phone 08716 646464.

Information about the Avensois region and its wide range of attractions can be had from the Comite Departemental du Tourisme du Nord, 6 rue Gauthier de Chatillon, BP 1232, 59013 Lille Cedex (www.tourisme-nord.fr). Phone: 00 33 3 20 57 59 59. They also deal with the rest of the Nord-Pas de Calais region.

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