Cassel: the Everest of Flanders

by Richard.Northedge

The historic town of Cassel offers views across northern France and Belgium, along with restaurants to suit every taste

If you’ve taken the Eurostar south from the Channel, you may have noticed, as the train rushes across the flat Flanders fields, the geological anomaly that is Mont Cassel - a 500ft hill standing out from the plain like a pyramid in the desert. Next time you take the car to the Continent, it is worth the diversion to aim for the hill and climb the broad cobbled road that eventually winds into the historic town of Cassel.

Legend has it this is the hill the Grand Old Duke of York led his 10,000 men up and down – though facts fail to verify the myth. However, the natural vantage point has made it a military favourite since Roman days. Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch based himself here during the Great War, his defence of Cassel commemorated with an equestrian statue at the summit (the statue opposite London’s Victoria Station is a copy), and British soldiers gallantly held the post for three days in May 1940 while the rest of the army retreated to Dunkirk for the evacuation to England.

It is the clear views over miles of French countryside and over its border that attracted the troops but Cassel does not wallow in its military past. Historic gates such as the Porte d’Aire still exist but the town’s walls were demolished in the 19th century, allowing tourists to enjoy the panoramic prospects, sitting on the terraces of the 16th-century Flemish houses of the Grand Place that are now bars and restaurants.

Cassel is in that no-man’s land that is not quite France but not quite Belgium either. The names of nearby places such as Steenvoorde, Wormhout and Hazebrouck give the game away but so do the Flamande restaurants, like the ’T Kasteelhof with its 70 different local beers.

That restaurant sits next to the park at Cassel’s highest point, close to an 18th-century windmill that still grinds flour (a free bag for every visitor) as well as pressing linseed oil. Two dozen mills were once squeezed onto the hill to catch the breeze but this sole reminder was brought up from the plain in 1947 after its predecessor burned down. It sits above the main street, whose tall buildings shelter visitors from any wind. There is also a church worthy of a visit and a museum in the 16th-century Hotel de la Noble Cour, but it is the town, rather than specific buildings, that gives Cassel its appeal.

Park in the market square - nowhere is further than a short walk - sit back in one or more of the bars and breathe in the atmosphere. You’re high in the sky and miles from everything.

Don’t miss

Use a stay in this quaint town as a base for visiting Saint-Omer, with its jolly restaurants and 13th-14th-century cathedral, or swap Cassel’s tranquillity for the bustle of Lille and its galleries and gardens. Alternatively, drive into Belgium and see the Menin Gate at Ypres. There are many other reminders of the First World War in the surrounding area, and the town commemorated by Tommies in the song ‘Mademoiselle of Armentieres’ is close by on the A25, the toll-free autoroute from the Channel ports.

The downside

Cassel is geared to daytime visitors, so the restaurant choice is greater at lunchtime. And don’t think of arriving by train: the station is at the bottom of the hill.

Where to stay

Cassel is so small (the population is under 2,500) that everywhere is central, but Le Foch, on the Grand Place, is right in the middle. The hotel is two-star but its restaurant – formal and French - is worth visiting even if you do choose to stay in one of the gites beneath the hill.

With twice as many stars, and at twice the price, the Châtellerie de Schoebeque is a new hotel in an old building, offering a spa and pool as well as rooms decorated with Chinese, Moroccan and other themes. The garden provides a quiet retreat and the lounge gives a crow’s nest view across rural France.

Where to eat

La Taverne Flamande (284 24259), like L’Estaminet ’T Kasteelhof (284 05929), offers filling Flemish dishes – sometimes with local songs. La Haute Brasserie (284 05103), in its 18th-century house, serves Flemish lunches but restricts its evening openings. Le Sauvage (284 24088), like Le Foch, is for those who prefer the more subtle French cuisine.

Beating the credit crunch

Introduce yourself to Cassel as a stopping-off point on the drive back to the ferries at Dunkerque (30 minutes away) or Calais (an hour). Or make it the destination for a cross-channel day trip.