Valenciennes, located in the northern district, close to the Belgian border, is a city known for its culture and creativity, hence the nickname “Athens of the North”. Over the centuries, this relatively small place has spawned painters, sculptors and architects who forever helped shape French culture.
You can sample works by figures such as Carpeaux and Watteau at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valenciennes, and make an appointment to view valuable early French manuscripts at the municipal library. Valenciennes is on the road between two world wars, but has restored its monuments and has just remodeled its center with a stylish shopping center.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Valenciennes:
1. Museum of Fine Arts
In a city that has long prided itself on its culture, the fine arts museum in Valenciennes is a treat.
Opened in 1801, it exhibits works from the School of Painting and Sculpture, and today houses works by French, Flemish and Dutch masters.
Everyone knows Peter Paul Rubens, and he is surrounded by many familiar names such as Bosch, Van Dijk, Jacob Jordans, Sebastian Bourdain and Camille Pissarro.
Valenciennes’ greatest contribution to the art world was Antoine Watteau, who was born here in 1684 and was one of the first to paint in the Rococo style.
His work “La Vraie Gaieté” is on display at the museum.
2. Fosdu Temple
Valenciennes, like many parts of the northern-northern region, rests on rich coal seams that were first mined in the 18th century.
By the 20th century, the industry was in decline and almost all signs are now gone.
But if you’re interested in this chapter of the town’s past, you can visit dozens of sites and learn about what happened here over two centuries.
The best of these is the Fosse Dutemple, a UNESCO site whose massive reinforced concrete header was placed above the shaft after the First World War.
3. Watteau Monument
Next to the Saint-Gérier church on the Rue de Paris is an exquisite little garden with a statue of Antoine Watteau around the fountain.
Here he is holding a brush and palette, standing on a decorative pedestal adorned with muses and scrolls.
This statue is from the 19th century and was made by another famous artist from Valenciennes, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
Carpeaux rose to prominence in the 1850s with a series of commissions from Napoleon III. Here you are just a few steps from Watteau’s birthplace at 39 Rue de Paris.
4. Place d’Armes
Located in the very heart of Valenciennes, Place d’Armes is a grand square and the cornerstone of the city’s political and commercial life.
The striking town hall will immediately grab your attention.
That gorgeous look was created in 1867 by Henri Lemaire, another son of Valenciennes, who made a splash in the art world.
Among other things, he designed the facade of the Gare du Nord.
Scraping the sky at the northern end is the Litanie, a 45-meter-long metal needle on the site of the Valenciennes bell tower, which collapsed in 1840. Up close you’ll notice the countless sentences cut from the metal; these were written by citizens of Valenciennes and accompanied by audio recordings from speakers.
5. Église Saint-Géry
The city’s oldest church was built in the first half of the 12th century for the Franciscan order and is listed as a French Historic Monument.
In the 1800s, when the bell tower was added, some changes were made to the building.
However, the interior of the nave is very close to what it looked like in the early days: take a closer look at 12 columns made of “pierre bleue” limestone, topped with capital letters representing each apostle.
The church suffered heavy damage in World War II, but was restored stone by stone in the ensuing decades.
6. Maison Espagnole
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, Valenciennes was under the yoke of the Spanish Netherlands.
It was during this period that the beautiful wooden Maison Espagnole was built.
This building with elegant corbels and lead windows is located on the corner of Rue Mons and Rue Capkins, but was carefully demolished and rebuilt on Rue Askièvre in 1964 when the city’s streets were rerouted.
You can go inside and take a look inside, as it is now home to the Valenciennes Tourist Office.
7. St. Cordon’s Cathedral
The church has been undergoing restoration over the past few years, but it’s still a good idea to come and see the view outside.
It was built in the 1850s by Alexandre Grigny, who built numerous buildings in the northern region as well as in the Note-Dame Basilica in Geneva.
The architecture here is a striking neo-Gothic, with a soaring tower and stonework inspired by the medieval cathedrals of Chartres and Amiens, the most revered in northern France.
8. Central Plaza d’Armes
More recently, Valenciennes has done a lot to beautify the city center, echoing similar projects in other French urban centers over the past decade or so.
The biggest job is Center Place d’Armes, a trendy mall with all the classic high street stores like H&M, Zara, Sephora and fnac.
The mall is right on the main square of Valenciennes, so if it’s raining, or you want to do some shopping in an afternoon, you can relax here for a few hours.
9. Municipal Library
The Municipal Library of Valenciennes is no ordinary library, it is located in the old Collège de la Compagnie de Jésus, built in the 16th century.
The stately Baroque building was built in the 17th century, but what’s inside becomes even more exciting.
If you’re curious, you can arrange a visit to the Jesuit Library, which was well preserved when it was founded in the 1700s.
Among the 350,000 manuscripts and volumes, there is something very special: the sequence of St. Eulalia, from 880, the earliest biography of the saint written in French.
10. La Maison Du Prevôt
Another rare relic of Valenciennes’ distant past is the Provost’s house, which is also registered as a French Historic Monument.
This is a delightful brick mansion with limestone side walls, mullioned windows and spired turrets.
The house dates back to 1485 and was built for the Abbot Hasnon, who holds the title of Dean of the Church of Our Lady.
The church stood across the road but was destroyed in the revolution, leaving the Provost’s House a mysterious fragment of Valenciennes’ faded medieval history.
It’s no more than 15 minutes to this sensational old spa town hidden in the forests of the Scarpe-Escaut Regional Park.
Not to be missed in any sense is the town’s Titanic Tower, which is all that remains of an old monastery.
Step back and be in awe at this beautifully decorated 82-meter monument built in the 1630s.
Then walk in, because there’s a museum with over 300 pieces of fine pottery made by the town’s vaunted 18th century faience factory.
12. Scarpe-Escaut Regional Park
The park that surrounds Saint-Amand-les-Eaux is the oldest of France’s 48 regional parks, but important for another reason: on the Belgian border, it combines with the vast Plaines de l’Escaut Natural Park to create A seamless area of impeccable countryside where you can wander for days among orchards, willow-fringed streams, lush old-growth woodlands and wetlands.
In some places, there are signs of mines that have slowly returned to nature over the centuries.
Like Fosse Dutemple, many of them are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
On the A2 motorway, Cambrai is less than half an hour’s drive from Valenciennes and is well worth the short trip.
Even if you don’t know the city yet, you probably know the city’s name because the decisive World War I took place here in 1917, and it was the first time tanks were used in a conflict.
But modern Cambrai is elegant and upscale, with an ornate Baroque cathedral, a UNESCO-listed bell tower and an excellent museum of fine arts.
It is housed in a prestigious 18th-century mansion known for its sculptures, two by Rodin and one by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
14. Matisse Museum – Le Cateau-Cambrésis
About the same distance south, following a country road through open farmland, is the town where Henri Matisse was born.
The artist himself founded the museum here in 1952, shortly before his death.
If you’re a fan of his work, you shouldn’t think twice, as the museum houses his third largest collection in France.
There are 170 works in total, covering his career from the early 1900s to the 1950s.
His Cubist contemporary, Auguste Herbin, who donated 65 paintings in 1956, is also well represented.
15. Local Food
At a restaurant in Valenciennes, it pays to brave the city’s most famous gastronomic outlet: Lucullus is smoked beef tongue, braised in a broth and then coated with foie gras.
It is usually served on toast as an appetizer.
More suitable for younger tastes 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 produced in the region, and the Brasserie des Sources of Saint-Amand-les-Eaux uses the town’s springs to brew a variety of beers, from Germinal lager to Lambic Abbiatale de Saint- Armand.
Where to stay: The best hotels in Valenciennes, France
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