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Saint-Omer & Arques

Aerial view of Saint-Omer and Cathedral, with remaining town ramparts in foreground.

Founded by monks
Saint-Omer stands on hillside on the edge of the river Aa marshes. In the 7th century Benedictine monks came to convert the local people to christianity. Bishop Omer could not speak Flemish so he brought two monks with him, Bertin and Mommolin. They founded a monastery by the river, called "St. Bertin's Abbey". Omer later built a college and chapel. The Abbey was rebuilt in the 13th century, whilst Omer's chapel was rebuilt on a grand scale as one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in northern France. It was made a cathedral in 1561. The Abbey fell into ruins in the French Revolution. You can see the remains at the lower end of the town, near the railway station.

A busy medieval port
A market town grew up around the prosperous religious community. For centuries the town was a busy port with ships sailing up the river Aa from
Gravelines to its quays.

The monks drained much of the nearby marshes, which became a fertile farming area. Today farmers from the marshes still bring in by boat their freshly-picked caulifowers and chicory in to sell in St.Omer's markets. The marshes are a peaceful haven for wildlife, and a remarkable landscape of streams, woods, open countryside and market gardens - see Audomarois marshes.

Gunpowder Plot
While St. Omer was part of
Spanish Flanders, the town was known as a Jesuit training centre. English Catholics came secretly for religious training in a college in the backstreets. Its graduates were regarded as very suspicious Spanish spies back in England - and it is likely that the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London was discussed here.

One of the two branches of the river Aa runs through the lower part of the town

Boat trips along the river

July parade of marshland boats (called "bacoves") float past St.Bertin's Abbey

Becoming part of France
When Saint-Omer became part of France in 1677, Louis XIV despatched his famous military engineer
Vauban was to strengthen the fortifications, with brick ramparts and wide ditches.

The Musée Sandelin - a mansion built in 1776

Amongst the new buildings French-rule brought to Saint-Omer is the Hôtel Sandelin, a magnificent Parisian-style mansion built for the Countess of Fruges (now a museum). The fine Town Hall (see below) was built in the 1830s using stone from the ruined Abbey.

Later in the 1890's most of the walls were dismantled, except for one part which was made into a 20 acre park "à la française". You enjoy walking through this today, and listen to concerts at the 1896 bandstand.

Town Hall and place Foch
town hall giants market
Like most Flemish towns, Saint-Omer has a very large main square, the place Foch, to hold the
weekly markets (right). It also hosts the annual meeting of the "Circle of Giants" (centre) - hosted by the town's own giant, Batistin, who represents the marshland farmers. The baroque fountain (left) was put up in 1757 to celebrate the birth of the Count of Artois, who became Charles X the last Bourbon king of France. The town hall was rebuilt in 1830, because the old medieval building was falling down.

Arques is an industrial town next to Saint-Omer. Its
glassworks (which you can visit) is the largest employer in the whole region.

Web links and more information
Tourist information:
Tourist Office: 4 rue du Lion d'Or, 62500 SAINT-OMER
Tel: 00 33 3 21 - 98 08 51
Fax: 00 33 3 21 - 88 55 74

Local area map:
Click on towns for more information

Link to Pas de Calais Tourist Board

LOISIRS GOUTMET - some of the finest restaurants in and around Saint-Omer - with sample menus, and facilities / prices for groups: - website in English or French

Regional nature park:
Adomarois - countryside around Saint-Omer, for walking, cycle rides, etc.
La Maison du Papier - workshop and museum about paper-making in the park.
Revived rural railway - seasonal Valley of the Aa Tourist Train runs through the park, serving several tourist destinations.

Places to visit in Saint-Omer & Arques
Le Blockhaus d'Eperlecques - original bunker for manufacture of V2 rockets Review
Boat trips - local; down river Aa to coast; upstream towards Lille.
Distillerie Persyn - Gin Distillery (can visit by boat)
Cathedral - one of northern France's finest medieval buildings
St. Bertin's Abbey - ruined in the French Revolution
Museums: Hotel Sandelin & Henri Dupuis - St-Omer
La Coupole - Museum of Second World War & Rockets
Dennlys Parc - family amusements
Saint Omer Brewery
Canal and Canal-barge Lift - river boat marina

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QUICK TOUR round Audomarois district, starting with La Coupole...



Bailleul Last updated 29th September 2001 © Copyright Invicta Media 1999-2001