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Strategic importance of France’s favourite village

A small northern village topped a recent popularity poll. Jane Hanks looks at the long, fascinating history of Cassel

Cassel in the Nord, 30km south of Dunkirk is this year’s choice of favourite French village by viewers of the France 2 television programme Le Village Préféré des Français.

It was chosen for its charm, particularly appreciated in its Grand Place which still has some medieval buildings, the Musée de Flandre and restaurants, called locally Estaminets, where you can eat traditional food and drink the beer for which the Flanders region is famous.

The village is also well known for its carnival with its two giants, Reuze Papa and Reuze Maman which are paraded through the streets and which are part of the local culture and recognised in Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

Throughout history, Cassel has always been important in the area because of its hill, the Mont Cassel which at 176 metres dominates the surrounding, flat landscape.

People chose to live there originally to escape the marshland below and to have a first sighting of any enemy from afar. Habitation was also possible because there are several springs, right to the top of the hill.

Archaeological finds show that it was inhabited as early as the iron age and was then taken over by the Menapii Celts from central Europe who called it Kasteel, meaning fortress, and ruled the region from the town. The area was renowned for the quality of its sea salt which was brought to Cassel and exported from there as far away as Rome.

The Romans then occupied the town for nearly five centuries from 56BC onwards. It was of strategic importance and the epicentre of seven Roman paved roads fanning out from the city.

The village later became part of Flanders and was prosperous, though it was also the scene of many battles as the Kings of France attempted to enlarge their territory. It eventually became French in 1667, but that was not the end of the many conflicts which had successfully seen the destruction of many of its buildings.

In 1940, Cassel played an important role in the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo. The British troops based at Cassel were ordered to stay there for three days to cover for the soldiers making their way to Dunkirk.

They held out for eight days, during which the town was bombed night and day. 245 houses were completely destroyed, including the Town Hall and another 455 partially damaged.

The strategic position of the town and its frequent battles has meant there are few original buildings left standing and no Roman remains.

However, Céline Salome from the town’s tourist office says the town has always managed to rebuild and maintains its medieval style and Flanders character. “The oldest house still standing is dated 1631 but has older foundations. There are always visitors here who are seduced by the town’s charm and from the day of its election as France’s favourite village there has been a massive increase in visitors.

It has been crazy and Cassel is a very lively place at present, but oh, yes, the tourists are very welcome. We have devised a 3km circuit where they can visit the Grand Place, see the remnants of the old fortifications with the remains of three of the ancient entrances into the village and climb to the highest point for a panoramic view.”

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