“THE French don’t even have a word for custard” was a colleague’s retort, having asked how my recent trip to Lille went. In response to perceived Anglophobia on our cross-Channel neighbours’ part, it’s no surprise we Brits clutch at as many straws as possible to be defensively dismissive of them.
Flemish architecture makes up much of the old town part of Lille and if you look carefully you will be able to spot a few cannon balls stuck in some of the building facades – a reminder of the Austrian siege of Lille in 1792.
But with the Eurostar acting as the umbilical cord of our continent there’s no denying that France is one of the easiest getaway destinations and if you haven’t already, it’s time you gave it a chance.
As with every stereotype, there are many exceptions – and Lille is just that. Perhaps it’s down to the fact that such Northern French areas play second fiddle to the tourist pulling power of Paris. Yet the people of Lille are more accommodating of British tourists than grandparents are of grandkids at Christmas.
Arriving at Lille Europe Train Station, it took a while to adjust to the fact we were in France, mainly because the journey is quicker than my last experience of travelling to Cornwall. Out of the station and a short walk over the bridge, you’re in the Grand Place (city centre square). Our hotel, Hotel La Paix, is in walking distance from the station, so no foraging for remnants of GCSE French in the archives of my brain to direct the taxi driver. A cracking start.
As well as being perfectly positioned, Hotel La Paix also lives up to everything I’ve every fantasised about a stay in France. The hotel is situated on Rue de Paris – the busy main street running right through the centre of Lille. You step out onto cobbled streets full of chic fashion boutiques wrapped in bakery air, yet when you’re inside, you don’t hear a peep thanks to the soundproofed walls.
Picasso BedroomCharming, quietly opulent boudoirs await you, with rooms themed on famous artists. We stayed in the Pablo Picasso room – homage to an artist who spent much of his life in France despite being born in Spain. It’s little wonder why. Modigliani, De Lempicka, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh all had the same idea too and guests to Hotel La Paix will be able to select and enjoy one of the 36 inspirational rooms featuring the usual mod-cons to make you feel at home.
There’s an in-house coffee shop to visit or the option of having breakfast in your room whenever you feel like it. You’re not therefore bound by the usual chain hotel rules. Then again, this isn’t your usual hotel. It’s an exceptional one. When we weren’t relaxing with Picasso et al, there were of course plenty of things to see, do and eat on our doorstep...
On our first night we went for a walk around the Grand Place late on. It’s easy to do that here. It’s a tranquil and friendly place that’s remote enough to feel like a real idyllic getaway, yet close enough to bigger cities/countries to remain well and truly cosmopolitan. And in any good city there should be no end of restaurants to choose from.
L'Huitriere Brunch BarWith several Michelin starred restaurants and a reputation as being the beer capital of France, you’re never going to be short of choice in Lille. L’Huitriere is worth a nosey, even if it’s beyond your budget. It’s been Michelin starred since the 1930s and as well as being a fabulous seafood restaurant it also has a cafe area for those wishing to stop off for a cheaper brunch. Sit at the breakfast bars among the food counters and take in the decorative, aquatically themed surroundings.
On another worthy note, Le Compostelle restaurant was recommended to us by staff at Hotel La Paix. For €99 in total, we dined on a three course meal of foie gras, lamb, mixed seafood, a couple of delicately handcrafted desserts, several Belgian beers and bottles of water. Most places are of this high standard for equally reasonable prices. You won’t see many people heading for any fast food joints, put it that way.
MeertPatisseries, bakeries and tearooms are dotted around Lille like little cherries. They’re all sweet of course, but a few sweet favourites are Meert for being the most famous of the patisseries and looking like a vintage dolls house with the best window display of cakes in Lille. But for a local favourite, head to Aux Merveilleux de Fred, Boulangerie Patisserie an olde-worlde cake shop famed for its puffy brioche and delicious meringues.
People actually queue down the street in the dozens for these treats at the weekends – no word of a lie. Aux Merveilleux de Fred is also a stone’s throw from street markets which are best visited at the weekend. They’re better suited to locals with many stalls stocking fruit, veg or meat. Still, it’s a great chance to get a glimpse of real Lille life and be part of the action.
There’s a lot of life in Lille – past, present and future – and it’s all there for you to experience for free. As author of Cross-Channel France John Ruler wrote:
“On the morning of 25 January 1658, the citizens of Dunkirk were Spanish. By noon they were French and by the evening, English. This small but far from insignificant fact starkly illustrates the fluctuation fortunes of Nord-Pas de Calais, for centuries ravaged by war between rival nations and even regions.”
Morel & FilsIt’s to that end that Lille and the surrounding areas of the region are so rich in a very varied history. Flemish architecture makes up much of the old town part of Lille and if you look carefully you will be able to spot a few cannon balls stuck in some of the building facades – a reminder of the Austrian siege of Lille in 1792.
Our tour guide, the lovely Delphine from Tourisme Nord, told us these cannon balls had later been tweaked to give them the jovial appearance of a woman’s breast. You can see one on the facade of Morel & Fils, 31 Place Theatre – just around the corner from the Chamber of Commerce, yet another majestic building.
When you want to go further afield, Lille’s metro system is swift, simple and reliable. Buy a ticket and hop on and off as you please. A short metro ride from Lille is the 19 century town of Roubaix, home of La Piscine Musee d’Art and probably the most awe inspiring swimming pool you’ll ever see. Delphine couldn’t wait to take us to the former pool her own mother remembers visiting as a child. It’s an amazing piece of history that’s been kept in pristine condition and comes complete with swimming pool sound affects of yesteryear to help you imagine. Now a museum, what was once changing room now hosts artwork from textiles to sculpture and ceramics. Entrance costs £5 per adult and is free for under 18s.
Sculpture At La Piscine Musee D'ArtArras, the host town of the summer’s Main Square Festival (click here for a full review of Main Square 2011) is bustling with historical sites which are worth a visit out of party season. Shops and squares sit on top of a vast network of tunnel dating back to the French Revolution and WW1 when the British Army used them as headquarters.
There really is no French region closer to us than Nord-Pas de Calais, yet I can’t help but think not enough of us Brits are aware of it. As John Ruler concludes in his book (a great read I might add for those wishing to visit this area) ‘The French too know little of Kent, all adding to the pressure to put the record straight.’
So just as we’d hate to think all foreigners don’t venture beyond London, it’s time to give more of France a chance. And there’s no better place to start than the lovely Lille.
For information on travelling in the region, please visit www.tourisme-nord.com/cdtnord_eng
If this review has tickled your fancy, it’s also worth noting you’ve got plenty of time to plan for ‘Fantastic 2012’ – a celebratory festival which takes place from 6 October 2012 - 13 January 2012.
With more than 700 events, the city of Lille will be a very lively place. It’s a perfect time to visit. For more information visit www.lilletourism.com. There, you can also buy a Lille city pass for access to numerous venues, events and tourist attractions plus reduced rates on guided tours and discounts at some restaurants and shops.
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