city slicker Lille
Monday 15 January 1996
Most famous child of Lille: There's a prominent statue to Jeanne Hachette, who was something of a local hero back in 1472. These days, however, the credits have to go to Charles de Gaulle. So, whether or not you've already made it as an egotistical political leader, if you do have aspirations in that direction, it might be a place for you to consider.
Best eats: Moules frites. Cod and chips may do the job in Newcastle, but our friends in the north of France aren't quite so greasy about their seafood. In general, Lillois (with the possible exception of de Gaulle) are happy to learn from the Flemish in matters gastronomic, and learning in turn from them is thoroughly delightful.
The General's mature reflections upon foodstuffs: "You can unite the French only through fear. You cannot bring together a country that has over 265 types of cheese."
Shopping: For an industrial city, Lille boasts an extraordinary number of boutiques and jewellery shops. That the streets are wide and pedestrianized helps one's aimless consumerist drift no end.
Culture: Lille's cathedral is a 19th-century effort which nobody even bothered finishing. But two art museums, an opera house and a Charles de Gaulle museum do vie for your attentions. The rule with this bunch is straightforward: the more memorable the architecture from the outside, the less inspiring is what's going on inside.
Daytime haunts: If you're a hardworking local, then you might want to loll around the fountain at the centre of the Grande-Place. In accordance with good scientific principle (something, I'm told, to do with positive ions), waterworks like this are remarkably effective at soothing city stress. But to be honest, I don't recommend getting stressed in the first place. Forget all that science and get back to the cafe.
Nightspots: Sophisticated clubbers (if you'll forgive the pleonasm) will be seen nipping off to Belgium for their night out. It's only half an hour away, and the air, as well as the beats per minute, are purer there. But such restlessness wilfully ignores the extraordinary range of beers with which Lille is stocked. Belgian beers, Flemish beers, German beers: all excellent. And there are even a few beers from Blighty - although places like Cafe au Bureau, aspiring to be an English pub, will always simply have too much panache.
The public pride of Lille: A fully automated electric underground system. The first of its kind in the world, Lille's metro still rivals that of Tokyo as a symbol of civic excellence. Many praise its efficiency; many others its cleanliness. But for my money, the most finely-judged feature of this metro is the woman of the wires. Forget the stentorian gruffness of "mind the gap": the tannoy voice they've discovered for the Lille metro somehow manages to combine authority with gentle serenity.
A furtive pleasure for Lille: Train-spotting. As the railway junction for Strasbourg, Paris and Brussels, Lille is the perfect place for those with a thermos and an eye to the latest locos. Indeed, the very building of the Gare SNCF is a bizarre testament to the powers of transportation. Formerly the Gare du Nord, it was carried, brick by brick, all the way from Paris, as long ago as 1865. You have to watch those Flemish-French: while the Channel Tunnel is still with us, they could be trying to nick St Pancras, when our backs are turned.
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