The Weasel

Great platefuls of whelks, tripe and bone marrow are preparation for a veritable feast of Goya in a city where it pays to be French
Click to follow
THOUGH THE wretched conditions of its textile workers inspired Victor Hugo to pen some of his less cheery works, modern Lille turned out to be incomparably more wealthy, stylish and well-preserved than any British town of the same size (pop 172,000). It boasts two world-class art museums, a trendily spruced-up old town, a thriving theatre (Peter Brook's company is currently in residence) and a food market that would not look out of place in heaven. How do the Froggies manage it? On our visit last weekend, Mrs W and I took sly consolation from the prodigious mounds and curlicues of dog shit which force pedestrians to perform a frequent fandango when negotiating the city's pavements. At least in curbing their pooches, the British are streets ahead.

After rendezvousing with our Parisian pals, we made tracks for a brasserie. I stoked up on bulots in garlic sauce (why are French whelks so much tastier than ours?) and the tripe sausage known as andouillette. Incidentally, in her classic volume Charcuterie, Jane Grigson writes that this delicacy is "quite easy to make at home... If you have to clean the tripes yourself, the bath is the best place." Anyway, it was around the mid-way point in this blow-out that I saw another dish being delivered to a neighbouring table which I simply had to have. It was not so much greed as the strictures of Britain's nanny state that prompted me to order this treat.

A few minutes later, something resembling a pile of sawn-up cricket bats was placed before me. "This is illegal in Angleterre," I told our bemused friends as I probed the hot beef bones for their cache of oozy marrow. To be honest, I felt a bit queasy afterwards. I'm sure it was the unhappy gastronomic marriage of whelks, tripe and fatty marrow that caused my discomfort, but I don't know whether I'll get quite so worked up about New Labour's interdict in future.

HOWEVER, WE were not in Lille just to pig out on Flanders nosh. At the Modern Art Museum, we saw works ranging from a stunning black-and-white Jackson Pollock to a concrete-mixer carved in wood (nothing to get churned up about). But the main point of our visit was a rare exhibition of works by Goya at Lille's grandiose Palais des Beaux Arts. Mind you, it seemed touch and go whether we would gain admittance to the Spanish masterpieces. "You didn't book in advance? Oh dear!" clucked an English couple we ran into on Saturday morning. It seemed to me that their sympathy was not without a touch of schadenfreude. "We just managed to get in by queuing last night. It's bound to be worse today."

Sure enough, when we entered the museum an endless serpent of Goya fans was queuing for admission. It was painfully reminiscent of the time when Mrs W and I went to Amsterdam for the Van Gogh centenary show a decade ago and, omitting to buy tickets in advance, saw no more than the shaking head of a Rijksmuseum guard.

But I'd forgotten the power of l'etat in France. The male half of our French chums works for the Ministry of Culture. He coolly skipped the queue, whispered in an official ear and returned with four tickets. On the following morning we were prowling the Goyas - a hallucinatory mix of glowing portraits and nightmarish visions - before the army of aesthetes arrived.

Our influential pal pulled off an even more impressive feat when we visited Paris a couple of summers ago. At the time, he was involved in refurbishing a number of churches prior to a Papal visit. (Rather cannily, the Holy Father did not reveal exactly which church he intended to pop into, but provided the French government with a list of possibilities.) From the observation deck at the top of the Pompidou Centre, our friend pointed out the structures which he had embellished with state funds: "There's one of mine, and there and there..." And all over Paris, freshly gilded spires and domes glittered where his finger pointed.

AS WE prepared to part from our French friends, we realised that our rail journeys home would take exactly the same time. Their journey from Lille to Paris Gare du Nord was scheduled to take exactly 64 minutes, the same as our subterranean hike to Ashford International. My joy at this symmetry was only slightly marred by the fact that the return tickets for the Weasels cost pounds 152.40 (which I grizzled about at length last week), while the Parisian duo paid only pounds 65. I suppose someone has to cough up for that pounds 10.5bn hole under the Channel. OK, so there was a slight disparity in travel costs, but the cost of a two-night stay in a Lille hotel is bound to be the same for French and English guests, isn't it? Well, no, as a matter of fact. Taking advantage of a government scheme aimed at encouraging the French to take weekend breaks in the republic's towns rather than the countryside, our friends paid exactly half as much as us. So much for the entente cordiale.

IT WOULD only end in tears on this side of the Channel, but I rather like the French habit of naming streets after the great and good. Mind you, some names are better than others. Our Parisian pals have the good fortune to live near rue Brillat-Savarin (18th arrondissement), which honours the culinary philosophe, but it must be slightly dispiriting for their daughter, who recently moved to rue Emile Durkheim (13th arr), the renowned authority on suicide.

After flipping through the pages of the Plan de Paris, the capital's equivalent of the London A to Z, I realise that there are many worse possibilities. Imagine the chagrin, if you happen to be nasally well-endowed, of living on rue Cyrano de Bergerac (18th arr), and it would surely intensify the pain of cuckoldry if you had the misfortune to live on rue Feydeau (2nd arr), which celebrates France's sauciest farceur. It would be scarcely reassuring to reside on rue Becquerel (18th arr), who gave his name to a measure of radioactive exposure. I wonder whether the residents of avenue Prud'hon (16th arr), who was famous for believing "all property is theft", suffer a particularly high rate of burglaries?

Imagine the surreal pleasure of starting the day on allee Andre Breton (1st arr) or walking your lobster down rue Gerard de Nerval (18th arr). Some addresses are singularly appropriate for Anglophone residents: it will always be summertime on rue George Gershwin (12th arr), but a touch chilly on rue du Capt Scott (15th arr) and undoubtedly creepy on rue Edgar Poe (19th arr). I'm sure that rue du Docteur Finlay (15th arr) imparts a bracing hint of Tannochbrae to the rive gauche. Personally, I feel irresistibly drawn to avenue Gordon Bennett (16th arr).