48 hours in Lille
Just a channel-hop from Dover is a city rich with Flemish architecture, cobbled streets, old masters and mouthwatering `moules-frites'.
Saturday 17 July 1999
Lille's weather is almost identical to that of south-eastern England in terms of cloud and rainfall. But in summertime, the pavements are overflowing with cafes and the vernacular facades on the old Flemish buildings of the Grand' Place are at their prettiest. It's not quite the Cote d'Azur but, then again, it's definitely not Kent either.
I travelled as a guest of Thomson Breakaway, whose three-night breaks B&B in the Hotel de la Paix in Lille cost pounds 201 (pounds 212 if departing or returning Fri/Sat/Sun). Prices include transport on Eurostar. For do-it-yourself breaks, staying in (for example) the hotels listed right, the simplest approach for most people will be by Eurostar (0990 186186) which is two hours from London Waterloo (or one hour and 20 minutes from Ashford in Kent). The best current price from London, if booked seven days in advance and staying a Saturday night, is pounds 69 return. If driving your own car, reckon on half a day from anywhere in south-eastern England; less than a day from many other parts of the country.
I stayed at the Hotel de la Paix (00 33 3 20 54 63 93) (1), at 46 bis rue de Paris, a comfy, central place with every room themed to a different artist. Double rooms with showers are FFr390 (pounds 40). Of the cheap places across the road from the old Lille-Flandres Station (not to be confused with the Lille-Europe station used by Eurostar and TGV trains), the Hotel des Voyageurs (00 33 3 20 06 43 14) (2) is one of the best value with double rooms from FFr155 to FFr260 (pounds 16 - pounds 27). For more refinement, try the Carlton (00 33 3 20 13 33 13) (3) overlooking the opera house at 3 rue de Paris. Pavarotti stays here when he is in town, but doubles are still only FFr710 (pounds 73).
The vast Musee des Beaux-Arts (00 33 3 20 06 78 00) (7) at 18 rue de Valmy in the Place de la Republique is another monument to bourgeois Lille and one of the grandest European art galleries you'll find outside a capital city. In towering rooms, masters from Goya to Delacroix to Rubens are all represented. I also enjoyed the Musee d'Art Moderne in the Lille suburb of Villeneuve d'Ascq (1 allee du Musee; 00 33 3 20 19 68 68) where permanent exhibitions include works by Picasso and Modigliani. Get there on the new Metro line.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
The Lilleois answer to fast food is moules-frites with beer. The traditional place to enjoy this speciality is Aux Moules (5) at 34 rue de Bethune, where great steaming bowls of mussels and dishes of chips will not cost more than a tenner.
WHERE TO WORSHIP
Not in church (Lille is very thin on ecclesiastical properties) but in the fabulous building of the 17th-century Bourse (8), where the Flemish god of money is still very much in evidence. This jewel of the Grand' Place is decorated with Bacchic torsos, bunches of grapes, Spanish towers and busts of great old industrialists and presidents of the chamber of commerce.
If money is no object, I have to suggest L'Huitriere (tel 00 33 3 20 55 43 41) (9) at 3-7 rue des Chats Bossus, which is one of the most elegant fish restaurants in France. The set-menu of about pounds 50 features lobster and other crustacea, though you may need to book weeks or even months in advance. For those on lower budgets, the Brasserie Andre (10) at 71 rue de Bethune is a traditional excellent French brasserie where dinner with plenty of wine will be about pounds 25 per head.
TAKE A RIDE
For a fascinating glimpse into the industrial past of the Pas de Calais region, as depicted by Emile Zola in Germinal, visit the coal mines of Lewarde, about 40km away (best access is to take a 25-minute train ride to Douai, then catch a taxi). Tours are guided by ex-miners and include a convincing experience of descending 400m into the mine itself. The mine is open daily from 10am to 5pm and entrance is about pounds 6. For more information call 00 33 3 27 95 82 82.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
For the vast majority of visitors from the UK, stepping off a Eurostar train and emerging from the Lille-Europe station, your first sight will be of the strange ski-boot shaped building of Credit Lyonnais, perched on top of the Euralille shopping complex (4). But a few minutes walk from here, across the bridge with Euralille on your left, will bring you to the centre of town and most of the hotels.
TAKE A HIKE
If you have a car, get out to the Cote d'Opale (an hour from Lille) for a day; there are some great walks to be had along the coast, with cliffs and, further south, miles of uninterrupted beaches. From the prominent headlands of Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, watch the sea and sky merge into the white cliffs of Dover.
Try Les Trois Brasseurs (11) at 22 place de la Gare (immediately to your left as you emerge from Lille-Flandres train station). The beers are home- brewed in the Flemish style; of the several varieties I liked the blonde which is light but still very organic in flavour. Other varieties include ambree, brune and blanche.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
Le Meert at 27 rue Esquermoise (6), a delightful cobbled street in the old city, is a patisserie-confiserie to die for. Unchanged since 1839, its interior features baroque flourishes and painted wooden tableaux - as well as smells of some of the finest chocolates and cakes on the continent. Gaufres, exquisite sweet, filled waffles, were ordered from this shop by Charles de Gaulle throughout his life.
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