A short stay in...; Lille

A short train ride from London, this is our closest foreign city. It has moules by the bucket-load, art, Flemish architecture, cheap hotels and lots of coal mines. What more can you ask for?

Why go there

Well yes, it only takes two hours by direct train from Central London, thanks to Eurostar. And it happens to be your nearest really foreign city, wherever you live in Britain. But that might imply that Lille is just any old city, which it isn't. Come here anyway - for mountains of moules, a pretty old Flemish city, cheap hotels and brasseries, an art gallery suited to a European capital, brave new architecture and relics of a vast coal industry.

When to go

The Pas de Calais region of northern France is not renowned for its weather. The rest of the country makes rude comments about this being the Pays Noir, a black land of fog, rain, frowning skies and coal dust; but there are still many more pavement cafes in Lille than you would see in a British city. The important message is that you can come here any time outside mid-summer, when the whole city is closed. The weather is basically the same as Kent except slightly colder in winter and hotter in summer.

How to get there

Eurostar (0345 303030) runs at least eight trains daily from London Waterloo to Lille. The trip takes two hours and costs from pounds 57 return if you stay a weekend, and do your travelling (both ways) on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The price increases to pounds 66 for travel on other days, as long as you stay over on Saturday night. For the record, Lille is a mere one hour by rail from Paris, one hour 10 minutes from Brussels , and five hours and 20 minutes from Marseilles.

For drivers, Le Shuttle (0990 353535) is the easiest option and it needn't be expensive. If you book at least one day in advance you can get a three- day return ticket for pounds 69; this drops as low as pounds 49 if (for the outward journey only) you travel before 6am or after 10pm. If you just turn up without booking, you'll pay pounds 109 return. Give yourself about an hour to drive from the Calais area to Lille; head for Dunkerque, then take the A25.

Festivals

The biggest event on the calender has actually just passed. The Braderie de Lille takes place on the first weekend of September, when a million people pack the streets for three days and the entire city becomes a gigantic jumble sale. Stall-holders, from housewives to antique dealers, pack every inch of pavement in the hope of selling off unwanted possessions left over after the summer.

You'll find events in every month of the year though, if you look at the region as a whole. In the second week of October for example, the focus hops across the border to the Belgian town of Comines where the Fete des Louches takes place over three days. Watch out for processions of giant 15th-century noblemen, followed by soup ladles (louches) being thrown from windows.

What to see

l Euralille. The locals are extremely proud of the modernity of the Eurostar terminal and its adjacent shopping complex, though watch out. Some think it contains the seeds of a Sixties urban nightmare. The Tour Credit Lyonnais building sits on top of the station exactly like a gigantic ski-boot.

l Place de Charles de Gaulle, or Grand Place. Apart from the irritating traffic, the central square of the city is lined with a delightful series of vernacular facades, representing Flemish renaissance styles from the 17th-century onwards. On ground level, outdoor cafes are packed throughout the day and night. Surrounding highlights include the Old Bourse (see below), the opera house and the Thirties art-deco building of the local newspaper, La Voix du Nord.

l The Old Bourse. This is the gem of the Grand Place, a perfect square decorated with bacchic torsos and bunches of grapes. Built by merchants in the Flemish style with a hint of Spain in the roof spires, it is once again thriving in this new age of capitalism. Step inside the colonnaded walkway to see busts of industrialists and lists of presidents of the chamber of commerce.

l Musee des Beaux Arts, in the Place de la Republique. Reopened after restoration in June of this year, this is one of the best European museums you'll find outside a capital city. In vast, towering rooms, canvases of Goya, Rubens and other big names are well represented.

l Museum of Modern Art. Out in the green, leafy suburbs, permanent exhibitions include works by Picasso and Modigliani. Thought-provoking temporary exhibitions.

l Charles de Gaulle's house and museum. France's finest was born and bred in Lille, in Rue Princess to be precise, in the north of the old town. The house is an excellent example of a turn-of-the-century interior, in Empire style. The general's baptism robe and cradle are there, as is his black Citroen, shot up by Pieds Noirs in 1962.

l Maison Coillot. In the south of town, on the Rue de Fleurus, you can see Lille's only art-nouveau exterior. Come for tree-like, curving beams, ceramic lettering and stone features that seem to grow from the wall.

l Hotel de Ville. The ugliest building in the city has the tallest tower: an evil-looking art-deco rocket bulging with protuberances. You can climb it before midday.

Food and drink

The cuisine of Lille revolves around mussels and chips, a very strong cheese called Maroilles and lots of locally brewed beers. A typical snack is the flamekueche, a paper-thin pizza folded up and eaten with the fingers in pubs. Another speciality, oddly enough, is a dish called Welsh rarebit.

l Les Brasseurs, to the left as you emerge from the Lille-Flandres train station, is a huge, dark, jolly pub where all beers are brewed on the premises in copper vats. Ask for a blonde. There are excellent flamekueche here, as well as dishes such as rabbit in beer and beer tart.

l Le Meert on the cobbled Rue Esquermoise (No 27) is the most elegant patisserie-confiserie (cake and sweet shop) I have ever seen. Unchanged since 1839 - the height of bourgeois Lillois decadence - its interior features baroque flourishes and painted wooden tableaux as well as a puppet- sized upstairs balcony. Try some sweet gaufre, an exquisite stuffed wafer which Charles de Gaulle continued ordering from this shop to the end of his days.

l L'Huitriere, at 3-7 Rue des Chats-Bossus (at the back of the fish shop of the same name), is one of the most elegant fish restaurants in France. The art-deco interior, dating from 1928, is worth seeing in itself for its marine mosaics and ocean stained-glass windows. The set menu at Fr450 (about pounds 50) features lobster and other crustacea though you'll need to book weeks or even months in advance. Call 00 33 320 55 43 41.

l Aux Moules at 34 Rue de Bethune is a much more accessible eatery which has been serving up mussels and chips for 70 years (as well as other French cuisine). You can get a great dinner here for a tenner.

l Brasserie Andre, at 71 Rue de Bethune, is a classy brasserie and very popular with locals, where dinner will come to around pounds 20 each. Go for regional dishes such as Boeuf au Maroille.

Where to stay

There is a wide range of hotels though note that during the week most of them are stuffed full of people on business. At weekends, prices are lower and there is much more chance of finding space.

l One of half a dozen similar hotels directly opposite the Lille-Flandres station, the Hotel Continental (0033 320 062224) starts with single beds from Fr150, doubles from about Fr200 and parking spaces for Fr40.

l Hotel Flandres-Angleterre (0033 320 060412), also outside the station, has two stars and offers rather superior rooms for slightly higher prices, around Fr300.

l The Bellevue (0033 320 574564) on Rue Jean-Roisin has one big boast: Mozart, aged nine and a half, stayed here. With excellent views over the Grand Place, you could not ask for a better location. Rooms from Fr500.

l The Carlton (0033 320 133313) at 3 Rue de Paris overlooks the opera and is the poshest hotel in town - it is Pavarotti's regular. Prices start from about pounds 70.

Out of town

Apart from the jollities of the channel ports (booze, hypermarkets and beaches), the region is not known for its attractive scenery. In addition to pylons bestriding the horizon, the main feature of the landscape is giant slag-heaps, reminders of the age of coal mining which dominated the area up to the closure of the last pit in 1990. In fact a visit to the coal mines at Lewarde (about 40km from Lille) provides the most interesting half-day excursion from town, giving a flavour of how people lived and worked in the Pas de Calais for 300 years.

Tours are escorted by retired miners, who have taken up new careers as tour-guides in boots. They'll cheerfully show you the whole process of mining, from the changing rooms to the pit head, whilst boasting how not a single miner from the whole region was made unemployed by the closures (they were all given alternative work).

The best part is "descending" 400 metres into the mine itself, where you shuffle with your guide along dark dusty tunnels, examining exhibitions from different ages of mining from the 19th century to the present day. There's an element of hoax about the whole experience, which you ultimately discover, but it's bleakly convincing.

To reach Lewarde, take a train to Douai from the Lille Flandres station (about 25 minutes and pounds 7 return). From Douai there are then hourly buses to Lewarde; walk for 15 minutes from the bus-stop to the mine itself. Entrance, including the tour, costs Fr60, or Fr30 for miners, and the mine is open daily, from 10am to 5pm (4pm after November). For more information, call 0033 327 958282.

Shopping

Although I would not come to Lille for shopping, this mercantile town certainly has its possibilities. Stepping off Eurostar, the first thing you see is a raised footpath winging through the sky to the Euralille complex, the vast futuristic shopping mall.

At the other end of the class spectrum is the wild rambling flea market, La Marche de Wazemmes, which takes place at the Place de la Nouvelle Aventure in the south of town on Sunday mornings. Come for flowers, kitsch and chaos.

Books

Emile Zola's Germinal (Penguin pounds 5.99) is a hugely gripping account of the life and struggles of 19th-century coal miners in the Pas de Calais region. General guide books to France should be adequate for your short break in Lille, but for more substance French readers could get a copy of the latest edition of the Guide Bleu Nord Pas de Calais published by Hachette.

Language

You think you know how to speak French? The patois of these parts will stymie you. Known as Ch'ti, it is virtually unintelligible, even to other French people. As well as Flemish elements, lots of words have a Spanish connection, which is a throw-back to the days of the Spanish Netherlands.

Deals/packages

Although it is easy to arrange your own trip to Lille, there are operators offering packages. Classic Breakaway (Tel: 01492 532532) offers weekend packages in Lille for pounds 125, including Eurostar travel and two nights in a hotel, either in the two-star Flandre Angleterre downtown, or in the four-star Sofitel, a 12-minute tram ride away (price based on two sharing). For a real bargain, try this one - two couples sharing a car can get a ferry crossing and two nights (in two rooms) for pounds 59 per person.

Currency

Hovering at between nine and 10 francs, the pound will buy you 25 per cent more French goods and services this year than it did last. Make good use of the opportunity while it lasts.

Information

Don't expect information to come cheap: the French tourist board has a premium line number, 0891 244123, on which you can speak to a consultant who will advise or send brochures. If you happen to live in London, you can visit its office at 178 Piccadilly, open from Monday to Friday.

In Lille, the tourist office is located very centrally in the Place Rihour. It opens from Monday to Saturday 9am-7pm, and Sunday 10am-noon and 2pm-5pm; Tel: 0320 219421.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map