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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.Reuse content