IT WAS so romantic. Walking in the rain at night, jumping over apricot puddles on shiny black cobbled streets. Lying on the bed, the balcony door open on to the city of Lille, as watery veils drifted gracefully across boulevard Carnot. The saturated hiss of the traffic five floors below, and the lowing of distant church bells. It seemed a shame I had no one to share it with.

Two cute girls, eyelids a-flutter, had tried to sell me a red rose on the street. 'Je suis seul,' I said, wagging my finger when they pointed at an innocent female bystander; shame, they said. Minutes later, in Le Cesar, I witnessed a bolder technique at a nearby table. A different rose-seller finished his speech with a flourish on bended knee; the word 'passion' reverberated through the room. His victim, embarrassed and overawed, paid up promptly.

The triumphant rose-seller turned to me. 'Ah, le monsieur tout seul,' was all he managed before I barked at him. He walked. I bolted the pizza, left for the football match. At least there I might find some other losers, loners, loonies.

The home team (no wins, only five points from nine games), were playing Marseille, the biggest club in France, the 'champions' of Europe who allegedly bribed their way to the title, only to be stripped of it. Lille came out looking sharp, given the conditions. The teams, the fans, the flawless verdant pitch, were drenched, and every tackle saw players aquaplaning across the turf, spumes of water flying either side of them.

Despite this the game was fast, fluent and skilful, a delight to watch. First touch, full control and 360 degrees of mobility were commonplace and served to underline how, in football as in so much else, the British have fallen way behind continental standards. True, Lille did knock the ball into the channels, but their centre forward, trapping it nonchalantly on his chest or flicking it on, showed the kind of ball skills that Ian Wright only dreams of.

In the end, the southerners stole it with two soft goals. But only after Bray had threatened to run the game for Lille, cutting a swath through midfield at will and delivering a long, pinpoint centre for Assadourian, unmarked at the far post, to head sweetly and firmly over the stranded keeper. It was the best goal of the match; the others were feebly surrendered by a Lille side that could have won, had it resolved to. I left wondering if the home side lacked nerve, or whether Marseille had been filling paper bags with francs again.

Self-doubt might plague its team, but not the city. The self-proclaimed capital of the North has all the features of a metropolis: opera, theatre, orchestra, fine and modern art museums, bustling cafes, elegant restaurants, tree-lined boulevards, fountains and monuments, gardens, civic squares and inspired architecture.

Its computerised metro is typically spotless and efficient, and the city's brisk industriousness is celebrated on every corner. In many ways it is reminiscent of Milan, Munich and Florence, yet with a uniquely Flemish influence in its Gothic, Renaissance, Modernist and Art Deco architecture. And there is more because, like any great mercantile city, it also plays host to a thriving street scene.

The Marche de Wazemmes in the south-west is, geographically and conceptually, the other side of Lille. Away from the discreet charms of the vieille ville, the administrative grandeur of centre ville and the former aristocratic quartier of rue Royale, this busy market is the centre of working-class life in the city. Though open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it is best on Sunday mornings when the young, the beautiful and the funky emerge to scour the flea market for bargains. I found a Seventies leather jacket that had undoubtedly once graced a Parisian pimp, and haggled it down to Fr100 or pounds 12.50.

Wazemmes is a treat for all the senses. Its forecourt holds dozens of flower stalls. Inside, the market air is thick with the smells of cheeses, spicy olives, fresh fish, cooked meats and fresh herbs. And behind it, in the place de la Nouvelle Aventure, are countless vendors roasting chicken on their portable grills, and Vietnamese stalls selling a bizarre mish-mash of Indian and south-east Asian foods to the more adventurous.

On the corner of rue des Sarrazins, outside the aptly named Cafe Relax, a group of Peruvians and Bolivians play Andean folk music. They had lived in Lille for years. I asked why they settled here rather than, say, Paris or Nice. 'The people here are friendlier, warmer than the rest of France,' their hatman said.

Across the market, below the unassuming little church of St Pierre and St Paul, are two of the most absorbing cafes in the city, Les Tilleuls and, across the street, Au Parvis. Both share the same clientele: mostly late twenties, grungey, biker-ish, bohemian, all very alternative for a provincial French city. Blacks, lesbians, gays, hippies, this is where they come to be among friends and their own, and listen to excellent live jazz.

I was still conspicuous by my solitude; there were probably 100 people outside each cafe, but only I sat alone. It was time to head back to the establishment side of town.

Charles de Gaulle, Lille's most famous son, is honoured with a grand square at the heart of the city. And dominating place General de Gaulle are the offices of the principal local newspaper, La Voix du Nord: gleaming white, step gabled, a superb example of Flemish Art Deco built in 1936 and topped with gilded figures of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Looking to the west, in the place Rihours, is the truly monumental war memorial; on the east side is the 17th-century stock exchange, the Vieille Bourse, and towering above and behind it the Nouvelle Bourse, with its exuberant belfry tower. But it is on the north side, behind the elegant Parfumerie du Soleil d'Or and the Galeries Opera with its 40 boutiques, that the real money changes hands these days.

The vieille ville dates back to the 17th century. Now, its meticulous restoration almost complete, it flourishes as an upmarket shopping centre. Wealthy locals and Belgian tourists shop at little boutiques such as La Perle Noire, a crooked 17th-century stone and timber structure, behind whose tinted windows hang slinky garments with labels such as the amusing Anti-Flirt.

This is the place for window-licking - the French call window-shopping leche-vitrine - in front of the chocolatiers, three-star restaurants with blue tiling, and shops selling furniture, books, fine textiles, dried flowers, glass and ceramics. All the big fashion shops such as Chanel, Valentino, Hermes, Lapidus and Laroche are in rue de la Grand Chausee, just round the corner.

In rue Esquermoise, a yacht-sized grey Mercedes stopped. The electric window made a swishing noise. Inside was a very elegant, dusky woman wearing Chanel jewellery. A woman of a certain age - my age. The owner of La Perle Noire, she had seen me outside taking notes and wanted to invite me for coffee.

Despite all my mother's warnings, I jumped into the vast leather seat and we drove round the corner to Cafe Leffe on place General de Gaulle.

Bakhta was Egyptian. Since she spoke not a word of English and I only five or six of French, our conversation was rather stilted. Still, I did learn she had practised Thai kick-boxing for 15 years, winning regional and national titles. She even removed her cashmere cardigan so I could feel her biceps. They were rock-like.

She poked a finger into her smooth, dark thighs, which bulged from under her tight, houndstooth miniskirt. I was impressed, and just a little bit frightened. What if a rose-seller turned up?

She had to go home to bed, she was tired. Me, I still had work to do. So I walked her to her car, waved goodbye and headed for the hotel. It started to rain again, but softly.


Getting there: Hoverspeed (0304 240241) offers a three-day return for a car and up to five passengers from pounds 145; P & O European Ferries (0304 203388) has a similar deal from pounds 75; Stena Sealink (0233 647047) presently offers the cheapest rate for pounds 70.

Accommodation: For cheapness: the Formule 1 (010 33 21 96 89 89) - next to the Mammouth (see left) with rooms for pounds 16 a night - is hard to beat. Best bet is the Holiday Inn (010 33 21 34 69 69) on the quay with rooms from pounds 40 per night.

Restaurants: Top rated place is the Cote d'Argent (010 33 21 34 68 07) on Digue Gaston Berthe, set menus from around pounds 10. Those on a budget should visit Flunch (see Continent below).

An hour to spare: Take a five-minute drive to the visitor centre for the Channel tunnel which offers a panoramic view of the impressive construction site.

Hypermarkets: The Continent (worth visiting for its Flunch restaurant) is a mile and a half from the ferry port, just off the road to Dunkerque. The Mammouth is two miles out of town on the N1 to Boulogne and is the smarter of the two.

Tourist office: 12 boulevard Clemenceau, Calais (010 33 21 96 62 40).

(Photographs and map omitted)