A walk through Lille
14 April, 2014
Just mentioning that you are travelling to Lille [Lil] will provoke the inevitable question of ‘where is it’?. Close to the Belgian border, it couldn’t have better communications: 20 minutes from Belgium, 1 hour from Paris and 1 hour 20 minutes from London, Lille is the perfect union of the French and the Flemmish.
We’d been travelling for 3 days and had time to visit Arras. We arrived on a Tuesday and we were taken directly (thanks to a kamikaze driver that drove faster than Fernando Alonso) to Arras. A city (a small one) that over 4 years was destroyed by the war (as in the rest of the north and border country) and which has been entirely rebuilt. We were taken through the tunnels that been home to thousands of soldiers and to the museum that houses the carriages of the Palace of Versailles… Ohhh, they were spectacular (the rich, although this was 600 years ago, already living like real and privileged kings of the 21st Century).
The carriages will be at the Fine Arts Museum of Arrasuntil November: traps sculpted into the shape of animals, sedan chairs and horse harnesses, including the coaches from the wedding procession of Napoleon I, the coronation carriage of Charles X and the impressive funeral carriage of Luis XVIII. Literally impressive: we were taking pictures of the biggest carriage in the museum (they had to bring it in piece by piece) and we turned around and saw the funeral carriage. We were amazed. Was it a curiosity? The children’s’ carriages were pulled by… ponies?? No. By goats. An incredible exhibition that we can’t recommend too highly.
The bell tower of the City Hall is part of the national UNESCO heritage. And it comes as no surprise. You just can’t resist going up it and, apart from enjoying the view, touching the bell and its enormous clock. If you are lucky enough for the bells to chime just as you are descending the spiral staircase, you’ll see how intensive and deafening it is. It is here where the soldiers hid inside these stone tunnels. The most interesting aspect is its history and this place simply breathes it.
To see all this, you will have passed through the Grande Place. Destroyed in the First World War, this square built in a Flemmish-Baroque style is an architectural marvel. Every Wednesday and Saturday morning you can enjoy its market and in addition, if it rains, there’s no problem as the arches that encircle the square mean that the market can be moved to a covered area.
The most interesting aspect is that it is not only the exterior of the square attracts your attention. It also has underground walkways that were, in their day, first reserved for the carriages, but secondly, they were used as store rooms, refuges and hospitals during the 1944 bombardments.
5 hours is enough, don’t you think?
The following day we awoke in Lille at dawn. The city has two metro lines. Don’t take them as there’s no need. Walk through the streets to start with and enjoy its architecture. Don’t waste your time and money on the metro. You can see they have a community bicycle system or “bicing”, just like in many other cities. We’d recommend you hire one rather than use your own as it’s much, much cheaper.
If anyone feels like taking the tour bus, it’s best they don’t. It takes almost 1 hour in which you see everything, but from a long way away. But walking around for the morning, you can enjoy every corner. We were able to see just how patient the residents of Lille are: a lorry unloading at 10:15 in the morning and after almost 15 minutes not one car had hooted, not even a gentle beep, nothing. Amazing patience.
Going out (eating and drinking)
It’s not easy to eat out well and cheaply in Lille. The best option is to go to one of its typical taverns that provide meals for the workers and where each tavern makes its own beer. Do you like beer? If so, you’ll love the Lille taverns.
Estaminet is an example of a good, nice and cheap tavern. What about salads? Just one serving can feed 3. And what’s the typical dish? Meat cooked in its own homemade beer with potatoes is a delicacy to be enjoyed by people with a healthy appetite. In addition, there is one cold dish they serve in gelatine (even today): with different types of meat, this is a dish that will definitely rekindle your energy. For dessert, as in any restaurant in the city (something to remember), either ask for a coffee or a gourmet coffee: they will serve you your coffee together with a board with 4 mini desserts on it. Yummy… This is something we should definitely import ipso facto.
Chicorée is the ideal place to have a beer and try its crème brûlée. Delicious.
If your gourmet coffee hasn’t filled you up enough, go straight along to Meert: one of the oldest patisseries in the country that has been in business since 1761 to make everything you see before you irresistible. You can’t see them, but inside there are two dining rooms where you can sit and enjoy their pastry delights at any hour of the day. What’s the most typical? Their vanilla and caramel waffle. But be warned these are not like the waffles we know in Spain but are thinner and with two together make a vanilla and caramel sandwich.
The rue Solferino is the street where you can find most of Lille’s pubs and discos. Taking a walk through the Vieux district without having a beer somewhere along the line is almost impossible.
As regards what you should not miss and what is an example of how to make the best use of space is Le Piscine. A swimming pool that was going to be demolished, transformed into a museum: sculpture, painting and clothes collections are organised and structured with a logical order that is breath-taking. A place that, even if it hadn’t been converted into a museum, is worthy of a visit: with its huge swimming pool, the men’s and women’s changing rooms, the first jacuzzi and the shower rooms exude the history of everything that took place within. Marvellous.
The best thing of all is that, in the centre, you can find: the Opera House, the Stock Exchange, French and Flemmish architecture (you will be able to identify it because of its typical colours, gilded with red brick) its fountain and the statue of the woman that looks over the square.
Before you reach the Museum of the Comtesse de Lille Hospice (a hospice and orphanage dating from the 15th Century), an intact building and one we recommend you arrive at 1 hour before it closes (if not, they get upset and only let you visit two rooms), we’d advise you to go inside the cathedral Notre-Dame de la Treille: situated in the old heart of Lille, the main facade is the least attractive we have seen for a long time. Certainly it would put you off going in. Bad idea. The interior of the cathedral hides a view of the facade that we are not going to reveal to you here. It’s so worthwhile having a look. You’ll be astonished at how a facade that looks as though it belongs to a factory can hide away so many surprises.
Shopping and markets (the biggest in Europe)
In the Grande Place, you will find Furet du Nord, the biggest bookshop in Europe. This is a talking point. You’ll find it hard not to come across a book that you didn’t even know existed.
Ombre Portées is a very special perfumery. For expert noses of scents, this is the most exclusive perfumery in the north of France: everything that is not found on the commercial circuit, they have here. Personal service and a selection of scents and perfumes that, if you like this sort of thing, you just have to go in and ask. You won’t be disappointed.
Philippe Olivier is a cheese shop that you barely notice as you walk by. 30 seconds away from the Meert Patisserie, in a tiny street, means that you might pass right by without even seeing it. Small but with the best selection of cheeses in Lille, you have to go in, listen to the recommendations and walkout with a delicious cheese.
In the Place du Concert, you can enjoy a typical regional market every Sunday morning.
It’s a university city in winter, and if everything we’ve explained here is not enough for you, during the first weekend in September, Lille hosts the biggest market in Europe. Yes it does. It’s 100 kilometres in length with 10,000 vendors and one tradition: eating mussels and chips. Without a shadow of a doubt, we’ll be back in September.
By Elisa G Martin
We’re going so why don’t you come along too Have a look at our flights here.
14 April, 2014