Last week was a killer. Due to various zz work/health/life woes I had spent quite a lot of the week fretting and stressing and slowly losing my mind at my desk. Add to that the fact I wore KNITWEAR three times, and a thermal once. It’s JUNE. Anyway all the more reason that my annual mother-daughter foreign adventure couldn’t have been better timed. This year we chose Lille. Our criteria for the trip had been:
- Somewhere we could reach on the Eurostar (we’re train geeks)
- Not too far to travel / no connections
- Reasonable weather
- Walkable once there
- Delicious Food / Wine
And Lille stepped up perfectly! With the trip taking only 1.5 hours from London (it takes me longer to get home to Yorkshire..!) and we also really lucked out, with glorious 25 degree+ sunshine every day of our trip. We stayed Friday – Sunday in the Hotel Flandre Angleterre , now usually anything containing any word resembling “English” has me envisioning horrific Brits-abroad images of lobster skin, faux fry-ups and posters of Beef Eaters. Luckily there was non of that in sight at our cheep and cheery little home-from-home. The staff were all so endlessly patient and friendly, and we had a light blow out in our room, which they fixed about 5 minutes after us asking! Upon arrival we instantly stumbled across the best water feature either of us has EVER seen, which sits outside the Gare de Lille (the Eurostar train station). If you took an initial look at the shallow concrete pool filled with questionable looking water, you could easily just pass on by with your nose in the air. However, every 15 minutes or so, water vapour steams urgently out of pipes around the pool! There is a wooden decking you can go stand on and be immersed in clouds of water. It doesn’t feel wet, just cold and refreshing and lovely.
Safe to say we spent about an hour scampering around, pretending to be in Jurassic Park or some misty Sherlock Holmes style London night. Aside from this, our first impressions were of “New” Lille, eg the bits around Lille Flandres which is the central station. I remember feeling twinges of disappointment at the sights that greeted us; huge commercial centres, casinos, sprawling shopping malls and modern student apartment blocks. Not exactly the France I had dreamt of. We had to kill a couple of hours before we could check in, so set off to the Parc Henri Matisse where we sat planning an itinerary using our guide book and a set of tips from the Eurostar site. Although in theory the park was pretty with lovely tunnels into overgrown greenery and an adventure playground, we felt quite intimidated walking around. Like most very-central urban parks it suffered from being full of some slightly unsavoury characters and we did get approached a couple of times and had to scuttle off. It wasn’t a great start… but don’t worry it gets aLOT better. There are much prettier green spaces, so if you visit I’d give this park a miss.
After we dumped our bags, we headed towards the Grande Place and suddenly Lille transformed into everything I’d have dreamt of. We passed really quirky French houses, with beautiful wooden shuttered windows, gaping wrought-iron gates and cute window gardens. I also made an AMAZING discovery about Lille – it’s the home of Speculoos! You may remember I got obsessed with Speculoos whilst over in New York, as Nora had tipped me off about purchasing some “Speculoos Cookie Butter” from Trader Joes. I came back with a jar of it (cursing myself for not buying 20 jars) and the rest is an addicts history. Whilst pottering around we replaced lunch with… a MASSIVE ice cream. I’m so glad my mum is a giant kid at heart too. I had a scoop of nutella and a scoop of speculoos ice cream and it was beyond good. The Grand Place is so beautiful, where we spent a lot of time gazing at buildings and the amazing statues that dot the tops of the architecture. There was always something lively going on there too, it’s quite similar to the main square in Bruges.
After walking 8 miles (I wear a FitBit and am a bit of a QS junkie but even so I was gobsmacked that we’d walked so far) we decided we’d prefer to take another mode of transport than our legs to explore. We hopped on an open roof mini-bus tour from the Tourist Office, it cost 10 Euros and consisted of an hour zooming around all of Lille with an audio tour and a nice added bonus of TV screens set up to show you the inside of all the key buildings. I have to confess a combination of all the walking, ice cream and hot hot sun shining on my noggin’ did mean that I snoozed away for twenty minutes of it… but my mum assured me it was a very thorough tour. Woops! After a freshen up and extended disco nap, we decided to take a punt on a restaurant I had seen from the mini bus (in the bit I was conscious for) and thought had looked pretty dreamy. Luckily, it was! Le Petit Barbue serves traditional French cuisine, and damn good wine. A helpful girl at the Tourist Office had recommended we try Carbonade which is a traditional French slowcooked beef stewed with Speculoos (!) and brown sugar. We also got a portion of brown shrimp Crevette & frites. The food was so delicious, every bite was perfection as we sat outside in the setting sun looking out onto the lawn with a beautiful golden angel statue towering over us, supping local red wine.
We kicked off Saturday by taking a pearl of wisdom from the guide book (which applies to any city really) by not opting for the expensive hotel breakfast buffet. Instead we wandered up to the Grand Place and went to the original Paul bakery. You may have visited the Paul kiosks in London, and this is where they all began! We tucked into a giant plateful of pastries, mainly of the chocolate variety, and a warm baguette to smother in salty French butter and confiture. As France isn’t very decaf friendly I just had to order a hot chocolate which was basically a cup of molten green & blacks. Beyond sinful! We ate their both days as it was too good to resist.
Saturday was one of those rare, sparkly, shiny gems of a day where everything went right. We got seats at Paul, despite it being heaving, and the sun was out and beaming on us as we embarked on our 20 minute stroll through “Old” Lille (cobbled streets, quirky buildings) to the city’s “green lungs” which consist of the Zoological Park and Bois de Boulogne which sit snugly up against the river. We started off at the Zoo, which is worth going to in the morning, before it’s swarming with families. The zoo was hands down the best zoo I have ever been to in my entire life. Considering I still have Valley of the Birds post traumatic stress disorder I was really nervous about another foreign wildlife enclosure encounter, but I was to be proved entirely wrong. Every animal was happy… gleeful infact! Each animal had public facing elements to their cage, but also vast space hidden from public eye. The zoo sprawls for miles and has just about every animal your heart could desire; red panda, the biggest owl EVER, tortoises, snakes, gibbons, pelicans, rhinos, alpaca, zebra… did I mentioned its FREE! FREE! Considering you can pay £20+ to get into London Zoo which looks bleak in comparison. I also discovered my all-time new favourite animal. This my friends is a mouse-deer. Two worlds of cute collide to create the perfect pocket pet.
The best part of the zoo by far was the white-handed gibbons. Usually you go to a zoo and see the huge monkey adventure playground and absolutely no monkey action. In fact the last time I was at London zoo, the gorilla was sat miserably trying to put a Hessian sack over his head, it was pretty heartbreaking. In Lille the gibbons were on FIRE! They were so happy, scampering around and playing, feeding and playing in the sunshine. It was so joyful to watch and we were hypnotised for an hour just staring. As we left the zoo, another primate in the zoo started making a low grunting noise, which set the gibbons off on a mad moment of squawking and shouting. This carried on for at least 30 minutes, and wherever the other primate was he was sure winding them all up a treat. After the zoo we went for a huge walk around the Bois de Boulogne, through forest and woodland canopies, riverside paths and wildflower meadows. It was so idyllic, and of course we got lost so had some extra walking around time that took us to the old city wall ruins and then a random military base. Eventually the noise of all the fun at the fair quavered through the air and, despite the fact it was a funfair meant for tiny children, we decided that since no one knew us and we didn’t speak the language, we’d have a go on some of the rides! Not before stocking up on fairground treats too – Nutella waffles, ice cream & hand-spun candy floss.
After a truly perfect day, we were worried our final meal in Lille had a lot of expectation groaning on it’s shoulders. We headed for Old Town again and if you go, I’d recommend you eat here rather than New Town. The narrow winding streets are packed with restaurants, all of which looked tempting. We headed to the Rue Saint-Jacque and found a tiny little traditional restaurant, which incredible bric-a-brac covered walls and even stuffed lapan on the window sills! We were very happy to see the other Lille-special on the menu that we had been told we HAD to try; welsch. It’s basically the BEST welsh rarebit you’ve ever eaten in your life, served bubbling away in a deep dish. My mum opted for one with a local cheese called Maroilles and I boldly opted for a mega stinky blue. They came with fries and a fresh lettuce salad and although we were groaning after consuming a vat of cheese between us, it was so tasty. We had to practically roll each other home though.
On our last morning we walked to the outskirts of Lille centre to the weekly flea market held the in residential area at Quartier de Wazemmes. I’ve been to plenty of markets and souks in my time but this was by far the biggest! It must have been over a mile long, with stall after stall of heaped spices, fresh herbs, fruit & veg, north African clothes, cheeses, knock off electronics, religious materials, antiques etc The smells are as impressive as the sights, and we must have looked like cartoon characters following our noses around to the most tempting stalls. The market is chaotic, slow moving, jam-packed down every strip of stalls. Your senses are absolutely plunged into market madness, and it’s a real experience. The nicest part was that we were the only tourists! I didn’t hear any accents other than French, and you can tell it’s mostly visited by families flocking there to stock up and bargain hunt. I was on the hunt for a nice Breton style top as it is true, French people LOVE a striped top and I had serious style envy. Sadly there wasn’t a stripe in sight at the market so I left empty handed and obsessed with tracking down the perfect stripe. I’m currently lusting over this Claude Pierlot number thanks to Wish Wish Wish’s recommendation but even IN the sale, it’s a little over budget. If you find yourself in Lille over a weekend – then the city centre shuts up on a Sunday, so Wazemmes is really the only thing you’ll find to do.
And there we go, that’s Lille. I felt like in 2.5 days we saw pretty much everything we wanted to (we aren’t really museum people, but I could see there were tons if you are) and it was just the right amount of time to soak everything up. I’d highly recommend a weekend in Lille to anyone. It was remarkably cheap – we did a cheapy train+hotel Eurostar deal, and I spend about £70 in total over the whole weekend and that included a little Sephora spree. As it’s so walkable there are no transport costs, and Paul bakery’s prices makes it hard to spend over a fiver in there. Lille’s finest quality is that despite it being on the Eurostar, it hasn’t started pandering to tourists. We barely saw a menu in English, there wasn’t a single tourist shop (no “I heart Lille” tees to be found) and we saw no hen do’s or gangs of ladz (sadly unlike Bruges and Prague). It has its problems (it smells of wee, basically all the time in the centre, and I saw 4 men just peeing in broad daylight on the street…) and the homeless issue was quite tough to take in. Obviously I live in London so it’s not new to me, but with that in mind I was still shocked by some of the scenarios and we only saw one police officer the whole trip, which makes me wonder if it’s just a situation that’s being ignored. That said, these are issues that any large city has to some degree, and Lille certainly will go down as one of my favourite weekend excursions. It really did have it all.
And next? Well despite having only been to France twice in my whole life, I am visiting it twice in two weeks! On Monday I jet to Nice, to spend a week in Cannes. Sadly this one isn’t a wine-and-cheese fest, it’s for work. I will spend 80% of the week in a conference centre BUT… I will try to escape and take some snaps of palm trees and beach parties when I can. Bon voyage (again)!