Three Days in Lille: Day 3 – A Bit of Culture

Our last day started off a bit grey, slightly damp, but surprisingly mild.  Our train didn’t leave until 20:30, so we had one whole day left to explore.  After breakfast we packed our bag and left it with the hotel, to be collected later on the way to the station.

The Place de la République is a beautiful square with the Palais des Beaux Arts (1892) on one side of the square and the Préfecture (1865) directly opposite on the other.  There is a fountain in the middle in front of the Palais and a modern sunken garden with seating opposite the Préfecture.

We had passed by or through this square many times to and from our hotel.  I thought as the weather was not so great, we should at least go into the Palais to look at the art collection.  There is an entrance to the front of the museum.  In this instance, there was a red velvet curtain covering the doorway which made us think this was not the case.  It is there to keep the draft out.  The museum was very quiet and fairly empty, which I found unusual compared to other art museums I had visited.  We paid our money and checked our coats to look at the collection.  The building is quite grand without being over the top.  On the main floor there is an interesting collection of ceramics from the area and other parts of Europe.  There is also an amazing collection of sculptures.  There were a few little pieces by Rodin that I wouldn’t have minded taking home with me.  After viewing everything on this floor, Amor and I had a break and ordered some coffee from the bar.  It is also possible to order alcoholic drinks and they also serve lunch.  Our coffee was excellent, very strong.

Upstairs is where you will find the painting collections.  There is everything from Dutch Masters, Medieval and religious paintings, Renaissance and some modern.  We made an effort to look at everything, some we liked and others not.  Even if I didn’t like a painting, I could appreciate its’ place in history and the talent and work behind it.  Every once in awhile, I would come across a piece that was truly amazing and inspiring.  Oh, the joy when that happens!

Downstairs, in the basement, there is an incredible of collection of scale models of the former French Netherlands from the 17th – 19th Centuries.  These are truly amazing masterpieces of miniaturization and we spent a lot of time here viewing them all.

A visit to any museum is not complete without a visit to the museum shop.  I purchased a copy the English version of The Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.  It is a wonderful reminder of the beautiful works we had spent the past few hours viewing.  I am looking forward to reading more about the museum and the collection.  The shop also has the typical tourist items such as pens, notebooks, pencil sharpeners, plus some more expensive items such as silk scarves, china cups, jewellery and sculptures.  If the rate of exchange had been better, I might have been tempted to buy one of the scarves as they were very beautiful.  The website listed at the end of this post is very informative thereby making it easier to plan a visit in advance.

When we went outside we were pleased to note that the weather had brightened up.  Where to next?  I wanted to go back to The Old Town.  I am a sucker for bright colours, plasterwork cherubs and wrought iron railings!  We went back to Grand Place in search of food before going to The Old Town.  Being on the constant lookout for sustenance in a country where you don’t speak the language and are on a budget can be tiresome after a few days.  We went into the nearest establishment, The Hippopotamus Restaurant Grill, a chain restaurant.   The prices on the fixed menus were reasonable and I ordered a steak, with salad and chips.  Amor had Thai kebabs to start and a steak with baked potato.  For a chain restaurant, the food was cooked very well and the portions were reasonable.  We skipped coffee and dessert. This was to be our last meal of the day.  If we had wine instead of beer (€5 per bottle of Kronenbourg white beer) the bill would have been more reasonable as the drinks cost almost as much as a meal.

After lunch, we walked towards The Old Town.  We ended up on streets we hadn’t been on before, which is what I had hoped we would do.  I was still searching for another café/patisserie for coffee and cake, but no luck there.  After a nice long walk and to kill some time before we went back to the hotel to collect our bag, we went into a bar, for a beer, and a pit stop (another pissoire).  That is where I got the news of my exchange.  Hallelujah!  We had another beer to celebrate the good news!

On the way back to the hotel I took these photos of the Chambre de Commerce, at night.  They are not that great, but it gives you an idea of how lovely the place is, even in the dark.

We also stopped into a supermarché as I wanted to see if there was anything interesting to bring back home since we had some room in our bag.  Amor found some of the local beer that was on offer at our last restaurant for €9 and being sold in the train station for €12.  We paid €2.50!  We bought a bottle each of Les 3 Monts and Ch’ti, both of which were very good and is recommended if you like blonde beer.

We collected our bag and walked back to the station.  I was a little bit sad to leave as we were just really getting to know and love Lille.  The journey back was a Disneyland nightmare and full of kids making a racket.  Who in their right mind takes kids under the age of 10 to a theme park!  Having a little snooze was out of the question.  Fortunately the rest of the journey, once we got off the Eurostar, was uneventful.

What I have learned from my trip to Lille: Lille is a walking city and is very compact.  The city map makes everything seem further away than it actually is.  Exploring the city in sections was a sensible idea as it gave us an opportunity to take our time and wander at our own pace.  Until the last day, we didn’t go into any of the museums or tourist sites as we wanted to take advantage of the good weather.  By going down a street that is not on the tourist route, one might discover something interesting.   It is very difficult to get lost in Lille.  Wear comfy shoes for walking as some of the older sections of town are cobblestoned, which can make walking difficult in heels.  Unless you have issues with mobility, or are just plain lazy, forget about purchasing a City Pass.  It may let you into most museums for free with unlimited access to public transportation, but how much of it are you actually going to utilise before you realise that it was easier (and cheaper) to walk, and you were only able to go to one museum per day?  I can’t see it being economical unless one is on a strict and regimented schedule to cram in as many museums in one day as possible, or unless the weather is particularly hideous that it is better to be under cover at all costs.  We were fortunate with the weather and walked everywhere.  A three day trip was just enough time to explore and visit a few attractions and to get the feel of the city.

Most Essential Items: The two guide books in my first post were invaluable.  Compared to the MapGuide, The AA guide had more detailed information on the history of Lille, the top ten sights, shopping, eating out, and a couple of walks.  The MapGuide was really useful as the city was divided into sections, with fold out maps of each section, and with basic information about the tourist sites in the area as well as shopping and restaurants.  My camera goes everywhere with me.

What I would do differently next time: The next time I go to Lille I would most likely start my day earlier.  Depending on the weather, I would make an effort to visit more of the attractions such as the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, the Befroi de l’Hotel de Ville (Town Hall Belfry) and the many parks and green spaces.  I would eat less food, or eat different food.  I enjoy eating potatoes in any shape or style and am particularly partial to chips, which are served with everything, but there was a bit of over kill on the carb front.  I normally don’t eat wheat and didn’t think a  baguette or piece of cake would an issue, but my digestion can’t handle it and I would really need to be selective with my meals.  As the Euro is almost on par with Sterling, budgeting meals better can mean that there would be more money for shopping!  I would drink wine instead of beer – it’s cheaper and isn’t made of wheat.  I would also pack fewer clothes.  If I needed anything, I could always go into one of the many shops or markets and pick something up!

Palais des Beaux Arts, Place de la République – http://www.pba-lille.fr

Hippopotamus Restaurant Grill, 2, rue Faidherbe – http://www.hippopotamus.fr/

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Three Days in Lille: Day 2 – More Food and Exploring

I woke up refreshed and to find the weather brighter than the day before.  We had a loose agenda for the day:  have breakfast, go to the Wazemmes market, and do some more exploring.

First, breakfast!  The food on offer was a continental breakfast, and what was available was fresh and good.  Coffee came from a machine, which was the only downside for me.  There was a choice of fresh fruit salad, boiled eggs, ham, cheese, cereal, juice, baguettes, assorted mini croissants, yoghurts, assorted jams (in individual glass pots), honey, butter, etc.  I didn’t notice any hot food being available.

After breakfast, we walked down Rue Leon Gambetta (or Gambetta as it is known) toward the Wazemmes market.  The market opens at 7am and closes at 2pm.  The best and most interesting day for the market is on Sunday, where you can buy anything from puppies to panties.  We weren’t staying until Sunday, so we went to the market on Thursday when it is a bit low key, no puppies.  The market is still very busy on Thursdays.  There are a vast array of stalls on many of the little side roads off of Gambetta that flow into the Rue de Sarrazins and around.  You can find people selling clothes (women’s, men’s and children’s), shoes, toys, house hold products, fabric, jewellery, cosmetics, records and books, knick knacks, cooked food, fruits, vegetables, etc.  The restaurants in the area will sell food outside their premises.  There is a covered market where people sell food from all areas of the world, but we didn’t quite manage to go inside.

The flavour of the market is definitely ethnic.  There are Middle Eastern, African, Turkish, Indian, Central European and people of other nationalities selling a vast array of goods.  There are as many different ethnic restaurants in the area.  The Wazemmes or Lille Sud area is a bit down trodden in comparison to other areas of Lille we had experienced the day before and subsequently.  The houses are a bit smaller and shabbier.  Although it seems a bit shabby, I really liked the flavour of the place and it reminds me of certain neighbourhoods in New York.  I like the variety of people and the casualness of the neighbourhood.  Amor and I explored the market and eventually made our way out of the hustle and bustle towards Rue Des Postes down towards Boulevard Montebello.  Architecturally, Boulevard Montebello was not too interesting, but it picked up a little bit and improved when we got to Place Cormontaigne where we stopped into a café for a coffee, pit stop, to get our bearings and work out where we were going to go next.

I thought it would be a good idea to carry on walking toward the canal and along i towards the Citadelle.  It wasn’t a very nice walk as it isn’t possible to walk along the canal until one comes to Jardin Vauban.  We arrived at a beautiful war memorial near the entrance to the Citadelle.  There is a very large park surrounding it that contains a zoo with over 400 animals.  It is not possible to go inside the Citadelle walls without making prior arrangements through The Tourist Office.  Then one must give 24 hr. notice and visits can only be made on certain days.  I think it could be a very interesting tour.  We were very happy to have a look from the outside.  As you can see, the entrance is very impressive.

On our way out, we crossed the car park to Pont du Ramponneau into Vieux-Lille (Old Lille) toward the centre and Place du Géneral De Gaulle or Grande Place.  This is where I went crazy about the Architecture.  The oldest part of Lille is probably the most beautiful.  We found a restaurant in Grande Place to have lunch.  I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but it was opposite the McD’s on the other side of the square and we could see the statue of Déesse from the window.  The decor was pleasant and modern with some amusing and unusual artwork on the walls.  The restaurant served traditional French food.  I had the Carbonnade, which is beef cooked in a sauce flavoured with beer, onions, brown sugar and thickened with gingerbread, sort of like a stew.  It came with chips.  Amor had a special type of sausage of pork and herbs (and chips!).  My meal was excellent.  It wasn’t too sweet, the meat was very tender and flavoursome.  Amor wasn’t too sure about his sausage.  He liked the taste, but wasn’t sure about the texture.  The sausage fell apart when he cut into it.  I guess it depends on what one is used to.  I didn’t try it as I don’t generally eat pork.  We didn’t have coffee or dessert.  It took awhile for our bill to arrive.  I think the restaurant was a bit short-staffed and our waiter was running around all over the place.  I took this opportunity to use the facilities, which were very nice.

We decided to do the second walk in the AA book, Vieux Lille – the Old Town on page 38.  I went a bit mad with the camera.  There was so much to look at.  There were so many interesting details on many amazing buildings.  The shops were amazing.  There were designer shops left right and centre, many I never heard of.  I fell in love with a pair of purple, suede, pull on boots.  Purple is one of this season’s colours.  Unfortunately, they were out of my budget, ouch!  There were also many pátisseries, chocolate shops, trendy bars and restaurants.  The Old Town provides a feast for the eyes and palate.  I may have driven Amor a bit crazy with my camera antics and continually pointing things out to him by saying, “Ooh, look at that!” every few seconds!

We went inside the Cathédrale NotreDame de la Treille, a neo-Gothic cathedral started in 1854 and eventually completed in November 1999. This building took many years to complete as work completely stopped in the 1940’s.  If one looks at the building carefully, you can see the various styles of work done through the ages.

We continued walking around Old Lille making our way back to Grand Place and The Opera.

It was teatime and I fancied a coffee and cake.  None of the pátisseries we came across had anywhere to sit to have cake and coffee.  It was either cake or coffee, except for the famous Pátisserie Méert. The building is beautiful and elegant on the inside as it is on the outside.  The premises have been extended and there are several rooms, including a courtyard, to have your coffee (they also serve tea) and cake.  We were seated in the back with a view of the courtyard.  We were given a menu, in French.  I could understand a bit of it, but when it came to the cakes, we were a bit lost and had to ask the waiter for advice.  This is what we ordered.

We both had café crème.  I had the rhum au baba and Amor had a chocolate cake.  The chocolates are complimentary and come with the coffee.  Everything was divine.   The coffee was excellent, the chocolate cake was to die for, the baba was sublime, and the chocolates were coffee praline (we saved them for later).  We had all of this for €25, which is about £25!  It’s a bit shocking really, but it was soooo worth it.  Would I go back here again?  Definitely, and I would choose different cakes, and take photos of the interior and the loos, which were very pretty.  After our decadent feast, we walked around the Grand Place some more before heading back to our hotel for a snooze before dinner.

It was our last night out in Lille.  We had been out walking all day (apart for the time we were eating) and we wanted to eat at a restaurant near the hotel.  We brought out the guide books for well, guidance.  We decided to go to Le Chat qui fume (The Smoking Cat).  It was practically around the corner from us, was supposed to serve traditional food, and it had a cool name. (We found it in the MapGuide book.)  If we weren’t looking for it, we would have walked right by the restaurant.  It had an unassuming front, though the figure of a smoking cat was a good clue.  We went inside.  The place is quite small, but it had a lovely atmosphere, very cosy.  There was an upright piano that made up part of the bar, and as one would expect, there were pictures and paintings of smoking cats and other cats on the walls.  The place was very quiet and we were the only people in there until a small group arrived about a half an hour later.  Our waiter was friendly and very helpful as the menu was in French.  Amor had a steak with baked potato. I had the potatoes dauphinoise with Maroilles, a soft creamy cheese, and a side salad.  Amor’s steak was cooked perfectly and my potatoes were delicious with a delicate flavour from the cheese.  Amor had a beer with his meal and I had a small carafe of rosé wine.  As with all the places we had been to, there was no hurry for anything and we had a relaxed evening out and enjoyed a lovely meal.

Pátisserie Méert: 27 rue Esquermoise – 59000 Lille – http://www.meert.fr

Le Chat qui fume: 3, Rue Henri Kolb, 59000 Lille

Three Days in Lille: Day 1 – Exploring

Lille is a shopper’s and foodie’s paradise.  You can find designer clothes in the Old Town to cheap tat in the markets.  The markets are also a great place to find amazing fruit and vegetables.  I was very excited to see what Lille had to offer in the way of merchandise, but the first quest was for food.  We were hungry!  The rate of exchange with the Euro doesn’t make travelling in Europe a bargain as it used to be.  In fact, the Euro is pretty much on par with Sterling.  In one respect, it does make it easier to guess how much things cost!  Eating out in restaurants is not cheap.  Even the set meal fixed menus (less expensive and half the price of a la carte in the evening) can seem expensive if you are not used to paying £15 per head per person for lunch back in the UK.  I wasn’t going to worry about such things on this trip as it was only for a few days and I wanted to experience everything that was French.

We were staying in the Latin Quarter, near Place de la Republique.  The area is what could be termed, a bit ethnic.  I really liked it.  We went off in search of food in the opposite direction from where we arrived (the station).  It soon became apparent that everything was closed.  Usually, most restaurants will close after 2pm and then re-open again for dinner around 7pm.  As it was still quite early, we realised that most places were closed because it was a bank holiday.  Even the shops were closed.  We worked out that we would be better off heading back toward the station where many restaurants and touristy bistros were open.

The weather was a bit dull and chilly, but dry, so we happily walked towards the Palais Rameau, along the Boulevard Vauban, the Boulevard de la Liberté and found a little restaurant somewhere off of the Rue Nationale.  We saw many splendid buildings on the way.  For once I restrained myself from taking photographs.  Firstly, we were on a mission to find some food.  Secondly, I didn’t want to bore Amor too early on in the trip with my photographic obsession of architecture.  Instead, I settled for pointing out all the wonderful details of each and every building we passed!  ‘Ooh, look at that balcony, and look at that wonderful plasterwork!’  “Look at those wonderful windows and the amazing door on that building!”  I’m not sure if he would have been better off if I had taken pictures instead!

I can’t remember the name of the first restaurant we went to or what street it was on (somewhere near Saint Etienne).  All I remember was that it was a grill restaurant and it was next to a seafood restaurant.  It was getting late and I was too hungry to make note of it.  The speciality was grilled and spit meat.  Amor had a steak and I had chicken.  We opted for the special potatoes which are placed under the spit meat and where the juices drip onto and soak into them.  It was disgustingly delicious.  One couldn’t eat that every day without clogging one’s arteries, but it has to be tried at least once!  We also had salad, and beer.  All the guidebooks tell you that beer is a specialty in Lille.  It is also very expensive.  I am a bit partial to white beers, but I don’t think that it helped my digestion much.  So unless you really like beer, go for the wine as it is less expensive.  Amor’s steak was cooked ‘medium’, but in France that is actually ‘rare’ and the meat was very tender.  My chicken was very tender and moist as one would expect of a spit roast chicken.  We were both very pleased with the meal, the portions which were substantial, and the service.  There was no hurry with our lunch even though it was late.

For the record, Amor and I do not speak French.  We can do the basics.  Fortunately, many of the people we encountered in Lille have some English.  I think that Eurostar going there may have had a hand in that.  We have also found that the service in the majority of establishments we had ventured into was very good and most people were quite friendly.

Not having any room for coffee or dessert, we paid our bill and set off again to do some exploring.  This time we had a little agenda. In the guide books I listed in my previous post, the AA book on Lille has a couple of walks listed.  As we were near Rue Nationale, we started from there and did the walk on page 34, 19th Century Lille.  Amor was the tour guide and I had the book with the maps from the other book.  As he read out the walk and talked about what we were seeing, I navigated with the map.  What a team!

I couldn’t refrain from taking photos and here are a few I took from that walk.

One of the wonderful things about Lille is the many cafés that abound.  It is reassuring knowing that one can make a pit stop if required, have a coffee or a drink.  People leave you alone and respect your privacy.  Just a word of advice for the ladies:  Please don’t be surprised if you can’t find a door that says dames.  Sometimes there is only one toilet and there will also be a urinal in the room.  Fortunately, I hadn’t experienced the potential embarrassment of coming across a gentleman using one, either while walking in or coming out of the loo.  We had a coffee at a café on the corner of Rue Gosselet opposite the Parc J.B. Lebas.  It was quaint and what I would consider very French, with old pictures on the walls, lots of wood, a few booths, and is where I had my first experience of the pissoir.  We warmed up and got our bearings before carrying on with our walk which took us back towards our hotel.

We had a rest in our hotel before we ventured out for dinner and discovered the joy of a very comfortable bed and pillows.   I am really fussy about pillows and these were perfect.  I almost didn’t want to get out of bed at dinnertime, but needs must and Amor was hungry.  I was still stuffed from my lunch.  It must have been those potatoes!

Between Rue Nationale and Rue du Molinel, and diagonally across the Place de la Republique, there is a pedestrian shopping precinct.  There are shops, cinemas, cafés and restaurants.  This area is towards the train stations and where we had earlier glimpsed the only restaurants open, and without any hesitation, we headed in that direction for our dinner.

Walking along Rue de Béthune, we were surprised to see so many people at the cinema.  When Amor commented on this, I remembered that a French friend of mine had told me that Wednesday is cinema night and the government encourages people to go and see movies and is why there is crap TV on Wednesdays.  That was good a reason as any.  There were restaurants offering cheap meals and cinema tickets!

We walked around the shopping area to see what the restaurants had on offer.  We ended up back in front of Aux Moules. Having had mussels the weekend before travelling, we thought we might be overdoing it on the mussel front, but the restaurant looked inviting, and although busy, it was the least hectic in the area.  So we went in.  Table for two, no problem, but we had to move as it was reserved, no problem.  The decor was very old fashioned with many old photographs all over the walls.  There were lovely old lights with little coat hooks on.  It was very quaint and welcoming.  The waiter, an older gentleman, was amusing and very sweet.  Amor had the Moules Mariniere and I had a goat’s cheese salad as I wasn’t that hungry.  We also ordered beers.  The food was amazing!  I am a new recruit to eating shellfish and these mussels were divine.  They were very tender and gently flavoured by the liquid.  The chips that came with them were excellent – crisp and dry.  My salad was very good.  There is no comparison between the two meals, but as a salad goes, there was not one wilted leaf, my bread was perfectly toasted, the cheese was very creamy and the dressing had just the right amount of bite.  Between bites of salad, Amor would feed me a mussel as there were so many.  We took our time eating.  No-one was in a hurry.  The waiters weren’t either, but they always seemed to turn up when you needed them.  I was happy to have just coffee after our meal, but Amor also wanted dessert.  There was a chocolate mousse on the menu that looked very tempting!  I told Amor that I didn’t want dessert, but I just wanted to have a bite of what he was going to have.  Amor told the waiter, in his best French, that he would like two coffees and one chocolate mousse.  The waiter told him, in French, that he would see if there was any chocolate mousse left, and then he came back with two!  He disappeared before we could say anything.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the mistake and did what I had to do.  I had to eat my own chocolate mousse.  The only problem with the dessert was that it was huge!  There was no way I was going to do this wonderful chocolateyness any justice.  I managed to get halfway through it before I had to put the spoon down.  I thought it was a good effort.

After dinner, we walked around the shopping area some more before going back to the hotel. Lille is lovely at night.  Although the Christmas lights were up, it was unfortunate that they weren’t lit up while we were there.  I think that they might be on now as the Christmas market has been taking place since the 18th of November.  I would expect that the lighting would be spectacular now.  The fountain in Place de la Republique looked lovely.  I didn’t take a photo unfortunately.

All the food and walking tired me out and I was looking forward to getting back into our comfortable bed, but not before Amor made enquiries as to what time breakfast was being served until!