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!