Welcome to Lille – the base for Stage 1 of our La Grande Tour and home to the Aussie friends we’ll be spending the next couple of weeks road-tripping with.
Known also as Rijsel (in Flemish), Lille just happens to be (in my humble opinion) a very under-rated city.
What makes Lille different to many other French cities is that it wasn’t French until – in European terms – relatively recently. Louis XIV captured it in 1667 for the French. Before that, the city – along with much of Belgium and part of the Netherlands – belonged to Flanders. To this day it’s that Flemish influence that is responsible for much of Lille’s charm with the Flemish influence evident in its buildings, its food and its beers.
Vieux Lille by old car…
The best way to see the old town – or Vieux Lille – is on foot. The next best way to see Vieux Lille is the way we did, in a Citroen 2CV with a local to guide you.
These cute little cars are narrow enough to get into the narrowest of the cobbled streets – and Lille old town is full of narrow cobbled streets. Plus they’re super fun.
We were fortunate in that our guide/driver was a local, Louis, who happened to be studying architecture and was able to tell us – with passion – about all the different architectural styles: Flemish, Spanish and French.
Vieux Lille by foot…
I could have wandered these streets for hours – picture perfect cobbled streets with everything from High Street fashion brands to artisan chocolates to homewares to cheese and charcuterie to…you get the idea.
Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille…
This is not your average cathedral. For starters, it’s relatively new and a divisive mix of gothic and contemporary styles. As Louis told us, people either love or hate it.
Although building commenced in 1854, two world wars slowed progress substantially to the extent that the front was pretty much boarded up in 1947. This temporary wall was destroyed in the early 90’s and the new contemporary wall – very different from the remainder of the cathedral – was installed.
What’s really interesting about this wall is that it’s constructed of 110 sheets of thin marble that take on a glorious orange sheen when lit by the sun. Another cool thing about this front is that it’s not actually moulded to the rest of the structure.
The marble also apparently contains some symbols that you wouldn’t expect to see on a cathedral – symbols like the belfry of Lille, E=mc2, and even cosmonauts. I would have paid more attention had I done my research before-hand.
Inside, just like outside, is a mix of old and new. Contemporary abstract art is combined with more traditional French styles and is both surprising and refreshing.
Warning – airborne calories…
These cute little shops in Vieux Lille contain not so hidden dangers of the calorific sort. Oh. My.
One of these, Meert, has been serving exquisite chocolate and patisserie to those who could afford it since 1761 – which, back in those days were kings and generals and the like.
We bought a merveilleux from Aux Merveilleux de Fred – apparently the only place one should ever purchase merveilleux from. What is it? Light as air.
The merveilleaux is comprised of two feather-weight meringues sandwiched together, coated in whipped cream and rolled in chocolate shavings. Aside from a thin crispness to the bottom of the meringue, the rest of the merveilleaux dissolves in a puff of air. It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Where we ate…
Brasserie La Paix – a little bit of art deco glamour amongst the cobbles.
This was our first introduction to Prix-Fixe or a “formule” – fixed price menus.
These are great options. Originally designed to fit in with lunch hours, most restaurants offer 2 or 3 courses at a good price. In the case of Le Paix, it was 5-star French service for a 3-star price tag.
For 18 euros you got either an entree and plat (main) or plat and dessert. Not bad value.
I chose the salade aux trois fromages (three cheese salad) and Dos de lieu avec endives braisees et sauce maltoise – essentially fish with braised endives and an orange sauce to cut through the bitterness of the endive. Hubby had the terrine and a carbonade.
Where we stayed…
With our friends in a village about 10 minutes from Lille. There was a boulangerie about 10 minutes walk away that sold amazing croissants for less than a euro and farms and gorgeous gardens in the other direction.
In the North East of France near the Belgian border, Lille is just an hour on the TGV from Charles De Gaulle. We paid 45 euros for a first class seat – after spending the previous almost 24 hours in a cramped economy seat we were happy to pay for some comfort and a little extra luggage room. As an aside, Lille is also a short hop to London – 90 minutes by Eurostar…just saying.