Saturday, 29 January 2011

FRANCE - Lille

With an early start, we made good time driving to Dover and were able to catch the ten o’clock Norfolk Line (Now DFDS Seaways) ferry to Dunkerque. Kent bore signs of recent snowfall. The drive into Lille took a little over an hour and we found the Ibis hotel easily. Lille had been spared the snow. We were well prepared for this two night visit, having acquired a Lille tourist office guide book. It was bitterly cold, but the town had a warmth about it. Our timing was perfect – Lille has a Christmas market and is famous for the big wheel that comes to town with it. The guide book suggested a series of self-guided walks to show the different eras that the town has experienced. We followed one route that afternoon, through the St Sauveur district revealing a mixture of architecture, old and new side by side, particularly the 17th century Porte de Paris gate, now encircled by early 20th century buildings.

Later, we walked the short distance into the town centre – Palais Rihour. The Christmas market stalls were lively and the mulled wine certainly helped keep us warm. The town has a very Flemish feel and most of the beer available was Belgian – no bad thing. However, the prices were amongst the highest we have seen - £7 for a 50cl beer. We settled for a bottle of wine with our evening meal at Le Brasserie du Pelican.

The following day, we made a reasonably early start as we had three more walking tours that we wished to follow. Our first stretch took us through the 19th century quarter. Broad tree lined avenues of town houses dominated the area, culminating in the Place de la Republique – a large square between the Palais de Beau Arts and the Prefecture, two fine 19th century buildings. Separating them was a fountain and it was sold cold, much of the water surface was frozen over.
Returning to Place Rihour, we followed the suggested route through ‘old Lille’. Many of these buildings date from 15th century to 17th century, with narrow cobbled streets and alleys. The surprise of all this though was the cathedral in the middle of it all. With 13th century origins, the façade was a disappointing bland addition from 1999.

The final route took us north west to the Canal de la Mayenne Deule and the 17th century Citadelle. This area felt more remote, perhaps because the canal. The buildings mostly appeared to be commercial in origin; storehouses and the like. We did not loiter long, favouring the bustle of the town centre. We ventured to EuraLille – a very large and modern shopping centre, complete with hotel, business facilities etc. Our timing was poor though as it was closed for business. The diversion did yield one benefit though.
We found a micro-brewery opposite the Gare Lille Flandres rail station (only 100 metres from our hotel). Les Trois Brasseurs proved to be the best value / best tasting establishment in town. Its existence was not a surprise as we had been forewarned by friends; however it was by good fortune that we should actually find it. We enjoyed a rack of beer – samples of their different beers produced on-site. After dark, the Place Rihour beckoned. We ate our meal and soaked up some atmosphere. It was not a festive atmosphere, just that which the town itself seemed to possess. We returned to the micro-brewery later in the evening as we felt we had not quite experienced all it had to offer….

Having been surprised by just how much could be bought at a mini-supermarket not fifty metres from the hotel, we departed for home. France was still grey but back in Dover, much of the snow was still present on the cliff tops. Two nights in Lille was just about right.

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