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Lille

We went to Lille because we could; because, from London, it can be day-tripped for reasonable prices. Indeed, as rosamicula, who organized the trip, observed, it is often cheaper to go to Lille than to York. It's also faster, a mere hour-and-a-half to a foreign country. And so we spent most of Wednesday in France.

The carriage was half-full, all the rest of the passengers suited up and formal, arriving in time for the start of a working day. Arriving was anti-climactic at first, an escalator, a flight of stairs, and then we were on the street, along a nondescript bit of sidewalk, having bypassed the station's interior entirely. The Lille Europe station is modern, clean lines, concrete and glass, and reminded me more of Ebbsfleet than any other station I've been in; their functions are similar, to add and subtract relatively minor numbers of passengers from a Eurostar train originating elsewhere. The station is across a wide bridge, spanning a grassy park, from EuraLille, a conveniently located large mall with a Carrefour in it, and Lille Flandres, the main train station.

Lille is the titular part of a conurbation of modern cities, the best known because it was a major cloth trading hub in the late fourteenth century, like the rest of Flanders. Vauban, Louis XIV's engineer, constructed a giant citadel there, still a military garrison, and only open for tours on Saturdays (currently). It was built along a river which, at some point, it misplaced.

We started our day with orientation, taking an hour's bus tour from the tourist offices, headphones to feed us our language-of-choice, a flat-screen t.v. to which our bus driver kept directing our attention, and windows for seeing the city. The driver kept tapping the screen to draw our attention back to important visual details - shots of the insides of surrounding buildings - because we were all prone to looking outside at the city itself instead. It was a useful orientation. It taught us that Lille is Europe's mail order capitol, and that the braderie - Europe's largest flea market, held annually on the first weekend of September - this weekend - attracts two million people. (I was SO glad we didn't go this weekend.) Piles of metal barriers were already mounded up around the city center, ready for channeling the forthcoming visitors.

The old city center isn't large, pleasantly accessible by foot, and we toured its approximate edges by bus: the museum of Beaux Arts, the old stock exchange, the old town hall, the Opera house, the Pont Neuf, a bridge which used to go over the river and now covers a park and roads, and back around by way of the station at which we'd arrived. I suspect the park between the stations also covers an area which used to be river. I wonder where the river went, but haven't gone so far as to read up on it yet. The missing Deule reminds of me the Thamesside walk which haggisthesecond and easterbunny and I took some years ago. We kept losing the Thames. It's a large river, so you would quite reasonably think this would be hard to do, and yet we kept managing it. Construction projects and veering paths kept taking us away from it, and we would struggle to find our way back to the missing river.

By the end of the tour, we were starving - it had been a fair many hours since our very early breakfasts - and so, consulting our assorted printouts, we went off to Meert, the city's best salon du thé and patisserie. It was a two-storied chamber of soothing whites, stone, chairs upholstered in green, windows, and a large sculpture made of chocolate. I learned the difference between gaufres. A waffle is not always a waffle as I have known them, but the very thin layers of waffleyness sandwiches between them a wonderfully vanilla creme. A waffle liègiouse is the kind I am more familiar with, apparently. My Intensive Cherry Cactus was a challenge to pronounce in French, but a pleasantly iced fruit smoothly, cold and deeply red. rosamicula, luckily for me, was unable to finish her large confection of smooth dark chocolate mousse, sugary meringue, rice crispies and more chocolate, so that helped sate the rest of my need for elevenses.

Our mistake at this point was not checking the time. Tip: The next time I day-trip anywhere, I will wear a watch. We were relying on our phones, which were tucked away. We went shopping: the takeaway shop at the front of Meert, a variety of beautifully-equipped kitchen shops, a branch of a chain which sells my favorite hand soap (Le Comptoir de Famille), an overheated organic grocery store. The weather was lovely, the day was young.... until we grew hungry again and realized that we'd been confused by the time difference. It was 2:30. Most lunch places had already stopped serving lunch.

That's why we went with the first restaurant which was willing to serve us, the two of us the only customers for a leisurely lunch in which each of us had one truly good meat course, and one disappointing fish/seafood course. Her foie gras was gorgeous; I stole its juices with the lovely little rolls which followed the flakey cheese straws with which we'd begun. My Iberian pluma piglet, fed on olives, was elegant and satisfying, richly dark, with heaps of finely chopped green onion and a rich onion-based sauce. The pile of semi-mashed potato was almost an afterthought. We talked over her cheese and a little farewell truffle, and were labeled as Americans (the only explanation so far to account for why they didn't charge us tax).

I hadn't drunk alcohol with my lunch since I was counting on a selection of champagnes at a wine bar/shop whose pamphlet I'd picked up back at tourist information, but it was not to be. The bar was a corner of the shop, a formal detail, almost an afterthought. It was mostly a wine shop, but one with well-informed staff to guide us to choices which matched our approximate ideals. Rain pattered briefly on the skylight, the day cooling with the afternoon.

We wandered a bit more. In one large plaza, a gaggle of students chanted loudly and incomprehensibly for a little while. Some of them were dressed like bumblebees, some like eighteenth-century gentlemen, the majority like modern students. They set off bottle rockets among themselves as we wandered off, more goodnatured and rowdy than out-of-control.

The timing of our train and our lunch between them meant that dinner was not going to happen. Time at the grocery store, right before our departure, was more important, so we loitered at a crêperie, all old, dark wood, mirrors, and banquettes, with a charming waiter who eventually switched to English towards the end of our time there. I had a minor crêpe filled with banana and topped with chocolate sauce. She had one mounded with sumptuous chestnut cream and whipped cream. I savored being back in a land with good apricot juice as a standard. rosamicula, for the second time that day, proved herself incapable of being anywhere near the table when her espresso arrived.

Back at the mall, the Carrefour was absolutely enormous, acres of food for the browsing. My travel companion intrepidly tracked down the obscure shopping carts so we could accumulate at leisure. Cheese proved a major distraction. I hadn't realized that the Trappist monastery which makes Chimay-the-beer also makes a cheese by the same name. I had fond memories of Livarot, and added a delicate Saint Marcellin. We explored the fruit and vegetables in detail, which is why it is nearly incomprehensible that we both missed all signs of weighing machines. We've both bought fruit & veg in France before and, had we seen them, would have known what to do. Still, the cart ended up with black radish, motley tomatoes, plums, and greengages between us.

rosamicula sold me on buying Speculoos biscuit-based spread through highly improbable means, and then, inevitably, we found the wine and the fruit liquors, which are so very inexpensive in France. Somehow, this accounts for how she came back with thirteen bottles PLUS a five litre box (=6.66 bottles, the wine box of the Beast). That she was able to carry all of them back shows how valuable regular exercise and strength-building is.

Then back to Lille Europe, where we closed down the café. Sometime in the last three months, Britain made itself new landing cards, which take a little longer to fill out than the old ones because they require more information I do not know off the top of my head. The train ride seemed relatively brief, and we were back in the unseasonably cold drizzle of London, laden with good things and the memories of a lovely day.

Comments

( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
the_gardener
Sep. 4th, 2009 04:35 pm (UTC)
I have seen Lille from the Eurostar on the way to or from Brussels for werk and have wondered what sort of place it might be, so this description was v. useful.
emmaco
Sep. 4th, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
Me too! Thank-you!
gillo
Sep. 4th, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
I've spent the odd hour in Lille a couple of times, but it's always been on my list for a visit. Thanks for a great - and mouthwatering - account.
la_marquise_de_
Sep. 4th, 2009 06:29 pm (UTC)
I had a feeling you'd enjoy Lille. It's a very civilised place.
del_c
Sep. 4th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
If the river was under a park, I'd expect the park's landscapers to have made a bit of it into a lake, the way the Tyburn was used for St. James' Park and the Ravensbourne for the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. The lake in St. James' was first made rectangular in the fashion of French ornamental lakes, then. with equal artifice, remade into the naturalistic shape we know today.

Alternatively, if the line of the river was made into a street, you might be able to walk along it, as with the Walbrook, or even look over it from a viaduct above, as with the Holborn (aka the Fleet, which was turned into Farringdon Road).
hobbitblue
Sep. 4th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
Ooh sounds a lovely trip, such tasty foods, yum. And weird that one can reach France more cheaply and more quickly than parts of Britain if you live in the right part to begin with! :)
printperson
Sep. 4th, 2009 09:49 pm (UTC)
Olive-fed piglet? Wow.
coughingbear
Sep. 5th, 2009 11:07 am (UTC)
That's a wonderful account. I tried to go to Lille for the day with some friends when the St Pancras end opened, but France was on strike so they sent us on to Brussels instead; you've prompted me to try and set that up again.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )