A Flemish snapshot of paradise in France.
There’s nothing as therapeutic as an uncharted gal-pal holiday to get over the blues of an Empty Nest syndrome. My friend Shami and I took off on a three week trip to Paris-Lille-London-Stockholm to celebrate the departure of our youngest children from the Nest. The basic idea was to settle her daughter Manisha in her University of Edhec at Roubaix. The larger plan involved having a rollicking time in Europe on a shoestring budget.
Travelling in Europe for the first time was an eye- opener. For one, lugging your own suitcases around can be quite a learning experience. It can either build your muscles or give you a hernia. Since Lille was on the first leg of a threeweek, three-nation tour of Europe, we had packed plenty of clothes and gifts for friends and families in all our stops. Once you have spent many arduous moments, wheezing, cussing and cajoling commodious luggage up and down stairs, escalators and pavements, the lessons learnt are permanent. Next time round, we aim to travel light and carry only four sets of garments and some snacks!
A piece of Paradise
After a whirlwind trip of Paris, we took the highspeed TGV train to Lille. It was my first train journey into the European countryside; with its renaissance painting-like landscape, broken by little villages that clustered around tall steeples that rose into the sky.
The beautiful little city of Lille is located in the north of France in French Flanders, on the Deûle River, close to the border with Belgium. In the 1980s and ’90s, the opening of the VAL, the world's first automated rapid transit underground network and the high-speed TGV train line between Paris and Lille played a significant role in transforming a once grimy mining and textile centre into a thriving servicedriven economy. The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 put Lille bang at the centre of a triangle connecting Paris, London and Brussels, making it the ideal weekend destination for holidaymakers of three nations.
The principal city of Lille Métropole has a miniscule ethnic population of one lakh and a multinational student community of the same size. It is truly an
architectural delight with its strong Flemish influences: from the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille to the Grand Place (with Austrian cannonballs embedded in the stone façade), to the beautiful cobblestone alleyways of Vieux Lille with its ancient town houses and buildings with symmetrical facades. The population is an eclectic blend of the
Gaul, Dutch, Flemish, Viking and the French.
Our Appart'City LilleEuralille service apartment in the business district of La Madeleine overlooked a lovely park that was overrun by amorous young couples and young families. The well appointed service apartment was equipped with all the creature comforts — cable TV, highspeed Wi-Fi, a well-stocked kitchenette with a fridge and, most important of all, a corkscrew for opening wine bottles.
The first item on our agenda was to check out the nearby Petit Casino, a French retail chain with its wide range of le pain (breads), le frommage (cheeses), cold cuts, fruit and le frozen dinners. We quickly learnt that some brands of wine were far cheaper than a bottle of water. We yelped with delight and filled our shopping basket with several bottles of wine. It is only later that we realised that these cheap wine bottles with their inviting labels are corked with what is probably recycled tractor tire rubber. It took the mechanical ingenuity of a German foreign student to open the bottle with his boot!
A Lille bit of this ʼnʼ that
The best way to explore Lille is by bus, metro and tram. As we rode the quaint tramline from Lille
Flandres to Roubaix, we were mesmerised by the sheer elemental beauty of the localities, with their rich
Lille is a walking city. Walking through the cobblestone path of the city, we discovered some of the loveliest churches and museums. The Musee des Beaux Arts, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the Hospice Comtesse, the Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille and the "Column of the Goddess" at the Grand-Place are some of its chief attractions.
suburban flavour of ivycovered brick homes, shady avenues and hedged-in villas. It was a swatch of suburban felicity. Lille is a city dotted with parks, flowing gardens and dashes of wild plants in attractive vats. The Botanical
Gardens, the English styled Vauban Garden and the mammoth Citadel Park with the Lille Zoo are great places to check out.
One morning, as we walked aimlessly towards the city centre, we happened upon the Jardin des Geants, a whacky park with lovely water features and unusual modern metal sculptures of giant heads. An old-fashioned glass house covered in green ivy in the midst of this unusual landscape provided the perfect picnic spot for an impromptu picnic for two.
Ours was a lazy uncharted holiday. We would rustle up breakfast in our kitchenette; that would consist of fresh croissant and frommage (cheese) with a lovely variety of coldcuts and rounded off with coffee. We would carry our own sandwiches and water and head out for a spot of sightseeing. We had no agenda, no tourist map and absolutely no clue what we wanted to do next. We would get out of our apartment and head either for a steeple on the horizon or for the nearest shopping district to ogle at what was
haute in French couture. We spent a good amount of time shopping at the City centre that had some lovely sales on! We just missed attending Lille’s famous annual braderie, one of Europe’s largest flea markets by a couple of days. Dating back to the twelfth century, this unusual fair is held on the first Sunday in September and attracts nearly three million visitors from around the world.
Lille for the culture-vulture
Lille is a walking city. Walking through the cobblestones path of the city, we discovered some of the loveliest churches and museums. The Musee des Beaux Arts, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the Hospice Comtesse, the Lille Cathedral, the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille and the “Column of the Goddess” at the GrandPlace are some of its chief attractions.
We spent a lovely afternoon at the Musee des Beaux Art, a museum noted for its great works of art, strolling through its beautiful grounds and admiring the adjoining buildings with their Gothic style architecture. The heavenly croque-monsieur served at the museum cafeteria, with its ham and emmental or gruyère cheesy awesomeness was a DTH (direct to hip) snack that we later, walked off at Vieux Lille.
For me, Vieux Lille, the old city was probably the most charming part of my stay at Lille. Narrow, cobblestone alleyways opened into picturesque squares with wooden crates of wild grasses and overflowing hanging
baskets with an exuberant rush of floral splendour. So much beauty! As we explored this ancient part of the city with its fascinating architecture, we admired the 17th and 18th century townhouses and symmetrical facades of stone buildings, with shops catering primarily to tourists. We came upon a spectacular church that suddenly loomed up in front of us at the end of a little lane. It was the Eglise Saint Maurice, a 14th century Roman Catholic Church that had some impressive stained glass windows. The Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Treil was another glorious church that took my breath away! One of the things that I admired about the churches here in France was the thoughtful design of the candles that the devout can light at the altar. A neat groove at the bottom of each candle allows one to place the candle
Lille has a delightful variety of cuisine that caters to the multinational student community, from the esoteric Flemish and French to exotic Turkish doner
kebabs and some of the best hamburgers that we have tasted. One day, after hours of walking we happened upon the famous Au Vieux de le Vieille, a curious bistro situated in The Onion Place.
comfortably into decorous candle stands, placed thoughtfully at different alcoves.
Lille has a delightful variety of cuisine that caters to the multinational student community, from the esoteric Flemish and
French to exotic Turkish
doner kebabs and some of the best hamburgers that we have tasted. One day, after hours of walking down winding alleys, soaking in the beauty of the city, we happened upon the famous Au Vieux de le Vieille, a curious bistro situated in an equally curious little Square called The Onion Place. The restaurant is famed for its authentic Flemish cuisine. What we enjoyed best, apart from the excellent food, was some good beer that was served in fire-engine red cans!
The nightlife in Lille is supposedly fabulous too. Lille needs to be experienced like we did — without an agenda. It is perhaps one of the prettiest places that I have ever been to! Or was it magical because I allowed the city to show me its charm, without any preconceived notions? I wonder!
Jardin des Geants in La Madeleine.
An alleyway close to La Madeleine.
A glimpse of the Saint Maurice Church through an alley.
Au Vieux de le Vieille.