Ex­plor­ing France

Business Traveller (India) - - CONTENTS -

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing how dif­fer­ent, yet sim­i­lar each re­gion of Europe can be. Last year, I boarded an SNCF (sncf.com/fr) train from Charles de Gaulle air­port to Lille, the cap­i­tal of the Hauts-de-France (the north­ern­most re­gion of France). It is near the bor­der of Bel­gium. The drive to my ho­tel, past quaint build­ings, re­minded me of my brief visit to Brus­sels. In Europe, a city’s cul­ture is heav­ily in­flu­enced by the weather, and its neigh­bour­ing coun­tries. Since Lille shares the bor­der with Bel­gium, there’s a no­table Flem­ish in­flu­ence in all its as­pects – rang­ing from weather, food and ar­chi­tec­ture to cul­ture.

I checked into the charm­ing Ho­tel L'Ar­bre Voyageur (hote­lar­brevoyageur.com) that takes pride in its quaint dé­cor –Baroque touches, avian pat­terns and bold colours. It is lo­cated in Boule­vard Carnot, close to the city cen­tre.

Af­ter a quick nap and cof­fee, I headed down to the re­cep­tion where a vin­tage red 2CV ve­hi­cle was wait­ing for me. I had signed up for a driving tour of this Bel­gianFrench part of Europe in a vin­tage car that can be booked on lil­le­tourism.com (a one hour guided tour in a con­vert­ible 2CV for one per­son is priced at €67/`5,349). My tour guide drove us through the nar­row by-lanes of Lille that are lined with lit­tle houses that dat­ing back to the 17th cen­tury. Most of these golden sand­stone build­ings built in the neo-Flem­ish style of ar­chi­tec­ture have now been con­verted into bou­tiques and cafes, cre­at­ing an idyl­lic am­bi­ence that amal­ga­mates the old with the new. One of the most no­table build­ings is L’Hospice Comtesse, an erst­while 13th cen­tury char­i­ta­ble hos­pi­tal that is now a mu­seum with a col­lec­tion of paint­ings, ta­pes­tries, wood sculp­tures and porce­lains from the re­gion.

My old school 2CV drove through Lille’s al­leys, towards the Grand Place – the mid-point of the city and the Grand Square. It’s dot­ted with gabled ed­i­fices and the Cham­ber of Com­merce that boasts of the 76-me­tre high bel­fry – a sym­bol of the city’s com­merce. While Lille is small in size, it im­presses the ar­chi­tec­ture and his­tory afi­cionado with its strik­ing struc­tures such as the Lille Palace of Fine Arts (a mu­nic­i­pal mu­seum ded­i­cated to the arts) and the neo­clas­si­cal Opera House of Lille. De­signed by the ar­chi­tect Louis-Marie Cor­don­nier, its grand fa­cade em­anates el­e­ments from an­cient Greek and Ro­man phi­los­o­phy, cul­ture, and art.

An ap­petite built up af­ter the tour and I headed to Le Bar­bue d’An­vers (lebar­buedan­vers.fr), an es­taminet (small café in French that serves drinks and food) close to the town square. Ac­tu­ally, most places are within prox­im­ity to each other in Lille. Since it is in the rel­a­tively colder area with Belgian nu­ances, its diet is heav­ily de­pen­dent on meat and fish. The menu of this dimly lit, wooden es­taminet in­cludes sautéed cat tongue, beef tartare, pork ribs and salmon fil­let. I chose a fil­let of plaice – a flat­fish – that was served with egg and mus­tard sauce. The restau­rant’s spe­cial­ity is its Flem­ish car­bonade fla­mande, a tra­di­tional Belgian sweet-sour beef stew pre­pared with beer.

Speak­ing of beer, an­other in­ter­est­ing facet of Lille is its love for it. While the rest of France is known for its ex­cep­tional wine, Lille prides it­self on its beer (just like Bel­gium). Its mi­cro­brew­eries date back to be­fore World War I when fam­i­lies be­gan in­vest­ing in the busi­ness of beer. Post-war ra­tioning of daily sup­plies heav­ily re­duced the num­ber of brew­eries. How­ever, only a few sur­vived in this part of French Flan­ders. I vis­ited one such mi­cro­brew­ery called Célestin where I met a fifth gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of the fam­ily that be­gan the busi­ness in 1740. Here you can find more than 400 dif­fer­ent re­gional and in­ter­na­tional beers and also their in-house La Dix Biére Blonde. Some of the other beers you can try here are Ch’ti (a per­son from north France is called Ch’ti) and Vedett (a Belgian beer but widely avail­able in Lille).

While driving through the city dur­ing the tour, I had crossed a pas­try shop called Meert (meert.fr). Its man­ner­ist-style front with arabesques medal­lions stood out, beck­on­ing me to visit. I learnt that this patis­serie was founded in 1761 and is known for its waf­fles lay­ered with Mada­gas­car vanilla. The waf­fles’ recipe has stayed the same since its cre­ation and is known to have caught the fancy of many a French diplo­mat in­clud­ing Charles de Gaulle – a Lille res­i­dent – who con­tin­ued to or­der for the sweet even af­ter he moved to Paris for his pres­i­dency. I en­joyed jas­mine tea along­side these fa­mous waf­fles and a rich choco­late pas­try in its tea room that’s dec­o­rated with chan­de­liers and black and white por­traits of dig­ni­taries.

Af­ter spend­ing the night in Lille, the next day I drove through Boulogne-sur-Mer (the city of Boulogne) to Le Tou­quetParis-Plage. As the name sug­gests, this "beach of Paris" serves as the play­ground for af­flu­ent Parisians who come over for their week­end breaks and hol­i­days. This com­mune is less than a three-hour drive from the French cap­i­tal and is lined with ex­trav­a­gant prop­er­ties that are much adored by their reg­u­lar vis­i­tors. I was stay­ing at the art deco Hô­tel Bar­rière Le West­min­ster (ho­tels­bar­riere.com) that re­minded me of a Wes An­der­son movie with its old school lift, art­work and the very English lobby bar.

Later I rushed to Le Tou­quet Golf Course where reser­va­tions for lunch were made at its restau­rant called Spoon. Fac­ing the golf course, I en­joyed an elab­o­rate three-course

As the name sug­gests, this "beach of Paris" serves as the play­ground for af­flu­ent Parisians who come over for their week­end breaks and hol­i­days

lunch in the com­pany of fel­low Parisians and trav­ellers who were per­haps vis­it­ing for a round or two of golf. I be­gan my meal with mar­i­nated salmon, re­moulade cel­ery and green ap­ple and fol­lowed it with a fil­let of salmon, smoked sausage and red wine jus. Dur­ing my meal, I de­cided that to ex­pe­ri­ence Le Tou­quet like a true Parisian, I must hit the beach later – even though the tem­per­a­tures were still quite low. It turned out to be quite an ad­ven­ture as I tried my hand at an al­ter­na­tive ad­ven­ture sport called sand yacht­ing.

Since many trav­ellers visit this town dur­ing cooler months, there are a few win­ter ac­tiv­i­ties that have been set-up on the beach like this one. While sand yacht­ing looked sim­ple, it was def­i­nitely not a piece of cake. The ma­noeu­vring of a sail pushes a wheeled ve­hi­cle ahead with­out the power of an en­gine. Driving over sea shells with the wind blow­ing in my face with oc­ca­sional splashes of salty wa­ter was quite thrilling. A windy day is es­sen­tial for this ac­tiv­ity be­cause af­ter a point my sail re­fused to move in still air.

Next morn­ing, with a jam-packed sched­ule, I left rather early to drive 65km to the me­dieval sea­side city by the Bay of Somme – Saint-Valery. A fish­er­man’s town un­til as late as the 1980s, Saint-Valery is one of the most unique and charm­ing places I have vis­ited in France. It is mod­est and not very com­mer­cial, but its colours, rich his­tory and quaint­ness ap­peal ex­ten­sively. Walk­ing through its mar­itime quar­ter – also known

as Le Court­gain – that has old homes of fish­er­men and their fam­i­lies was an ex­quis­ite ex­pe­ri­ence. Houses are painted in the most vivid colours and fresh flow­ers dec­o­rate most of its porches. Peo­ple are friendly and their warmth cap­ti­vated me, even though lan­guage was a bar­rier. A lot of fa­cades to date em­anate the naval her­itage of the town with evoca­tive paint­ings and flags. Each house is dif­fer­ent in terms of de­sign, shades and shape from the other, mak­ing the en­tire town of Saint-Valery seem like a colour­ful odyssey.

Walk­ing up­wards on its wind­ing al­leys brought me on a cliff at the en­trance of an erst­while walled city. It is from here that I soaked in panoramic views of the Bay of Somme. Saint-Valery has been through a tu­mul­tuous past through years of war and has served as a land­ing port of the Celts, Ro­mans and the Vik­ings, as well as the hid­ing place for Joan of Arc when she was a pris­oner of the English. The French Wars of Re­li­gion in the 16th cen­tury dam­aged the for­ti­fi­ca­tions and as of to­day, its rem­nants make it an in­ter­est­ing place for his­tory buffs. That’s all there is to this small town. In the evening, I took a walk on its sea­side prom­e­nade be­fore driving to my next des­ti­na­tion – Amiens.

The cap­i­tal of Pi­cardy (a his­tor­i­cal re­gion of north­ern France, stretch­ing from the sub­urbs of Paris and vine­yards of Cham­pagne to the beaches of the Bay of Somme on the English Chan­nel), Amiens is a 50-minute drive from Saint-Valery. Amiens al­ready gave me a feel of a much big­ger city than those I had vis­ited – but it still car­ried the charm of a small town. This could be at­trib­uted to a few things, the fact that it’s mostly pedes­tri­anised and that it’s lush with green­ery al­most ev­ery­where. There are sev­eral canals that in­ter­sect plots of lands that are pop­u­lated with res­i­dences, cafés and uni­ver­si­ties (Amiens is a stu­dent town as well be­cause of the num­ber of col­leges here).

A fas­ci­nat­ing way to be­gin your trip in Amiens is by vis­it­ing the iconic Float­ing Gar­dens or Hor­tillon­nages (hor­tillon­nage­samiens.fr) here. Once a mar­ket gar­den, leeks, cab­bages and car­rots used to be grown here. Now a pop­u­lar tourist spot, these small float­ing is­lands built on re­claimed marsh­land are dot­ted with flora and jointly span al­most 742 acres between the Avre and Somme rivers. I opted for a boat tour (€6/`478) that lasted 45 min­utes as I sailed through the wind­ing canal. Ducks, swans and other wa­ter­birds swam be­side us, and plants with flow­ers of bril­liant colours out­lined this boat ride. Some is­lands had camp­ing homes and res­i­dences and oth­ers were plots used for gar­den­ing pur­poses. The canals ef­fort­lessly tele­ported me into a won­der­land of na­ture and seren­ity.

Af­ter this ren­dezvous with na­ture,

I walked through the city to its most sig­nif­i­cant point – the Amiens Cathe­dral. An ad­mirer of ar­chi­tec­ture, I can never get enough of the struc­tures in Europe – and was ex­cited to learn that the largest Gothic cathe­dral in France was in fact in Amiens. Also called the Notre-Dame d’Amiens or the Cathe­dral of Notre-Dame of Amiens, its ex­te­rior looks un­can­nily sim­i­lar to its name­sake in Paris. It is no­table for its two un­equal tow­ers, Me­dieval wall paint­ings inside and Gothic sculp­tures that adorn the west fa­cade. Larger-than-life sculp­tures of kings, 22 of them, dec­o­rate the lower gallery. In the nights (ev­ery day from June 15 to the third Sun­day in Septem­ber), the sculp­tures on the west fa­cade are lit up for a strik­ing light show. The cathe­dral was added to the UNESCO list of World Her­itage Sites in 1981.

Hav­ing vis­ited con­trast­ing des­ti­na­tions in north­ern France made for an in­ter­est­ing few days. Each place stood out be­cause of its dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics, strik­ing a chord within me ef­fort­lessly. Much is left for an­other north­ern af­fair in this ex­otic re­gion – one that im­pressed me with its un­con­ven­tional el­e­gance.

Walk­ing up­wards on its wind­ing al­leys brought me on a cliff at the en­trance of an erst­while walled city

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: a street in Saint-Valery; Amiens Cathe­dral; a fish­er­man's home in Saint-Valery; Amiens' Float­ing Gar­dens; and sand yacht­ing in Le Tou­quet

PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: Bay of Somme FAR LEFT: a build­ing in Lille's Grand Place THIS PAGE: vin­tage 2CV tour in Lille

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