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
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