Only 90 minutes from London, lies the small Flemish city of Lille. Sure, the skies are as grey and the streets are as wet as London's - but the natives of Lille know how to cook a duck. This alone was worth the cost of a Eurostar ticket for our Easter weekend getaway.
The food in Lille is a regional and traditional mix of Northern French and Belgian fare - think carbonade flamande (beer based beef stew), waterzoi au poisson (cream sole and vegetables), potjevlessch (a cold potted terrine of veal, rabbit and ham) and gauffres (the amazing waffles). This is not a place for dieting. Crucially, there's no shortage of Belgian chocolate shops - the spots suddenly festering on my face are a striking testament to the fact.
Lille is the capital of the Nord-Pas de Calais region of France, not far from the border between France and Belgium. The birthplace of Charles de Gaulle, most of its visual charms, and some beautifully ornate Flemish architecture, lie in a handful of streets comprising the cobbled old town - Vieux Lille. People tend to go on about the Grand Place - a huge square in the heart of the town - but it would be fair to say it's not the prettiest of old squares I've come across. It was fairly touristy of course, but most (not all) of the bars/cafes on its sidelines were a bit grimy. To discover Lille's real charm, you need to work those cobblestones a little harder.
Meert (27 rue Esquermoise), pictured above - This picture perfect patisserie and chocolate shop is Lille's most famous. It started trading in the 1760s and it's safe to say no trip to Lille is complete without a thorough sampling of its wonderous gauffres (filled waffles). The light crispy wafers filled with vanilla or chocolate sugary goodness are the best gauffres in Lille (yes, we conducted an extensive sampling of the competition, so I can say it with certainty). It is said that Charles de Gaulle himself held a regular order for them all his life. Ornate and lavish, with mirrors and truly exquisite cakes and pastries, I owe quite a few sugar rushes to this gem of a place. It also has a tea room at the back. Most importantly, Meert was the birthplace of my delicious chocolate Easter Egg "poulet" this year, courtesy of TPG (and I didn't think it was possible to love him more...).
(My Easter Egg from Meert)
Rue de la Monnaie is another cobbled street lined with patisseries, boutiques, cafes and bars. One of our favourite bakeries there was Aux Merveilleux de Fred. TPG stocked up on what was possibly the BEST dessert I have EVER had - the Incroyable. Back at the hotel room later, we feasted with our hands on this gorgeous concoction of meringue, specaloos cream, white chocolate and cream. The delicious custard flan hardly got a look in (until later).
(The amazing Incroyable)
Meanwhile, I snuck into Benoit (77 rue de la Monnaie), another fabulous chocolate shop with over 50 varieties of locally made chocolates and truffles, to buy TPG's bell shaped Easter egg filled with little praline balls - clocks are symbollic of Easter at this time of year (in Belgium, it's said that the church bells leave for Rome every Easter and bring back the eggs on Saturday). I'm not sure if this was appreciated by TPG, but from his chocolatey smile all day, I can vouch for the quality of the egg.
Afternoons are the time to settle into a cafe for a local biere blanche or kir - or you could linger over a long lunch with a carafe of wine in the spirit of the TPG and me. Our first lunch was at La Petite Cour (17 rue du Cure St-Etienne), a small but busy cafe/bar with wooden tables and its fair share of Lille's young population, as well as some old, intellectual types (judging from the funky glasses). Over a carafe of inexpensive but delicious red wine, we shared a good, hearty meal of blanquette de veau (a tasty veal stew in a wine sauce) and the biggest magret du canard (duck breast) I've ever clapped eyes on - this thing was the size of a rib-eye. LPC apparently has a courtyard on summer days.
Monsieur Jacques (30 rue de Gand) - is a fun, busy little wine bar for a pre-dinner drink, nestled among a strip of restaurants on the busy (and somewhat touristy) rue de Gand. It has a funky, younger crowd of locals but it's not overly cool or intimidating.
But one of my favourite of the local traditions was that nobody starts dinner without first sipping a glass of champagne. When in Rome...
L'Estaminet de La Royale (37 rue Royale) - We stumbled upon this gorgeous, traditional little brasserie while exploring in the old town. We stood at the bar sipping kirs poured by the gregarious owner and fell in love with the place while waiting for a table among a mix of locals who seemed to be regulars. Not a tourist in sight. There's a few tables at the front where we eyed of plates off well presented Flemish, family style food - noting everyone was opting for the daily specials of carbonade flamande (beer based beef stew) and magret du canard (duck breast). We joined a small room of tables at the back and perused the handwritten menu, with our well-worn French-English dictionary in hand. I enjoyed a terrific steak - hearty, juicy and perfectly cooked with tasty vegetable sides and a local Maroilles cheesy sauce. TPG's magret du canard was delicious, although a little light on for bulk so he helped himself to some of mine. We finished off with a cafe creme, but no room for dessert. Recommended. Prices are generally around 12-20 Euros for a main meal.
L'Assiette du Marche (61 rue de la Monnaie) - Set back from the street in the courtyard of a townhouse that was once Louis XIV's royal mint, this enormous restaurant was teeming with locals. Prices are cheap - 21 Euro for 3 courses, 17 for 2 courses - or reasonably priced a la carte. However, the food is modern and well presented. After starting with a glass of Pommery champagne (8 Euros), and moving on to a wonderful Meursault, I adored my delicately presented vegetable terrine as well as TPG's hearty fish soup with all the trimmings (both for around 7 Euros each). Still struggling after a big lunch and snacks and snacks in between snacks, I opted for a second entree of smoked salmon and buttery potatoes - again delicious. TPG's chicken breast with morrel and cream sauce was hearty and flavourful - another winner. We retreated home to devour our Incroyable for sweets at the hotel. The interior is nothing special (especially compared to the promise of its beautiful facade) but there's plenty of chatter and service is ultra friendly. Recommended.
La Cave aux Fioles (39 rue de Gand) - Dark and candlelit, with brick walls and red tablecloths, this restaurant is traditional, but frequented almost solely by English tourists on the night of our visit. TPG dined on an enjoyable, chunky fish stew, however my steak was overcooked (at well done), chewy and overloaded with stringy sinew. It did have a cute plastic cow stuck in the top of it (which helpfully doubled as a toothpick to attend to the sinew). The Il flottante was slightly too sweet and the meringue as rubbery as a wet shower cap. My cold cheese tasted like fridge. My red wine glass smelt like egg and had to be swapped (a pet peeve when dishes are mixed in with eggy things in the wash). Apparently there is a courtyard, and jazz on some nights.
Wazemmes Market - One of the highlights of the weekend was Sunday morning spent at Wazemmes market. Do not go to Lille without visiting the market. I love a French market, and this one is the biggest I have ever seen. Teeming with stalls selling everything you could not possibly want, from cheap towels to underwear and electronics, we made a beeline through the throng for the food section. I have never seen so many rotisserie chickens in my life.
We wandered past stalls selling Moroccan tagines, cheeses (some of the local cheeses pictured above look like bright orange pumpkins), ribs, Vietnamese and Chinese fare, fruit and vegetables (we loved the stubby radishes which we devoured by the bunch), baguettes, pastries and gigantic flat, round Moroccan breads, making several purchases along the way. There are cafes facing out on to the market to sit and sip a wine and watch the world go by, while streets leading up to the market are also worth a poke around - we discovered some gorgeous food stores, delicatessens and a beer specialist selling all sorts of weird and wonderful brews to fill up our suitcases.
We returned to the hotel with our arms laden with bags to prepare a leisurely Easter Sunday lunch. The market is certainly a more edgy part of town compared to Vieux Lille, but definitely worth visiting.
While in Lille we stayed at HotelSuisse, which is conveniently across the road from the Eurostar station (and the amazing L shaped building of the Credit Lyonnais) and is a 10 minute walk to the centre of town. Spacious, modern and comfortable it was also amazingly cheap for its calibre at around 70 Euro per night. It's no designer/boutique hotel (I couldn't find anything like that for a reasonable price throughout my research) but it's comfortable and has a shower, bath and free movies (great for rainy day interludes). My main quibble was that the walk into the more charming parts of town was a bit annoying at times, so if you can find something as reliable closer to the action, then go for it. Also, take your own equipment if you want to blow dry your hair in under 500 hours - this is one pathetic excuse for a hairdryer.
There are no frills (like moisturisers or shampoo) and they only gave us 1 tiny container of UHT milk (containing about 2 teaspoons of milk) for our coffees. When we asked for more, they gave us 1 more (5 more would have been closer to the money). But staff are helpful and breakfast was free - a help yourself arrangement to basic cereal, fruit, yoghurt, very buttery croissants, breads etc - nothing hot, and nothing too fancy. But who wants to fill up in the hotel when the delights of Lille await...
We didn't eat at L'Huitriere, a Michelin star seafood restaurant in the old town, but it gets decent reviews if you want to blow the budget.
(Lovely wine bar in the old town)
(Typical street in the old town of Lille)
I'd say 2 full days is a perfect amount of time for Lille. We stayed longer (3.5 days), but took things at a leisurely pace and took advantage of the free movies and some time to read a stack of books and mags in wine bars during downtime (aaah, the luxury of holidays...). There are some lovely clothes boutiques for shopping trips (not so many for guys - sorry TPG), but not more than enough to knock over in a day if you're focussed (and Sunday trading is limited). Lille is certainly a handy place to practice your French over some fantastic Flemish food and wonderful, well priced French wines. Bon appetit!