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Category Archives: Lille December 2012

You’re English – rescue me!

By the evening of day two I’m pretty confident of my bearings in Lille, so I take another stroll around the main square and then back towards Rue Messana to see if there’s any more cabaret on at Le Sherwood. Sadly, I’m disappointed. Nothing gets going in Lille until late evening, and at about 6.30pm the whole area is pretty dead.

So far I’ve been making good use of the Metro to get around town, but my 24 hour pass has run out – and I feel like exploring a bit more on foot. The result is a two hour circuit as I quickly lose the bearings I’ve just found and wander aimlessly around the city’s back streets. My policy as a tourist is try not to look like a tourist, and definitely don’t look as if you’re lost. So often in these situations I tend to walk confidently on the outside, whilst on the inside I have no idea where I am at all.

Fortunately, the Christmas lights indicate where the main roads are, so I eventually end up back at the station, and a short walk from Place due Theatre and one of the best cafe bars in town.

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The Moulin D’Or dates back to Lille’s time as a major textiles town, and it retains a classic French charm. One thing I don’t really get is why the French light up their cafes so brightly. A dimmer switch would add so much more atmosphere.

Cafes, of course, are for socialising and catching up on gossip, and the two girls to my left have perfected this down to an art form. At least one of them has. She has a squeaky voice, constantly talking and only drawing breath to let out a highly annoying squeak/giggle combo. As soon as her friend tries to get a word in edgeways, it’s immediately blocked by more gossip. The excitement in Girl Number One’s voice suggests a steamy tale of sex – possibly involving an affair. But since my French is mainly limited to greetings, numbers and basic food, it might as well be about the office’s latest stationery delivery.

Back towards the Station, and a quick final peek at the Grand Place. They really do know how to do lights here.

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There’s time for a drink in Les Trois Brasseuers where I’m able to squeeze in a stool at the bar. The surrounding conversation sounds lively enough, until a Very Drunk Man decides to dominate proceedings. And for once, it’s not me.

He shouts at the bar tender to bring him more beer. “Demain,” comes the reply – tomorrow. But the customer, it seems, is always right. He turns to a group by the window and makes some sort of statement about not being able to get served. And then he turns to me.

I have no idea what he’s saying, and try to protest that I’m a stupid Englishman. He understands that bit, but continues to have a one way conversation. This one sounds decidedly more about stationery deliveries than sex.

Eventually, in the ear that isn’t burning, I recognise two English voices, and deftly slide my stool towards them. “Hello, you don’t know me. But could you please rescue me from this buffoon?”. Fortunately the two guys oblige. One’s from Newcastle, working for a huge engineering firm, and the other is Australian – on a working holiday but with his visa about to run out. He’s filling the remainder of the time with his French girlfriend.

It’s a good end to the evening, and the local beer goes down well. What’s more, the drunk man leaves, much to the relief of staff and punters alike.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Taking The Piscine

Lille looks a lot better in the morning sunshine. It’s cold and dry, so a good day to get exploring some more. Although come to think of it, it didn’t look too bad last night either.

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I cross town to Wazemmes, one of the most multi cultural parts of Lille, and home to a real market for locals. None of your Christmas tat here. It’s all about bags…

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Plants…

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And sausages…

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Some of the side streets around here show real signs of poverty, and it’s also in evidence when I take the Metro to Roubaix, a town a few miles north of Lille. A woman gets on board the train and starts playing the accordion, whilst her small child walks through the carriage with a cup for donations. I remember seeing this sort of thing in London a decade ago, and it strikes me as concerning that it’s still happening today – a combination of hard times and a migrant population which doesn’t qualify for state hand outs.

Roubaix itself is looking fine in the winter sunshine, but almost deserted. As I ascend from the Metro, it looks like almost everyone has left town. It’s Tuesday morning, but it may as well be Sunday afternoon.

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Time for a visit to the municipal swimming pool, built for the workers of Roubaix by the Socialist Council in 1927. But there’s no need for Speedos here, because in 1984 La Piscine was converted into an art gallery. Obviously.

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This really is bonkers, but it works. And because nobody’s actually swimming in the pool, there’s no smell of chlorine. The main exhibit in the pool area changes every season. But around the sides are various painting and ceramics, hidden in what used to be the changing cubicles.

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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff

 

A Load of Crepe

Normally when I arrive in a new city I’m pretty quick in getting my bearings, and Lille is no exception. Although its streets twist and turn it’s essentially a compact place, and no sooner have I walked out of the hotel I’m in the Place du Theatre, and next to it the Grand Place.

Ye olde French buildings tower above the mainly narrow roads. It’s a cold afternoon, deterring the largest of the crowds – and although the Grand Place is decked out with a huge Christmas carousel, few people are venturing onto it or into the covered marquees next to the cafes. On one of the side streets I come across Meert – one of the oldest patisseries in town.

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This place has served royalty, and has prices to match. I’d initially considered having afternoon tea here, but there’s a mini market around the corner selling two eclairs for €2. Occasionally I don’t mind doing the stupid tourist act and spending a fortune, but not today.

Instead, I head to a small creperie called Vielle Bourse, named after the huge 17th Century Flemish building in the same block. It’s a tiny cafe which only serves pancakes and pizza. But with so many different varieties, I’m spoilt for choice. Given that I’ve already spotted those cheap eclairs, a savoury cheese and ham combo fills a hole.

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I’m genuinely amazed at how patient and polite the motorists are here. Ornate bollards are all that separates cars from pedestrians around the side streets and even in the Grand Place. And although there are a few official crossings dotted about, vehicles give way to the tourists, who are inevitably engrossed in their guidebooks or taking photos. I can’t imagine such etiquette anywhere else.

So, Monday evening and it must be time for beer. The best place to start, it seems, is les Trois Brasseurs right by the Gare de Lille Flandres. Four home brewed beers are on offer, from the Blanche at 4.7% to the Ambree at 6.2%. I opt for a middle of the road Blonde which is 5.2% and bit fruity. But despite being surrounded by copper brewing apparatus, the atmosphere here lacks any real personality.

Mondays are clearly not a big night in Lille. The streets are picturesque enough – lit by Christmas lights – but there’s no real action. I make the mistake of going to an Australian theme bar. The bar tender tells me he’ll be with me “in a minute”, then proceeds to take around ten minutes mixing a cocktail with an horrendous selection of alcopops and faux fruit juice. I walk out as he throws plastic bottles around the bar in a vain attempt to look like Tom Cruise.

It’s a long walk across town to the Rue Massena, which my guidebook tells me is full of eclectic bars. And it is. First, I encounter a salsa class at the Rendezvous bar. And then, I find this.

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Yes, it’s a bar called The Sherwood. Naturally, I have to try this out.

Disappointingly, there’s no homage to Robin Hood inside. But there is an amusing collection of students, including a boy who appears to have tried every variety of shot on offer.

“C’est SUPERB” he tells the bar staff, among a collection of other words I don’t understand. The bar staff respond with equally enthusiastic “superbs” and some small talk with the pretty girls accompanying the pretty boys. It’s great cabaret, and I didn’t even have to pay to get in.

There’s even better news back at the hotel when I ask what time breakfast is served. It finishes at 1pm. How many English hotels would do that? I’m starting to like this place…

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Il Pleut. Et petit.

With great engineering projects come great big tunnels, and as the train races through Kent my ears are constantly popping as we enter and exit. I’m grateful for my old companion, the extra strong mint.

The rest of the journey is pretty uneventful and my arrival in Lille is accompanied by a heavy hail shower. Trudging along cobbled streets with hand luggage is always a drag – literally. The Hotel de la Paix is only about ten minutes walk from the station but its tiny entrance is easy to miss in the rain.

It reminds me of an old British seaside hotel. A minuscule lift transports cramped guests to a series of dimly lit corridors and small rooms. This was about the best angle I could get of the bed, whilst perching behind the TV

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What you can’t see here is the horrendous shade of 1970s green of the duvet. But on the plus side, the bath is almost as big as the bedroom.

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I should remind you that all photos so far are courtesy of the iPad. I’m reluctant to stand in the middle of the street with it. I might look like a tourist.

Anyway, enough of indoors. Time to venture outside.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Bon Voyage

Security at St Pancras is pretty tight, considering that it’s just a train journey. Airline style scanners check people’s bags, but as far as free travel throughout the EU is concerned, the French customs man at the passport booth gives me a stereotypical shrug.

Compared with the rest of the station’s grandiose, the Eurostar waiting area is somewhat bland. It has the temperature, smell and atmosphere of a regional airport in desperate need of an upgrade. I’d like to show you a picture of this but you’ll have to wait, since I’ve been a complete klutz and left the gadget which connects my camera memory card with the iPad at home. If I think you’re worth it, I may buy a replacement in Lille.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of my ticket.

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The boarding process is cumbersome, not least because these trains have about 20 carriages. Long ones at that. I climb on board somewhere in Hertfordshire. Now don’t get me wrong, Eurostar and the Channel Tunnel are great feats of engineering. But like many train services, the rolling stock is showing its age.

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The carriages are getting a bit old and have a slightly cramped feeling about them. But these trains are, at least, electric – meaning a smooth ride through the glamour of East London and Ebbsfleet International.

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Yeah, baby, this is the life. Helpful announcements in no fewer than three languages from the train manager, Gilbert, remind passengers not to get off the train here – it’s only for boarding. If you want a romantic weekend in Ebbsfleet, you’ll have to go cattle class.

Update : Here’s the terminal at St Pancras

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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff

 

The Lille Good Factor

Let’s face it, most people of my age didn’t do O Level French or German at school because they actually enjoyed it. Not where I come from anyway. The primary purpose of “learning” a language at school was to get a cheap holiday abroad via that essential rite of passage – the Foreign Exchange Trip.

And despite being somewhat better travelled these days, I’ve never actually returned to France since I was at school. Maybe it’s the memory of Fabrice, my exchange partner, arriving at my Very Catholic House in the early 1980s and insisting on stashing some rather seedy publications under my bed. Or perhaps it’s the lingering taste of some terrible table wine served at every mealtime that put me off for life.

Oh hang on, I quite like booze. It must have been the porn.
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Anyway, my Voyage De Noel has a twofold purpose. Firstly, I’ve never been on Eurostar, and each time I go to London I find myself peering longingly towards the adjacent platform at St Pancras station, where the sleek continental trains line up. There’s still something magical about being at a UK railway station that has the word “International” in its title

Secondly, the travel supplements at this time of the year are full of rave reviews about festive markets. If you’re not from Nottingham, I could wax lyrical about my own city’s Winter Wonderland. But I’m conscious that this blog has a lot of local readers, so I won’t lie. It’s a bit shite.

So, what could be better than a couple of days off work and a trip to Northern France, taking in Lille and it’s famous Christmas Market? Joyeux Noel, indeed. I’m also planning to visit a couple of the city’s relatively new arrivals. Microbreweries. Yes, I know that if I want general rudeness, some cheap tat and strong beer, I can just go to Bulwell. What’s more, they effectively speak a different language and if you want, you can trade on Euros. Or Zlotys, most probably.
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Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Bulwell isn’t Lille. So that’s where I’m going.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2012 in Lille December 2012, Travel Stuff