Ask most people what their idea of a weekend away in France would be, and Paris is the obvious choice. But are they missing a trick?
The city of Lille offers a very viable alternative to the French capital, bursting with art, culture, superb food and drink and great shopping.
Since Eurostar settled on using the Flemish capital as its hub, Lille has shed its old industrial image, spruced itself up, and converted its warehouses into trendy hotels, bars and galleries. It now offers fantastic value for a weekend, and is easier to navigate than Paris, with two Metro lines. What's more, the locals all speak pretty good English (perhaps because they can get the BBC on the telly?).
After an easy journey of an hour and 15 minutes – not much more than London to Brighton – you simply exit the station and you're in the heart of the city. And the fact that the station is a two-minute walk into the main square, with a huge Carrefour stuffed with tempting wine and cheese bargains, is an added bonus, and worth remembering on the way home – after all, you can bring back as much wine and food as you can physically carry if you're travelling by Eurostar.
There are plenty of hotels choose from of all standards. For central location and good value, the Novotel Gare is perfectly acceptable.
The key to understanding Lille is that it is Flemish, not French. So it's beer, not wine, mussels and chips rather than croissants, and handsome Flemish buildings rather than French baroque. The town square is attractive: if you want to see the difference between French Renaissance architecture and Flemish, just stand in front of the Opera House, a perfect example of the neo-classic. Now look to the left at the Chamber of Commerce - it is classic Flemish. Then you can impress your travel companion by loudly declaring that both were built by the same man - Louis Marie Cordonnier, who copied the two styles perfectly in the 1920s.
Things to do
The wonderful Palais Des Beaux-Arts is not to be missed. It rightly has the reputation of the best museum in France outside of Paris, and, if Lille is a mini-Paris, then The Palais is a mini-Louvre. But actually, it's not really so mini: it has a vast collection of Flemish, Spanish and Impressionist art inside its mighty walls. For €6.50 - don't forget to take your Eurostar ticket to get two tickets for the price of one - you get to see the first neo-Classisist painting by David (Belisarius), the first French realist painting by Courbet (L'après-dînée à Ornans), and the first surrealist painting, Slumber by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. There are also outstanding works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Goya, two masterpieces by Picasso, Sisley, Odilon Redon and one of Monet's famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament. The museum also has a great cafe for lunch.
When you've had your fill of all that art and culture, Lille has the perfect antidote – a cheap, cheerful market. The Wazemmes (Gambetta Metro) is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 7am to 2pm, although Sunday is really the time to go. It's one of the largest markets in France, and perhaps one of the liveliest (up to 50,000 people come on Sundays). It's excellent for fresh fruit, fish, cheese and some wines, but almost everyone seems to come here for one essential purchase: flowers. In spring and summer, has a seemingly never-ending line of stalls selling almost every flower known to man, some at amazingly low prices, in a riot of colour. Brits are allowed to bring back any sort of plant or seed through customs.For more retail therapy back in the centre of town, head to the Galarie Lafayette, built in a converted cinema, which stocks all the big labels.
Shopping and culture in Lille are good enough reasons to visit, but let's face it: the real reason Brits go to France is for the outstanding food and Lille has plenty to offer on that score. One of the very best places to experience its pleasures is Jour de Peche, a seafood restaurant just a minute's walk from the main square. This charming, not too formal eaterie offers everything from oysters to crab, sea bass caught in Bologne – not far away – to turbot and sea bream, and it presents beautifully fresh fish perfectly cooked with crisp vegetables and smears of pea or asparagus. The classic French wine list which will crank up the bill a bit – budget for around €150 for a three course mean with wine for two people. It's a tidy sum, but it will certainly put the gloss on your weekend.
Eurostar operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Lille with return fares from £69. Eurostar also offers connecting fares from more than 300 stations in the UK. Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1hr 20 minutes. Tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or call 08432 186 186
Eurostar travellers to Paris can also take advantage of 2 for 1 entry into paying exhibitions and permanent collections at some of the city's most popular galleries including; Le Palais des Beaux-Arts, La Piscine – Musée d'art et d'industrie André Diligent, LaM - Lille Métropole Musée d'art moderne, d'art contemporain et d'art brut, MUba Eugène Leroy, Tourcoing, Le Fresnoy – Studio national des arts contemporains.
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