French and Flemish cuisine collide in France’s fourth largest city zone. From croissants to cramique, fish to fromage, take a day to find the flavours of the Nord-Pas de Calais.
Lille’s cuisine is closely linked to its geographical position. Bordering Belgium, a short hop over the Channel to the UK and just as near to the Netherlands, Lille is France’s face to the north. Its name comes from its setting, on an island in the River Deûle. From port to merchant town, Lille was ruled in the 13th century by the Counts of Flanders, in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Counts of Burgundy, and in the 16th century by the Spanish before being conquered by Louis XIV and becoming French in 1667. The magnificent architecture of Old Lille dates back to this point, with aristocratic families building splendid houses, known as ‘hôtels particulières’, close to Vauban’s citadel. This area has some of the city’s best food shops and it is where we start our gastronomic tour.
Breakfast: The bakery chain Paul began in Lille and there are branches all over town and far beyond, however, if you are looking for something you can’t find elsewhere, aim for Rue Esquermoise. Leading away from Place du Général de Gaulle, the street has a number of upmarket furniture stores along with two excellent bakeries. Brier (118 Rue Esquermoise; +33 3 20 55 35 55), open Monday to Saturday, sells a variety of speciality breads along with over 150 types of cake, while Arthur & Co (110 Rue Esquermoise; +33 3 20 12 02 97), which is also open Sunday mornings, has great croissants along with sandwiches and snacks to take away. If you have a sweet tooth try cramique, a brioche with melted sugar inside and crunchy sugar outside.
Lunch: Formally known as Place du Général de Gaulle, The Grand Place contains some of Lille’s finest buildings including the Vieille Bourse. Built in 1653, the huge facade is actually 24 identical houses. There are plenty of cafes here where in fine weather you can sit outside to enjoy the scene, but if it’s cold, and you crave something substantial, La Crêperie, (4 Rue des Débris Saint-Etienne; +33 3 20 42 12 16) offers huge portions and the weekday 12.5 euro menu is good value. Typical dishes include galettes and tartines, such as the Lilloise, a hunk of whole-wheat bread smothered in cubes of bacon, potatoes and Vieux Lille cheese. Nicknamed ‘Lille Stinker’, this pungent orange cheese with a grey crust announces its presence as soon as you walk into a cheese shop. Fromageophiles should check out Philippe Olivier, (3 Rue du Curé Saint-Etienne, www.philippeolivier.fr). His family have been in the business since 1907 and the shop has over 300 varieties from across France.
Afternoon Tea: Hungry or not, it’s impossible to avoid the aroma of gaufres, cooked in the open air. After visiting the cathedral of Notre-Dame de la Traille, Remi’s Cafe is a quirky place to relax with a waffle or a hot chocolate (3 euros). Also a broquant, or ‘junk shop’, the window tables offer good views of the cathedral’s modern facade across the square. For a more upmarket gaufre, go to Méert, (27 Rue Esquermoise; +33 3 20 57 07 44, www.meert.fr), the city’s oldest confectioner. Filled with Madagascan vanilla, Méert’s waffles, which were said to be Charles de Gaulle’s favourites, are served in a sumptuously decorated salon. Slightly lighter, although probably just as calorific, Merveilleux, meringues coated with cream and dipped in chocolate sprinkles, are another northern delicacy. You can see them assembled in the window of Fred Vaucamp’s shop, Aux Merveilleux, (67 Rue de la Monnaie; +33 3 20 51 99 59) or queue up outside to buy a box (from 2.5 euros per cake).
Dinner: Holding a Michelin star since 1930, L’Hûitrière (3 rue des Chats Bossus; +33 3 20 55 43 41; www.huitriere.fr) is situated behind a beautiful Art Deco fishmongers. Service, from a fleet of waiters who look more like accountants, is excellent, although at around 30 euros for a starter and 40 euros for a main course, à la carte prices are enough to make you consider cooking the books. The highlight of a meal here is Crêpe Suzettes (16 euros) made flamboyantly at your table. Owned by the same family, L’Ecume des Mers (10 rue Pas; +33 3 20 54 95 40; www.ecume-des-mers.com), also specialises in seafood, although the elegant blue and cream brasserie is much more modestly priced with starters from 12 euros and mains from 20 euros.
Accommodation: Lille has a number of three and four star hotels, but has only just got its first five star establishment. Hôtel Casino Barrière Lille (77 Bis, Pont de Flandres) is a dramatic boat shaped building designed by French architect Jean-Paul Viguier with interiors by Pierre-Yves Rochon. Next to Parc des Dondaines, the Barrière is close to the TGV stations and about 15 minutes walk from the historic centre. Decorated in shades of chocolate and eau-de-nil, the 125 bedrooms have free WiFi, LCD TV and a choice of pillows, while the 17 suites are nearly three times larger than the standard rooms and have views of the park. As the name implies, the hotel is also a casino and entertainment venue containing a theatre, three restaurants and four bars. Superior rooms from 126 euros/ night, panoramic junior suites from 276 euros low season.
Travel: There are no direct flights from the UK to Lille; however, the city is just 50 minutes by TGV from Paris Charles de Gaulle. Airlines travelling to Charles de Gaulle from the UK include British Airways from London Heathrow , from £39 one-way (www.britishairways.com) ; Flybe from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Cardiff, Manchester, Jersey, Exeter and Birmingham from £56 (www.flybe.com) and Easyjet from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool and Luton from £23 (www.easyjet.com). Lille is one hour 20 minutes by Eurostar from London St Pancras, fares from £37 (www.eurostar.com).