Lille is a cross-Channel flip for class... and chips

by Anthony.Peregrine

Eurostar has brought Lille within 100 minutes of London. A French city reborn and buzzing with prosperity, it would be silly not to take advantage

Not too long ago, Lille was going down the pan. Trade and the textile industry, once the muscles of the northern French city, had withered. The place was pretty grim. You went there only for mussels and chips, the local bulk-filler, or because you couldn’t avoid it. Social problems were stark. “When I was young, girls like me didn’t go to the old town,” says a virtuous Lilloise I know.

Then the Eurostar arrived. From being deep in the dumps, Lille emerged as a transport hub of northern Europe. Being sharp-witted and industrious, the Lillois grabbed this good fortune and put it to work. The centre once again buzzes with prosperity. Great neo-classical and Flemish baroque façades – the ones apparently decorated with an icing nozzle – radiate new confidence. The no-go Old Lille now bristles with bistros, posh shops and vital boutiques like the Delhi Circus uni-cycle and juggling emporium on Place-des-Patiniers.

Art has broken out all over, to complement the ponderous Palais-des-Beaux-Arts. And the city knows how to throw great parties, both cultivated and popular. But, if Lille now has class, it’s rooted in the working class. The music for L’Internationale was written here, on a harmonium. A thick streak of realism runs right through the city. These are beer-drinking people with more sense than money. If they weren’t northern French, they could be northern English (except they dress better). And they’re only one hour and 40 minutes from London.

Day 1
Vast and bustling, the Grand’Place announces a city of trading confidence. Fanciest of many extravagant façades is the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, put up by city burghers to show they’d got money enough to show off with. Inside, there’s a lovely courtyard with cloisters under which lurk book-and flower-sellers and chaps playing chess.

Off the square to the north is Vieux Lille. Not too long ago, the old centre warren was, as we’ve seen, no place for good girls. Now the medieval meanders are full of them, patrolling fashion and décor stores and smoking animatedly on café terraces. (Smoking is no bar to being a good girl in France.) This is, in truth, a disarming district, at once scurrying, elegant and sturdy in the Flemish fashion.

Duty demands that you take in the Palais-des-Beaux-Arts on Place-de-la-République. The classical frontage leaves no doubt that uplift and self-improvement lie within. As they do. The medieval and Renaissance work is exceptional, though it may be Goya’s hideous crones in The Old Ones which stick in the mind.

Day 2
If today is Sunday, then join the rest of the world just off-centre at Wazemmes market, a huge and lively stew of multi-ethnic commerce offering meat, bargain clothes, boxed DVD sets of the Koran, fruit, fish, cheese, Jack Russell terriers, books, bric-à-brac – and everything in between.

If it’s not Sunday, head back to the old centre. You might pretend you’re going to visit the Hospice Comtesse on Rue de la Monnaie (a fine old 15th-century pile full of painting and sculpture). Or, on Rue Princesse, the house where Charles-de-Gaulle was born. But no-one’s checking, so you may sheer off for the big-ticket shopping (Hermès, Vuitton) on Rue Grande-Chaussée and Place Bettignies. Or, better still, try the tiny Rue des Vieux-Murs where the Abbaye des Saveurs has several lifetime’s worth of French and Belgian beers.

Now you should hop on the Metro, Line 2 (direction ‘CH Dron’) and hop off at Gare Jean Lebas. You’ve moved from Lille to next-door Roubaix for La Piscine, a quite extraordinary gallery within what used to be the town swimming baths. They’ve kept the art deco style, tiled changing rooms and a strip of pool – and placed pieces by the likes of Ingres, Dufy and Claudel around them. Other art crops up in the unlikeliest places. The whole works brilliantly.

And, if you haven’t shopped to a standstill earlier, you might stay in the vicinity (Metro stop: Eurotéléport) and stock up at the McArthur-Glen factory shop complex. Lille made its brass with textiles, and the region remains mail-order HQ of France – so you can claim that a couple of hours spent here is honouring the local heritage.

To stay
If money is little object, then the Hermitage Gantois (224 Rue de Paris, 0033 320 853030, www.hotelhermitagegantois.com) is the best address in town - a 15th-century pile reviewed and corrected for contemporary comfort-seeking classes. Good restaurant, and a less formal bistro, too.

Mid-range, the Novotel Lille Centre (116 Rue de l’Hôpital-Militaire, 0033 320 574564, www.accorhotels.com) may be a chain, but it’s more welcoming than many family hotels. Also more modern, efficient and central. Tighter budgets might try the Hotel Brueghel (5 Parvis St Maurice, 0033 320 060669, www.hotel-brueghel.com). Rooms are small, but the spot has a disarming, old-fashioned air.

To eat
French Flemish food tends to the copious side of hearty. You can eat fancy too, but you can do that anywhere. Here, get stuck into carbonnade flamande (beef in beer), potjveleesch (jellied terrine of white meats), waterzoi fish or chicken stew – plus shipping quantities of chips. The Estaminet T’Rijsel (25 Rue de Gand, 0033 320 150159) is a good place to start … an ‘estaminet’ being a Flemish pub-with-food and Rijsel meaning ‘Lille’ in Flemish.

Aux Moules (34 Rue de Béthune, 0033 320 571246, www.auxmoules.com) is the brasserie for mussels and chips (moules-frites). Meanwhile, if you insist on pushing le bateau out, L’Huitrière (3 Rue Chats Bossus, 0033 320 554341, www.huitriere.fr) is the swishest fish spot, tucked in behind a swish fish shop. It’s been Michelin-starred since 1930.

Finally, if you can’t make it through the morning or afternoon without a hit of sweetness, head for Méert on Rue Esquermoise. It’s a Lille institution. Behind the vintage frontage lurk cakes, vanilla-filled waffles (the speciality) and Louis XVI tea rooms. The calories are almost visible but, once started, there’s no stopping.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.