Lille-appeal an easy train trip away

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Eurostar, high speed from London St Pancras, has turned this handsome Flanders city into one of France’s most convenient short-stay, or even day trip destinations. The fastest train is just 82 minutes. I checked in for a weekend to test Lille-appeal, its cosy cobbled squares and narrow streets, and its welcoming bistros serving mussels, chips, and beer. The big event of the late summer is the Flea Market, Aug 31st, Sept 1st 2013. Eating moules-frites (mussels & chips) The mood turns more serious in 2014, as we start to recall the catastrophe of the First World War, which happened all around.

High sight

Your first glimpse of this city, from far across the flat plain of Flanders, is a single, astonishing skyscraper. The 310 ft belfry, the tallest in the region, is one of 55 in Belgium and N. France. They are collectively designated as a World Heritage Site by Unesco. Proclaiming cities' power and wealth, belfries were a dramatic form of building unique to these wide horizons. The surprise is that Lille’s is so young. It was finished in 1932 as the then tallest building in France, in reinforced concrete. You can climb it Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (book at Tourist office, ) It’s worth it for the immense views, down over the five-pointed Citadel- Louis XIV’s masterpiece of fortification - the medieval Stock Exchange, and out across the sites of World War 1 battlefields.

The Battlefields coach tour (in English) run by the Office de Tourisme de Lille, is every Saturday to December. It starts at 1.30 pm from the Lille Tourist Office and takes 4 hours. Included are the main WW1 sites in the Ypres area (in Belgium), including Essex Farm and Tyne Cot cemeteries.

Sweet heaven

General de Gaulle was born in Lille, and while a visit to his birthplace (9 Rue Princesse) may not be a priority on a short visit, the irascible president’s favourite pastry shop and tea room La Pâtisserie Meert is a must. Just as dogs sometimes look like their owners, this shop’s interior seems to resemble the exquisitely extravagant sweets and confectionary on sale within, in its sumptuous décor of medallions held up by mermaids, and masks, garlands and arabesques from the 1800s. Its specialty is homemade waffles (“gaufres”). Made to a still-secret recipe devised in 1849, they are filled with Madagascar vanilla cream and cooked between two iron waffle makers. Meert offers to release cholocoholics from their guilt. The chef has created a sugar-free chocolate, combining the decadence of the cacao bean with the natural sweetener Maltitol, sugar alcohol (polyol) used as a sugar substitute. 27 rue Esquermoise.

Wonder wall

Never trust a cover. France''s most recently completed cathedral looks ordinary from the outside, with its rather vague off-white front. Go inside Notre Dame de Treille, and that façade becomes a glorious wall of warm orangey-pink, as 110 slabs of white marble just over an inch thick soak up whatever light there is outside. Completing this unfinished cathedral was the city’s Millenium project. When work started in 1854, they wanted it to be one of the world’s biggest. (William Burges, who built Cardiff Castle in the Gothic revival style, and Castell Coch, actually won the prize to design it, but was passed over.) They peeled away the corrugated iron facing the building, and Peter Rice (who worked on Sydney Opera House) effected his ingenious “light wall” solution, topped off with a new rose window. Brilliant simplicity to lighten the darkest of days.

Ancient and modern

Lille became serious about tourism in the 90s, when the Eurostar link opened. Now it has the hotel to secure its place among the top short break stops. Why build new, said the developers of the l’Hermitage Gantois, when there is a fine old structure steeped in history looking for a purpose? They converted the 13th Century hospice with high respect, to mark it out from so many “all much the same” hotels. We found carved angels, stained glass windows, secret gardens behind great wooden doors and the still-consecrated chapel. Our room was down a corridor under curved wooden beams. Each room is different, focussing on whatever old features they contain. Scrubbed and polished ancient bricks and tiles match cool modern furnishing. Then we sank with a drink in squashy leather sofas in the lounge, a former courtyard under an all-glass roof.

Fish feast

We sat under mosaics celebrating the bounty of the seas in the L'Huitrière and enjoyed one of the best fish dinners I have taste. It''s that simple but winning French formula of a family-run restaurant, here since 1928, delivering a smallish menu of signature dishes such as warm oysters with pears and truffles, and grilled lobster in Roscoff butter, with perfection. It''s smart and formal, but the amiable owner Antoine personally ensures the place is never fussy and aloof. He checks personally with diners, enlivened with much mirth, that L'Huitrière’s reputation as one of Lille''s best restaurants, begun by his great-grandfather, hasn’t slipped today. Next morning Antoine is on the phone in the fishmonger''s you pass through to reach the tables, ordering fresh from the North Sea and Channel. The only farmed produce he serves is salmon. Turbot is the speciality. Prices may be for special celebration dining, but they ought not scare you off. There's a memorable seven course seafood menu, and a set lunch. The nearby sister restaurant L'Ecume-des-Mers (Foam of the Seas) is less formal, and less expensive. ........Another big sea food occasion is earting moules-frite (mussels & chips) at the late summer Flea Market.

Fine arts

In the heart of Liile is the Palais de Beaux Arts, widely accepted as France’s second best general interest museum after the venerable Louvre (which has since opened a new satellite museum on a former mining site at nearby Lens). This wonderful building, is worth a visit simply to stroll its great corridors and staircases, pausing here and there for a highlight such as Monet’s ghostly Houses of Parliament (London), or Delacroix’s staggering view of Medea, the murderous mother of Greek tragedy. The other bright star in town, and well worth the trip on the driverless metro (take the day pass) is La Piscine. They turned this 1920s art deco swimming pool into a gallery, placing sculptures and paintings among the shower stalls and changing booths. A strip of water through the central hall reflects sunlight through the stained glass windows. Then see the Hospice Comtesse (a hospital founded in 1237, and now a museum). The City Pass gives free access to these, and many others, and all public transport. 24h Pass (€25) & 48h Pass (€35)......The Flea Market takes place each year during the first weekend in September. Preceded by a half-marathon on Saturday morning, the market opens at 2pm on Saturday and runs until 11pm on Sunday. The city is transformed into a huge pedestrian zone where thousands of traders continue a tradition both commercial and festive. .........The new the Louvre-Lens museum opened in December 2012. The Lille - Louvre-Lens shuttle started in July 2013. This coach service makes the short trip daily, leaving Lille at 11am and getting back around 5.30pm. You get a full day in the Louvre-Lens museum and the chance to see something of the Art Deco heritage of Lens. Book at the Lille Tourism & Convention Bureau. The service starts and drops off in the Lille city centre. There’s a transfer from Lens city centre to the museum. (See article below.)

The writer travelled by Eurostar.

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