LILLE is the fourth largest city in France, is easy to get to from the North-east of Scotland and boasts attractions in the centre are all within comfortable walking distance. Oh, and the people are very friendly.
I took the train from Keith to Aberdeen and then crossed to the Caledonian Sleeper train, which was a case of travelling in style. The night was drawing in as I boarded the train to be shown to my cabin, and once settled in had a snack and drink in the lounge car (see www.scotrail.co.uk for more details and some good offers).
In the morning, I got off at London Euston and after jockeying with hordes of grim-faced commuters turned left outside Euston for a six-minute walk to Saint Pancras to catch the Eurostar for Lille, which is just 80 minutes away. From what I had read, Lille seemed like a fascinating destination, and so it proved.
They say that it was founded in 640 by a king who killed giants. In 1066 the charter that established Lille called it 'Isla', the same as the river flowing through my town of Keith. The French took it from the Latin for island, as it was on a loop of a river, and today there are still some remnants of the port and docks.
Lille is dominated by a massive fortress, created in 1667 to 1670 by the famous fortress designer Vauban in a five-pointed star shape designed to deflect cannon balls with multiple layers of fortifications. Because it is still used by the French army, it is not open to the public. In the 19th century the city became heavily industrialised but this has given way to commerce and tourism. The TGV (High Speed Train) arrived from Paris in 1993, followed by the Eurostar from London in 1994, and these have brought lots of business and British tourists.
Back in 1888 the anthem 'Internationale' was composed by a Lille native and sung for the first time. In the city centre the chamber of commerce has an ornate high bell tower, and on the hour and half past it strikes into tune. It used to play the 'P'tits Quinquins, a lullaby composed in Lille in 1953 still well known and sung to children in the local dialect. You can buy sweets in purple tins called 'P'tit Quinquins'. These are hand made, the factory using machinery only to manufacture the tins, and the colour and design have never changed since their launch in 1921. The recipe is a secret, but with modern legislation requiring ingredients to be shown, they are briefly marked as sugar, glucose and "flavours". Inside each tin is a copy of the lullaby.
The area specialises in other tins of sweets and macaroons, including a sort of jam made from apples and macaroons, a cheese known as 'Lille Stinker' (say no more), good hearty beers, waffles (the Belgian influence, Lille is just 35 minutes from Brussels and 10 minutes from the border) and mussels (www.saveurs-npdc.com gives many more details of the gastronomy of Lille).
The Grande Place is actually the Place du General de Gaulle, who was born in Lille in 1890. His birthplace is just one of many museums worth seeing, including the Palais des Beaux Arts art gallery which has an important collection of paintings.
Discover, too, the delights of the old stock exchange building. Very attractive in the Flemish style of brick and ornate construction, it has a hollow, colonnaded square interior, filled by second-hand book sellers, making it an oasis of calm in the city centre until Sundays, when tango dancing takes over. Beside it is the Voix du Nord building, the office of the newspaper founded by the Resistance in 1941.
There are some remarkable churches. The main one is Notre Dame de la Treille, translated as Our Lady of the Trellis, and inside is a small statue of Our Lady, protected by a metal trellis. This magnificent building was opened in 1854 with grand plans for an enormous cathedral, but wars and financial problems meant that construction was very slow and it was not until the 1990s that it was completed. In 1999 the frontage was inaugurated, a remarkable façade in 110 sheets of white marble that are only 28mm thick so that when you are inside the daylight shines through. The stained glass windows throughout the church are stunning.
World wars brought extensive damage to the city, but it did offer the opportunity for a new town hall to be built between 1924 and 1932 using local style to influence the red brick walls, with lots of concrete in the structure not visible. It also has a very high bell tower. Beside the hall is the monumental old city gate, the Porte de Paris, guarding the road to Paris. Other gates are still dotted around the city, but the one-time perimeter walls were demolished as the city expanded.
Lille has lots of cultural credentials. It was European Capital of Culture in 2004, there are shows and expositions all year round, and is also the capital of shopping. Between the main railway station Lille Flandres and the new Lille Europe station where the trains to and from the UK arrive, there is a massive shopping centre. They say that in the city there are 3,900 shops.
There is so much to see in Lille, and to help you on your way is a minibus guided tour every hour from the tourist office, a metro system with two lines, two tramway routes and 60 bus lines. The fare is 1.40 Euros for the entire network. A day pass costs just 4 Euros (see www.transpole.fr). There is also a self-service bike hire system, with the bicycles being made in Lille, electro bike hire, electric bike hire, scooters and Segways, and even a cycle taxi service. Very useful is the City Pass (www.destination-lille-metropole.eu) which costs 20 Euros for 24 hours up to 45 Euros for 72 hours, and gives a booklet of vouchers for the bus tour, discounts in shops, access to museums, and so on. Close to Lille are many World War I graves, and other towns nearby to explore, some accessed by the metro.
A fascinating destination, friendly people, compact centre, historic, good food, and easy to get to, especially by train. I returned with two bottles of wine – no problems with checking in for the train. The evening Eurostar took me to London, back to the Caledonian Sleeper and to Aberdeen. So civilised compared to air travel, and no lost time getting to and from airports, checking in and being frisked for anything metal.
A great break. No wonder their slogan is 'Lille – the place to go'.