A day trip to Lille is a lovely way of spending a weekend, yet it is not often considered when visitors think of possible day trips from London. The best way to explore this lovely Flemish city is to throw out the guidebook and maps, and just wander. For most European visitors, the Gare de Lille Flandres will be your first stop into Lille. From here, make your way to the centre of Lille, stopping along the way at the Vielle Bourse, Lille’s flamboyantly decorated old trading exchange house. It’s beautifully restored and in its grounds you’ll find booksellers, florists and chess games taking place.
The Grand Place is the heart of Old Lille, more officially known as the Place du General de Gaulle, named after Lille’s most famous General. The square is ringed by some of Lille’s prettiest buildings, and at its heart, The Goddess stands watch over all. The statue at the top of the fountain was built to commemorate Lille’s victory over an Austrian attack in the 18th century. Here, in one of the busy cafes surrounding the Grand Place is an excellent spot for a lunch of Belgian beer and mussels.
Lille’s architecture displays none of the 16th, 17th century grandiose flamboyance of Parisien buildings. Instead, mixed in with the ornate curves of beautiful roccoco are the unmistakably Flemish/Dutch influences of stepped and bell gables. The Flemish duchy was lost somewhere in the 19th century in the midst of the power struggles of the Dutch, French and even the Spanish, whose reign extended this far in its heyday.
Walk off lunch with a wander in one of city’s most elegant parks, the Jardin Vauban. Nearby is the lush space of the Bois de Boulogne, where the Citadelle, Lille’s 17th century fortress, is located. This was the base for the French army and also, it is claimed, the inspiration for the star-shaped Pentagon in Washington.
The next stop is the oldest street in Lille, a 13th century, twisty masterpiece called rue de la Monnaie. Here is the Musee l’Hospice de Comtesse, an old 16th century hospice founded by the Countess of Flanders, now an interesting little museum with displays such as a ward from the 15th century, which bear quiet testimony to life in a different age.
Lille also has the Palais de Beaux Arts, second only in size to the Louvre, which houses an extensive collection of French and Flemish classical masterpieces and an excellent Impressionist section. If poking around in a gallery doesn’t appeal, take to the streets and dip into Lille’s unique designer boutiques and quirky shops. North of the Grand Place are atmospheric cobblestone streets and picturesque 17th century buildings.
Some of the city’s best sights are also its best eats. Drop by Aux Merveilleux de Fred, a divine, be-chandeliered patisserie which has queues forming for its Marvellous, a chocolate shavings coated concoction of whipped cream set on a crumbly, light meringue. The combination of textures is what makes this work. The shop’s other best seller is the Incredible, similar to the first, but without chocolate shavings.
By now it’s time for tea and there’s no where better to go than the 18th-century Patisserie Meert, a favorite of General Charles de Gaulle (apparently he always ordered the filled waffles). Marble topped counters, old fashioned sweet jars, chocolates displayed in glass cases, wooden shelfs, painted ceiling panels, old fashion telephones, a besuited door attendant – this is a luxurious, bespoke patisserie experience.
The last train to St Pancras leaves on Saturdays at about 9.30pm, which is just enough time for a quick dinner and then a stop at the hypermarket located at Gare de Lille. Stock up on bargain priced French wine and cheese, and nibble on your purchases on the way home.