Lille, 2006

[photopress:IMG_2753.jpg,thumb,alignleft]As I explain in my Belgium post, travelling somewhere in November has become something of a tradition in the Darlington household. Starting with a working trip to Abu Dhabi in 1999, I have been out of the country as least of part of the month every year since.

Since we’re both in new jobs, and therefore had no time to take off work, we decided that in order to maximise our weekend another Eurostar trip was in order. Having been to two other Eurostar destinations — Belgium and Paris — in the last year (twice in B’s case), and having heard good things about it, we decided on Lille.

[photopress:IMG_2766.jpg,thumb,alignleft]Forward planning is not high on the list of our priorities. And this is the case with our weekend away. We know little of what Lille has to offer. We had a quick Google around the night before and decide that the hotel is going to be easy enough to find as it’s right next to a huge cemetery.

What we didn’t quite appreciate is that it was next to a cemetary that was just outside the central Lille map helpfully provided in Lille Europe train station. We think we know which way to go but in the end chicken out and get a taxi.

[photopress:IMG_2762.jpg,thumb,alignleft]It’s only five minutes away and, as it turns out, directly opposite a tram stop. At first we’re frustrated that they didn’t say it was so well catered for on the public transport front. We gradually feel less aggrieved when we realise that we only saw one tram the whole weekend.

The next morning we head into town, rather later than we’d intended. We’d seen some tours of the area, one by Segway which sounded intriguing, but we’d not got up in time.

One of the first things we notice is a road lined with elephants. Not real elephants, obviously. This is France and November and I’m not sure that an elephant would really appreciate the climate. In fact they’re statues presumably for the purposes of the upcoming Bombay festival. B notices a restaurant at one end of the road called Hippopotamus. Seems that non-native animals are all the rage in northern France.

[photopress:IMG_2748.jpg,thumb,alignleft]It’s late and we’re hungry, so we dive into pretty much the first place that we see for pain au chocolate and exceedingly strong coffee. Reinvigorated we head back out into the cold for more investigations.

Since the weather was good — fine and not too chilly for the time of year — we decided to stay outside. A large park on the map, labelled The Citadel, sounded good. We had no idea what was there, but the river passed around it on both sides and it promised to be pretty.

[photopress:IMG_2711.jpg,thumb,alignleft]What we hadn’t factored in was a bike hire stand. That also lent out Segways.

As an avid Wired reader at the time, I heard about the “world?s first self-balancing personal transportation device” more-or-less when they first came out in 2001. I thought they looked neat but I could never quite see the novelty. Why would someone like Steve Wozniak be so addicted? In fact, why would he be so addicted that he’d want to play polo on one?

But, for the initiated, what is a Segway? It’s like an electric, two wheeled scooter. You stand on top of the axle and lean forward to move forward and backward to either move back or stop. It kind of sounds odd — not quite counter-intuitive but unusual — but it turns out that it’s really easy to get the hang of. In fact, the hardest part was turning (a little lever on one of the handle-bars) which I kept pushing the wrong way, resulting in some close encounters with the curb.

[photopress:IMG_2716.jpg,thumb,alignleft]With a top speed of only a few miles an hour, it was a great way to see the park. The machines are still unusual, resulting in people smiling and laughing as you pass. We followed the river for a while, eventually finding a bridge that we wanted to cross. Unfortunately the only way up there was some steps (which we tried but failed to climb) and we ended up re-tracing our path for a while.

Our hour ends with a jarring few moments over cobble-stones.

We head back into central Lille for refreshments, enthusing about the whole experience. We find a great cafe and pledge to come back for breakfast the next day. With no particular plan, we wander around further. We pass Notre Dame (my third in just over a year), walk down some pretty cobbled streets with brightly painted doors (all shut, does Lille ever open?) and the odd daub of graffiti.

Heading back to the Grande Place we notice a book fair. B, reading rather more French than me, probably got far more out of it than I did. Still, seeing all the old books and magazines, postcards and stamps was fascinating — you don’t need language skills to appreciate the pictures!

[photopress:IMG_2705.jpg,thumb,alignleft]So far we’ve experienced none of the infamous French rudeness, but that was about to change as we (again) decide we’re hungry and start to think about dinner. Previously we seem to recall seeing row after row after row of exciting looking restaurants but no friendly looking cafes. However, now that we need a bistro rather than a cafe the tables are turned.

We eventually stumble across a creperie, it’s busy — always a good sign — has a great looking menu and, well, we both love pancakes. But no, on entering we’re asked if we have a reservation. Of course we don’t. We wander around further, find an decent looking restaurant, with a small menu and about two people inside. But it wasn’t to be. “Do you have a reservation?” she sneered. We feel like pointing out that they have twenty free tables at 8.30 on a Saturday evening but decide to let it go.

[photopress:IMG_2715.jpg,thumb,alignleft]We reluctantly head back to a row of tourist-focused restaurants and end up in the last one, which claims to open 24-hours a day but, quite rightly, doesn’t brag about its food.

If there’s such a thing as a low-light, it would have to be the Grand Palais. Sounds, well, grand and palatial, right? No. It’s basically a large arena.

But really that’s our fault for not reading about all the sights in Lille before going, and it was funny rather than bad. Overall it was a great weekend, we saw a lot, ate some good food and had a relaxed time of it.

Lille gets the Darlington thumbs-up for a weekend away.