If you hold yourself to a higher standard and set the bar high,
you will always find the right path.
"High expectations are key to everything."
Sam Walton, enterprising American entrepreneur
As many of us have learned from past experience,
looking forward to the journey is half the fun.
The hard part is w-a-i-t-i-n-g for the right moment.
After years of talking about going to the northern tip of France
to uncover its Flemish face, we gave up waiting for the
"perfect time" and stoutheartedly said HELL YES,
it's high time we make our way
to LILLE, the region's most dynamic city.
It may be sexier to boast about visiting the south of France
or one of the better known regions of our beloved French frontier.
Or, as most visitors pointed in a northerly direction, we could have opted for Normandy again -- a wonderful destination -- but we were searching for something new -- somewhere that pushed the envelope beyond our historic exploits in France.
Erasing all preconceived notions, we made our way to Lille, just
an hour north of Paris by rail and fewer than ten miles from the Belgian border.
Lille is a great place to widen your France-loving horizons, a heavenly stew
of grand architecture, historic cobbled streets and tradition rich food
with curious names like waterzooi, gauffres and potjevleesch.
Flea markets, festivals and an estimated 100,000 students make
lovely Lille a haven for the young and the forever young-at-heart.
It won't take you long to figure out the right moment for Lille is the here & now.
Cobbled streets, gabled houses and red brick are the backbone of designer boutiques and charming Flemish restaurants called -- new word here! -- estiminets.
This is a surprisingly chic destination in a region known for its industrial makeup.
An entry from my travel journal understated it:
"Lille is old-world beautiful and hip at the same time."
So true, this city will greet you with a medley of stunning squares,
backstreets straight out of a 1930's film noir,
and a charming hodgepodge of people from all walks of life.
This is a melting pot city that will melt your heart faster
than a snow cone on a hot summer day.
If you enjoy flamboyant Flemish Baroque architecture, you're in for a treat.
If you don't, well, that's ok, there's something else for you.
Each time you turn the corner, Lille offers a diverse menu of appealing
surroundings and fun stops to hang your hat and enjoy a local brew.
you're exactly right.
The student population brings the exhibitionist architecture
and historic facades into the realm of the real world.
Flamboyant but not flashy, grandiose yet without pretention, this
gorgeously detailed city goes down easily with blue jeans, beer and
a football (soccer) match or two on the telly at your favorite local bar.
Speaking of drinking, this is one part of France that's not dedicated
to all things wine & roses.
You're more likely to be treated to a lovingly curated menu of fine beers,
many brewed nearby or just to the north in Belgium.
If you're not into microbrews and all manner of
malt-lovers' nectar, consider a tasting of the local gin.
Genièvre -- gin -- is the traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Flanders.
Its popularity continues to thrive in this part of France
and it doesn't taste like the stuff you drink at home.
Coal miners of the region used to fortify themselves before heading to the mines with a stiff "bistouille" -- a shot of genièvre in their coffee to help make
their unnerving descent into the quarries a little less appalling.
Lille's population of miners may have shrunk to almost zero by now --- but
students and travelers -- well, let's face it, we lead trying lives
that need fortification from time to time....
"I exercise strong self-control.
I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast."
best advice to you is to plan for more time than you think you'll need
and make sure you bring some comfortable walking shoes.
Begin at the Grand Place -- also known as Place du General-de-Gaulle*.
*General de Gaulle was born in this city in 1890
Colorful and ornate, this huge square features the Vieille Bourse, an old stock exchange building that is the ultimate tour de force of Lille's unusual Flemish style.
As if its stunning colors and exceptional decoration aren't enough,
its inviting courtyard hosts a charming second-hand bookshop
with everything from advertising posters to period postcards.
Believe me, you'll want to take home a memento of this splendid place.
Nearby, you'll spy a number of welcoming sights -- the neo-classical
Lille Opera House as well as the steeply gabled -- stair-step-like -- La Voix
du Nord* building, capped by three warrior women who protect the city.
*The Voice of the North newspaper
Sadly, I only had time to visit two churches but they couldn't have been
more distantly related -- really like night and day.
The Church of Saint-Maurice de Lille is much what you would expect to see
in a 14th century church -- beautiful stained glass, soaring ceilings
and gothic style from end to end.
It also came equipped with a long-winded old man who generously
pointed out every last detail of the church's history and architecture,
adding in the very unlooked-for minutiae of his prostate operation....
Ah, the joys of traveling solo; by then my husband -- the smart one -- smugly
seated in a nearby café, was nursing a Jenlain Ambré,
enjoying a brief moment of peace & quiet.
On the other side of the coin, Notre Dame de la Treille took me by surprise, its exterior rather undistinguished and modern -- though the interior is well worth a look.
Rarely do you hear such a long and strange chronicle as the building of this basilica.
Construction began in 1854 but the money soon ran dry.
By the early '90's -- meaning the 1990's! -- the city determined it would cost more
to demolish the incomplete pile of saintly stones so they picked up the pieces
and did the best they could, finally completing the rescue mission in 1999.
The end result is a rather peculiar exterior façade and -- thankfully -- an
interior full of character and surprise.
The supernatural transformation of white marble on the outside wall into a
gorgeous orange archway upon entering feels outright mystical.
Unconventional, even unnatural by French standards,
Notre Dame de la Treille reminds us that part of what charms us
most in France comes from her many surprises.
The Palais des Beaux Arts boasts one of the most
important art collections in France.
You'll feel like a time traveler as you walk the halls, treated to visions of
Rembrandt, Rubens, Donatello, Rodin, Goya, Lautrec, Delacroix......get the picture? Plan for several hours here if at all possible.
If shopping is more to your liking, your head will implode
over all the opportunities to empty your pocketbook in Lille.
My favorites always lean toward food -- chocolate-chocolate-chocolate-cheese-cheese-cheese -- but you also get full rein over a variety of fun little shops offering
everything from antiques to jewelry and vintage clothing.
Don't miss an essential stop at Meert, a fine tea salon in business since 1761.
Dig into a gauffre (waffle) -- better yet, a chocolate one -- for a real taste of the region.
A great way to connect with Lille and the Lillois is by
moseying through its most famous market.
Wazemmes is the largest marché in the city.
The farmers are there, of course, presenting everything from fresh produce to
tempting tarte aux maroilles using Lille's famously "fragrant" fromage.
On offer is everything from exquisite flowers and souvenirs
to rack after rack of second-hand clothes and antiques.
The Braderie de Lille is one of the most famous street festivals in France.
We weren't there at the right time -- which is early September -- to attend but it seems
to set the tone for long party weekends in Lille year round.
At heart, La Braderie is a flea market -- but that description doesn't do it justice.
This town wholeheartedly gives it all with mountains of mussels & beer to boost
everyone's haggling skills and raise spirits as their cash dwindles downward.
It looks like a full fledged carnival of fun.
There are many more treasures to see -- particularly the art deco La Piscine
Musée d'Art et d'Industrie and the afore-mentioned La Grande Braderie.
The Hospice Comtesse Museum and Vauban's Citadelle are calling my name as well... but that makes a return imminent -- and that's never a bad thing.
FORWARD WE MARCH sounds corny as hell but that's our rallying cry
when it comes to travels in France -- so forward-looking,
forward-thinking we audacious travel hounds go.
I feel certain one day we'll again point north and find ourselves back
in lovely Lille -- and I hope you do the same.
The time is right, the moment is here.