Normally when I arrive in a new city I’m pretty quick in getting my bearings, and Lille is no exception. Although its streets twist and turn it’s essentially a compact place, and no sooner have I walked out of the hotel I’m in the Place du Theatre, and next to it the Grand Place.
Ye olde French buildings tower above the mainly narrow roads. It’s a cold afternoon, deterring the largest of the crowds – and although the Grand Place is decked out with a huge Christmas carousel, few people are venturing onto it or into the covered marquees next to the cafes. On one of the side streets I come across Meert – one of the oldest patisseries in town.
This place has served royalty, and has prices to match. I’d initially considered having afternoon tea here, but there’s a mini market around the corner selling two eclairs for €2. Occasionally I don’t mind doing the stupid tourist act and spending a fortune, but not today.
Instead, I head to a small creperie called Vielle Bourse, named after the huge 17th Century Flemish building in the same block. It’s a tiny cafe which only serves pancakes and pizza. But with so many different varieties, I’m spoilt for choice. Given that I’ve already spotted those cheap eclairs, a savoury cheese and ham combo fills a hole.
I’m genuinely amazed at how patient and polite the motorists are here. Ornate bollards are all that separates cars from pedestrians around the side streets and even in the Grand Place. And although there are a few official crossings dotted about, vehicles give way to the tourists, who are inevitably engrossed in their guidebooks or taking photos. I can’t imagine such etiquette anywhere else.
So, Monday evening and it must be time for beer. The best place to start, it seems, is les Trois Brasseurs right by the Gare de Lille Flandres. Four home brewed beers are on offer, from the Blanche at 4.7% to the Ambree at 6.2%. I opt for a middle of the road Blonde which is 5.2% and bit fruity. But despite being surrounded by copper brewing apparatus, the atmosphere here lacks any real personality.
Mondays are clearly not a big night in Lille. The streets are picturesque enough – lit by Christmas lights – but there’s no real action. I make the mistake of going to an Australian theme bar. The bar tender tells me he’ll be with me “in a minute”, then proceeds to take around ten minutes mixing a cocktail with an horrendous selection of alcopops and faux fruit juice. I walk out as he throws plastic bottles around the bar in a vain attempt to look like Tom Cruise.
It’s a long walk across town to the Rue Massena, which my guidebook tells me is full of eclectic bars. And it is. First, I encounter a salsa class at the Rendezvous bar. And then, I find this.
Disappointingly, there’s no homage to Robin Hood inside. But there is an amusing collection of students, including a boy who appears to have tried every variety of shot on offer.
“C’est SUPERB” he tells the bar staff, among a collection of other words I don’t understand. The bar staff respond with equally enthusiastic “superbs” and some small talk with the pretty girls accompanying the pretty boys. It’s great cabaret, and I didn’t even have to pay to get in.
There’s even better news back at the hotel when I ask what time breakfast is served. It finishes at 1pm. How many English hotels would do that? I’m starting to like this place…