A couple Sundays ago, my good friends John and Lindsey were passing through on their one month tour of Europe. We had an adventurous day in the city on a rainy Sunday traversing around Amsterdam, eating and drinking our way through the city with a cultural stop at the Rijksmuseum. I always thought Rembrandt was boring, but seeing his work up-close was pretty impressive. The inconceivable amount of detail and canvases bigger than my apartment were very dramatic. John and Lindsey headed off to Germany and a couple days later, Tiffany came in at the beginning of her trip. She was destined to a cruise around the Greek islands. The next weekend came and on a whim, we rented a car and decided to head to northern France. It’s only a 3 hour drive, so it would be stupid not to.
Lille (pronounced kind of like “lil”) is a town in north France near the border of Belgium. It’s an old town with a classic feel and rough cobblestone streets. It used to be an industrial town; from what I’ve read, I’d give it the likeness of “Detroit of France.” They’ve spent a lot of money to clean it up and make it a nicer city – good idea, since it’s the fourth largest in France. Now, you can see it’s a thriving town with a lot of young people – about 110k students. They of course speak French, and it’s not uncommon to run into people that don’t parle anglais. Unlike Paris, they were open to non-native French speakers and even appreciated my attempt to pronounce things incorrectly as I dusted off my rusty French (last spoken 18 months ago in Quebec).
Our first night, we booked a last minute room in someone’s condo outside of town through airbnb for only $30. It was a couple miles out of the city, but we took the metro into town. The lime green and orange colors of the metro leave out any doubt that it was built in the ’80s. It’s automated without a driver, and if you sit in the front of the train you are whipped around in a dark tunnel leaving you feeling like you got a €1.15 roller coaster ride.
Arriving downtown we noticed it was getting late – so we were hungry and needed wine. It was an easy decision to get the sampler of food which turned out to be stomach busting – consisted of cold chicken in its own gelatin (interesting), liver terrine, baked brie, Lille’s take on sauerbrauten, and a fondue. C’est très français! We found a bar to grab a couple drinks and after realizing that the average age was 17 (we should have known by the candy garnish on the mixed drinks), we headed out pretty quickly. Not quickly enough to miss the last train of the night, however. Since there are no drivers on the Metro, one would think there’d be no reason to shut it down at 12:30.
The next morning, we spent way too long at the Carrefour “hypermarket” immersed in the biggest cheese counter, liver-product dominated deli counter, baguette selection, and wine department I’ve ever seen in a grocery store. Finishing strong, I thought we could conquer the self-checkout, but after a man started yelling “ARRET!” because we were scanning things wrong, we had to admit defeat. Who knew you could fail at the self-checkout lane? We popped into our hotel in Vieux Lille (the old part of town) and Tiffany managed an impressive spread of food from our grocery experience forming our late lunch.
We hadn’t seen much of the city, so we went for a walk – finding macarons, a vieaux-modern church, Notre Dame de la Treille,
beautiful old streets packed with shops, finally stumbling into a seafood restaurant (found because of the man shucking oysters outside) for dinner followed by the obligatory crème brulee. If you want to know how to not impress a French person – just drink a pastis(anise liquor) with your crème brulee. Saturday night, we did some better planning to avoid the teenage bars, and found some nice places to grab drinks – favorite being La Capsule. We stumbled upon an au pair from Milwaukee who’d been living in France for two years.
Our last morning came quick – we woke up early to pack and try for one more stop – the Les Halles de Wazemmes market. This market was 6 square blocks of a giant cluster. It spilled out blocks and blocks and had everything from live animals, to fabric, gently used clothes, gimmick mops and slicing devices, and even a row of food vendors selling whole cooked chickens and racks on racks of ribs. Ribs for breakfast? We did.
Wanting one more stop before returning to the Nether-region, we drove into Brugges, which we confirmed to be the tourist trap of Belgium. We enjoyed a nap in the park, several chocolate tastings, and a cozy dinner. At the helm of a mighty Fiat Panda, we headed home through the Dutch countryside surrounded by buttermilk cows, tired but so free.