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From the archives: A not-so-grim Lille

First published on Red Robin Blue June 12, 2012

Recently a friend of mine and The Boy’s (let’s call him Mr P) suggested a last minute trip to Lyon – something which turned out to be impossible but evolved into a wannabe spontaneous bus trip to Lille, a French town near the Belgian border.

Attempt number one saw The Boy and I drag ourselves out of bed unreasonably early -for us that is- after a shift at the pub and dash around the 16th arrondisement hunting for anywhere that would let us print our bus tickets on a Sunday. Obviously we failed.

Nevertheless we dragged on our backpacks onto our exhausted bodies and set off with Mr P to the bus station and the first experience of French bureaucracy we’ve ever experienced in living here. Sent from counter to counter, to a printer and another counter we were swearing loudly and ready to stow away on any bus to any destination with its baggage hatch still open. Again, we failed. Ten minutes after our bus was due to leave we were still running from one end of the station to the other trying to find out what we had to do to be allowed on the bus.

Cue pleading to be allowed to change our tickets followed by a metro trip to Rue de Lappe in Bastille where we proceeded to eat and drink our sorrows away.

One week later and the three of us set out again, a little hesitant to return the site of so many bad memories but a little more prepared for what lay in wait for us.

A balk at the entrance to the bus stop by The Boy, and only two counter changes later and we finally had our precious boarding cards in our hands. Three hours later we jumped off the bus into a chilly and grey Lille; realising too late that the town is pretty much deserted on a Sunday afternoon.

We walked the cobble-stoned streets trying to find something, anything, to do, and failing that another place to eat and drink. Here we had success, and stumbled out of our restaurant into the beautiful streets of Old Lille (Lille Vieux) with full and happy bellies, making it home.

Needless to say I woke the next morning hating the world, and especially the cleaner who kept knocking on our hostel room door to wake us up I walked out into Lille with my cranky pants firmly in place. But I made my first wonderful discovery – in Lille it’s possible to get a large takeaway coffee with milk: the kind that would see you strung up in Paris. And fully caffeinated I made my second discovery – Lille is a beautiful city.

Walking the streets of Old Lille
The main green. Ironically also home to Cafe Oz

According to my trusty Lonely Planet guide (yes the one I swore I would hide at the back of my cupboard) old Lille was built in the “Flemish style”. I don’t actually know what that means but walking the old town the streets were narrow and cobble-stoned and the buildings looked like they were straight out of Medieval times. But they played home to chic clothing boutiques, coffee shops and patisseries, restaurants and even pubs.

Breakfast and two coffees out of the way the three of us trundled out of town towards the Citadel, built by King Louis XIV, only to discover once we got there that it was closed for renovations and also played home the Europe’s Fast Response Military Unit. But the walk in the grounds surrounding it was amazing. Green and lush, full of ducks and ducklings – it is spring after all – swimming in the marshy moat and most exciting of all for me rabbits. But my calls of “bunny” and dashes towards them went surprisingly unappreciated by the poor animals. The Boy and Mr P were also in their element and spent their time inspecting every trail into the foliage we passed.

Garden walk near the Citadel

We emerged a lot muddier and thirstier than when we arrived, and sought out a funky pub where even the bartenders were drinking champagne behind the bar and a tree made out of wine bottles greeted you at the door to have beers before setting off in pursuit of our final few sites, dinner and finally the bus stop for the trip back to Paris.

The main square of the city

Final verdict? If you ever find yourself in northern France, or France in general, or hell even Europe go there. Lille is awesome. Just don’t catch the bus.

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