Thursday 26 January 2023 – Lille, France
It was cold in Lille, much colder than London; the shock of the cold cutting through my open jacket as I got off the train. We stopped in the almost empty concrete wind tunnel that is Lille Europe Station to don the scarves and hats we pocketed when we got on the tube in Leytonstone almost four hours earlier. Eleanor wore gloves, I was map reading on my phone as we walked the 20 or so minutes to the guest house.
It was Tuesday morning, Europe is in the grip of an air pattern generated by storms in America, the sky is a solid even block of grey and there’s a firm but gentle breeze that feels like it could cut through lead, its sharp. The light is weird, and would remain so until Thursday morning when the rain finally comes. Though we are six hours early the guest house owner shows us to our room and we can dump our bags; I change into a warmer jumper, then we head back out to explore Lille. Neither of us has been here before so everything is new. Other than some recommended places to visit over the next couple of days we have no plan. The best way to travel somewhere different; slow and at the whim of fancy.
We’ve come to Lille for a short break to celebrate the 25 of January, when, 10 years ago I met Eleanor for the first time over a drink or three in Camden’s famous rock and roll pub, the Hawley Arms. They’ve been a very happy 10 years and life without her would be a lot less bright. We chose Lille as it’s easy and quick to get to on the train, it’s not in the UK and we want to travel in Europe more than we have and, as I said earlier, we’ve not been here before, so there’s plenty to explore.
We spent Tuesday afternoon walking aimlessly around the old town, a lot of the shops were closed, early in a winter week I guess. nothing seemed permanently shutdown or derelict mind, a healthy sign for the city. I have the camera with me though don’t take a huge amount of photos.
Lille is in northern France, close to the Belgian border and architecturally is a mix of French and Flemish, a lot of the old houses would not be out of place if they were picked up and dropped into Ghent or Bruges. I like the mix of styles.
There’s a lots of churches; including a Notre Dame. The touches are so gothic (it is a famous gothic cathedral), but also a touch Gaudi-esque; though of course he was Spanish.
One of the things I like most about European towns, and it does seem to be unique to mainland Europe rather than the UK, is big old double doors, either as an entrance to a courtyard or directly into a house. I particularly like them when they are faded, grubby and time worn.
I also found the narrowest building ever, none of those big old double doors would have worked here.
We had an amazing run of finding great places to go for a drink or an evening meal during our short European break in September and I’m pleased to say that luck stayed with us on this trip as well. I found Soultrain bar online, I was looking for an ‘alternative’ bar and one that was preferably a few minutes walk from the guest house. Soultrain met those requirements and lived to up to expectations. We were the oldest people there, though we loved the vibe. The food was a choice of simple bar sharing plates, the cocktails were cheap and smooth and the bar staff were uber friendly. I didn’t expect that a bar playing a mix of American and French hip-hop would be my sort of place, but it was. Thanks internet. This was only our second drink, honest.
Anniversary night was Wednesday; Eleanor had been recommended a small local bistro by a friend of a friend who lives in Lille and made a reservation before we left London. I booked the guest house based on its close proximity to the bistro. Bistrot Brigand is small, maybe a dozen tables, the music was soul/funk/jazz, and like Soultrain the night before, it was unobtrusive. The food was fabulous, with combinations of things we hadn’t eaten before, mainly vegetarian, which seems unusual in Lille, and the staff were brilliant; this is a small inner suburban bistro, not a tourist place, and we were welcomed even though we have speak French.
There was no rush on Wednesday, breakfast in the guest house; coffee, cheese, bread, fruit and pastries, more coffee. It was cold again, grey, low clouds, we wrapped up and walked to the nearby Metro station and caught a train to nearby Roubaix, near the border with Belgium. Our destination is La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry, recommended to us by my cousin’s wife who is from Lille; she recommended a few places to us. The gallery was the day time highlight of the three days, not so much for its art, there was little that wowed me specifically, it’s the building that is the real highlight of the show.
The gallery first opened in Roubaix in 1835 with an emphasis on textiles, a key industry in the city. Like many museums and galleries across France and western Europe it was closed during the Second World War and the artworks secure elsewhere. What is somewhat ironic is the gallery had just finished an exhibition of textiles by the great Victorian socialist and craftsman William Morris, who’s home and now museum is a five minute walk from our old house in Walthamstow. You can take the girl out of Walthamstow…
The museum had trouble finding a new base until 1990 when the city council agreed the 1932 municipal swimming pool building, closed in 1985, would make a good home for the collections. No-one who has visited since it reopened could argue that this was not an inspired, if very brave decision. The place looks fabulous and I particularly liked the way the old dressing cubicles are being used to show art works. The tiling is beautiful though, stupidly I didn’t take any photos of it. I did take a photo of this bath though.
We had lunch, I had a very nice 4 Euro glass of red wine to wash it down, in a nearby café. We hen took in the town square before catching the tube back to central Lille.
An afternoon nap was in order, but it was slightly too early so we wandered about the old town a bit more. I finally found a few narrow streets with not too many cars in to take some photos. I love these cobbled lanes as much as I hate there being cars in my photos.
I was a bit gutted that the book, record and print market wasn’t properly open on either of the days we walked through it.
This is a holiday, so we picked up a bottle of cheap wine before climbing the three flights of stairs to our room then slobbing on the bed with books for a couple of hours before dinner. Note to self, next time you go to France take a cork screw as virtually no wine comes in a screw top bottle.
Thursday, today, our last day, dawned wet, though much warmer than the last two days. We’d planned to walk to a nearby market for a look and maybe pick up some cheese to take home, but decided in the end to just hang out in the guest house room, enjoy another leisurely breakfast then walk to the station when the rain abated; stopping for a decent coffee on the way.
I’d booked us seats on the 13:35, giving us time for a last walk if we’d wanted to get wet, but early enough for us to be back home by mid-afternoon, leaving time to unpack and get ready for work the next day (Boo hiss).
It was a very enjoyable 10th anniversary trip and I’m looking forward to more visits to Europe this year and of course 10 more years plus with the lovely Eleanor. xx
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