Saturday, March 22nd 2014
We left home just after 7 am and found it to be a sunny but cold day. We had breakfast in a branch of Pret A Manger near King’s Cross station and then went across to St Pancras station from which our Eurostar train would depart. We had reserved our train tickets and our hotel room online and had received in return, as is usual these days, just a booking number. We redeemed our tickets from one of the machines by entering the booking number and the credit card that had been used to pay for them.
The next little formality was to go through the baggage check. All outer clothing, bags, accessories and any metal items, have to be put into trays to be processed through the X-ray machine. You then walk through the detector gate and reclaim your belongings. After this comes passport control. Two French border police officers sat in glass booths with bored expressions and checked our passports. No British controllers were visible. (It seems the British have no worries about who is leaving the country. Who comes into the country, though, is another matter, as we shall see.)
All we had to do then was to sit and wait for the platform of our train to be indicated. Ours would be the 08:58 Brussels train, stopping at Ebbsfleet, Calais-Fréthun and Lille. The boarding time allowed is about 20 minutes but fortunately all tickets have reserved seats so, despite the rush and crush, things sort themselves out in the end.
The train left on time (in fact, a few seconds early) and sped through the countryside to its first halt at Ebbsfleet. Along the way, the train passes through a number of tunnels and you find yourself, at each one, wondering “Is this the Channel Tunnel?” Eventually, it is the Channel Tunnel, a fact that you recognize by the length of time it takes to travel through it – about 20 minutes. The train emerges and stops at Calais-Fréthun.
After Calais, the first stop is Lille, our destination. The Eurostar calls at a station called Lille Europe which we reached just after 11 am local time (an hour ahead of UK time), so our journey had taken somewhat less than an hour and a half – quite amazing, and much more comfortable and relaxed than going by air, something I greatly dislike.
When we got off the train at Lille, the first thing I noticed was the exit signs or, rather, the lack of them. It was not at all obvious where we should go to leave the station! In the end we tagged along behind everyone else and eventually spotted some very small signs saying “Sortie”. To leave the platform, you need to go up the stairs.
We found ourselves in the main concourse of a very large station. There were multiple exits but no helpful signage to orient us. We knew that our hotel was very near the station so we went out of the building and started to walk around it, expecting to find the rue de la Gare where the hotel should be. We thrashed about for quite some time, unable to find our goal. There were hotels there but none was the Hôtel Balladins where we had reserved a room.
I found a man standing outside taking an cigarette break and sought his aid. He was helpful enough but didn’t know the hotel and wasn’t really sure of the location of rue de la Gare, which, by its name should surely be close by.
As we were fast getting nowhere, we decided to go back into the station and try a different exit. While in the station, I saw a group of men in some sort of uniform and, thinking they would have local knowledge, approached one to enquire. He was our first helpful Lillois. He did not hesitate to lead me to a vantage point where he could point out the way to go. It was here that we realized our mistake: the hotel was indeed near the station but, unfortunately, not this station! Lille boasts two stations – Lille Europe and Lille Flandres – and it was near the latter that we would find our hotel.
I apologized to the man in green uniform for taking him away from the conversation with his colleagues but he dismissed this with a gesture. Helping me was apparently much more important than chatting with his mates!
We found the rue de la Gare but our troubles were not quite over as we could not see the Hôtel Balladins among the hotels, bars and resturants jostling for attention. Then I spotted its sign, high up on the façade of the buildings. The entrance was narrow and not easily noticeable between a couple of restaurants.
The reception clerk was polite, friendly and helpful (well, he was a Lillois, after all!) but informed us that we could not actually check in until 2pm. We could of course leave our bags in safe keeping. This we did and set out to explore.
We set out without any fixed plan and just wandered where fancy took us. The sun was shining brightly and by now the ambient temperature had risen to a comfortable level. It was pleasant just to stroll, look, compare impressions and take photos. In a French city like Lille, the buildings and the arrangement of buildings and streets are quite different from those in a British city. If you fell asleep in London and woke up here, you know immediately that you were in France, even before you heard the people speaking or read the signs and notices.
In the picture, the building with the almost improbably tall clock tower is the Chambre de Commerce, dating from the 1920s. The splendid box-shaped structure in the centre is the Opéra. You could perhaps be forgiven for thinking it was built in the early 19th century or even earlier. In fact, it was built between 1907 and 1913 and opened officially in 1923.
As we had time to spare before going back to the hotel to check in, we decided to have lunch. If you are vegetarian, finding lunch – or any other meal – is not at all easy in France. Apart from breakfast, every meal in France is virtually certain to contain animal body parts in one form or another. If not meat, then cheese… made, of course, with animal rennet.
Tired of poring over menu after menu full of nothing but beef, pork, lamb, and every type of fish known to Noah, we gave in and plumped for a crêperie. The one we chose is quite well known, I believe, and is called La Régalade. The verb se régaler means ‘to treat or spoil oneself’, and so la régalade means something like a ‘treat’ or ‘feast’. There was actually a vegetarian crêpe listed on the menu, so we ordered it. Was it a régalade? Not exactly, but we did take note of the establishment in case we needed it again later.
Back at the hotel, we found a different (but equally, polite, friendly and helpful Lillois) clerk on duty, checked in, recovered our bags and took the lift to the third floor where we would find our room, number 311. The room is small and the bed rather short, but adequately comfortable withal. We had a rest and made tea. French hotels are not in the habit of providing kettles and the makings of tea and coffee as their counterparts in the UK and some other European countries, but, knowing this, we had brought our own.
After this pleasant interval, we set out once more to continue our explorations of Lille, also looking out for a suitable place for our evening meal. I have to say there was no method to our wandering; we just went hither and thither. The photos are therefore a collection of scenes picked here and there as we went, without any intention of providing an itinerary or structured account of the city. I was much taken by the Art Nouveau shop front shown above though I have not been able to find out anything about its date or history. It is a very fine example of the genre.
We visited the large square that everyone seems to know by its old name of Grand’Place even though it has been renamed Place du Général de Gaulle. A notable feature of the square is a tall monument on top of which stands a female figure brandishing a botefeux. (If this word is unknown to you, as it was to me, then see further below.)
The monument commemorates the Siege of 1792, when Lille bravely and gallantly resisted its attempted capture by an army of 20,000 Austrians during the French Revolutionary Wars. The memorial was completed in 1845 and was the work of two men, the architect of the column, Charles Benvignat, and the sculptor of the statue, Théophile Bra. Soon after its inauguration, the monument became known as La Colonne de la Déesse (The Column of the Goddess), a name that it holds to this day. The reason seems to stem from the Romantic imagination of the sculptor and from a possibly misunderstood poem by one Émile Durieux.
Théophile Bra had originally intended the statue for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but decided instead to donate it to the city for the monument. According to his own description, the sculpture was supposed to be an allegorical representation of the city of Lille in the form of a female figure embodying the virtues of Flemish womanhood. Symbolic of the heroic resistance of Lille against the besieging Austrians, she holds in her right hand the botefeux (in French, the boutefeu), a rod with a burning tip that was placed in the touch-hole to fire a cannon. In honour of the monument, Émile Durieux wrote a poem in which occurred the following lines:
Quelle est cette fière déesse
Au sommet de ce monument ?
C’est la ville de Lille, en un jour de détresse…
(Who is the proud goddess
Atop this monument?
It is the city of Lille, on a distressful day…)
Thereafter, the female figure became the Goddess atop her column. Whether it is also understood that the “goddess” is a symbol of the city of Lille is a matter for each individual, I suppose.
This rather splendid building in the Grand’Place is the Vieille Bourse or Old Stock Exchange. Testifying to Lille’s vigorous economic history, it was built between 1652 and 1653, though refurbished in the 19th century and again in 1989. It was classed as a Monument Historique, a status similar to our English Heritage listing, in 1921, the year in which its career came to an end, its functions being taken over by the new Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie (Chamber of Commerce and Industry). Over the centuries, it has suffered some alterations but I am sure the original founders would still recognize it.
The public are admitted and there are helpful information panels, including some in English. We found a very fine courtyard where stalls had been set up and books and other items were being sold.
Around the courtyard are memorials to the great of French culture and science, each with a bust of the person and a panel elucidating the subject’s achievements. The one above celebrates scientist André Marie Ampère (1775-1836), famous for his discoveries relating to electricity and magnetism.
Like good little tourists, we looked for the Tourist Information Office. We found it but by that time it was closed. It occupies the old Town Hall building that ceased to be used in 1916 after it was badly damaged by fire. In any case, by then it was no longer adequate for the purpose and was replaced in 1924 by a new one. (Unfortunately, I neglected to take a photo of the new Town Hall – slapped wrist!) The site proved suitable, however, for the erection of Lille’s memorial to the dead of both World Wars. It contains relief panels and a dignified inscription.
SOLDATS ET CIVILS
LA CITE A ELEVE CE MONUMENT AFIN
DE RAPPELER AV COVRS DES SIECLES
L’HEROISME ET LES SOVFFRANCES DE
SES ENFANTS MORTS POVR LA PAIX
1914 – 1918 1939 – 1945
(To the Inhabitants of Lille
both military and civilian
the City has raised this monument in order
to remember throughout centuries (to come)
the heroism and suffering
of her children who died for peace)
We continued our ramble, photographing whatever took our fancy. I took a second photo of the Opéra with the sun full on it because it is, after all, a very fine building. Here are a couple of street scenes.
The notable object here is the Église Saint-Maurice, the Church of St Maurice. The building was begun in the 14th century and work on it continued in stages until the end of the 19th though, to judge for the scaffolding that currently envelopes it, they still have some way to go before finishing it.
I don’t know what this corner building is or how old it is but it is rather pretty. Beside it is the Art Nouveau Cloche d’Or already mentioned.
Lille Flandres is the city’s second railway station and a very busy one at that. The name reflects Lille’s pride in its history as part of Flanders. The station is important to us in the sense that the hotel is just across the road from it and it will be the station we use for the next couple of days to travel to our various destinations.
We were beginning to feel hungry again as the lunchtime crêpe had not been very substantial. One place we did not even think of trying was the establishment shown above. It is a famous fish restaurant, A L’Huitrière (a huitrière is an oyster bed), and the decor is very pretty. In the end we found a pizza restaurant and ordered their vegetarian pizza. As far as food was concerned, it looks as though this will be a make-do trip.
Night was falling and we began weaving our way back to the hotel. On the way we visited Lille Flandres to check where the trains went, likely frequency, etc. and the price of tickets.
Opened in 1848, this station is quite impressive, added to which is the excitement of thinking of all the places we can travel to from here!
In front of the station is a row of fountains which look particularly pretty at night when they are illuminated. Our hotel is in the background of the photo, roughly where you see the restaurant sign “Les 3 Brasseurs” (The 3 Brewers).