Lille 2014

Saturday, March 22nd 2014

For this trip to France, we decided to go to Lille in French Flanders. Why? I am not too sure. We had not been there before – a good starting point – and I think we may have had vague ideas of popping over the border into Belgium, though in view of the distance involved and the time at our disposal, this turned out to be impractical.
Lille is in the département called the Pas-de-Calais (“Pas” referring to the strait or passage between France and the south of England), in a region known as French Flanders. Historically, this region once belonged to Flanders until absorbed into an expanding France. A local Romance (Latin-based) language called Ch’ti or Picard survives, but receives no recognition from the French authorities. A dialect of Dutch, called West Flemish, also still occurs in pockets in the region. The only language that is officially recognized is, of course, metropolitan French, which is spoken by everyone.
Lille and its region has its own character, different from the character of, say, Paris. In some ways, the atmosphere reminded me of Belgium. The people, we found, were very friendly and helpful, ready to give you directions to places or explain things to you, often in more detail than you felt you needed!
Did we enjoy our stay? Yes, definitely. Would we go to Lille again? Probably not. That is not because there is anything wrong with the place (much less with the people) but because, frankly, there’s not a lot there. It didn’t help that museums and art galleries are closed on Sundays and Mondays – our two full days in France! – but even allowing for this, we felt we had soon exhausted what Lille had to offer and were casting our gaze beyond it.

 

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.

Arriving at Lille Europe
Arriving at Lille Europe
Which way to the exit?

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.

Main concourse
Main concourse
Lille Europe Station

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.

The Opera and clock tower of the Town Hall
The Opera and clock tower of the Chambre de Commerce

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.

La Régalade
La Régalade
A crêpe restaurant

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.

La Cloch D'Or La Cloche D'Or
La Cloche D’Or
Léon Boutry

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.

Grand'Place
Grand’Place
Also known as Place du Général de Gaulle

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.)

Colonne de la Déesse
Colonne de la Déesse
Monument to the Siege of 1792

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.

La Vieille Bourse
La Vieille Bourse
The 17th century Stock Exchange

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.

Market stalls
Market stalls
In the Vieille Bourse

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.

Courtyard Ampère Memorial
The Courtyard
With memorials to the great of France

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.

Lille War Memorial Lille War Memorial
Lille War Memorial
Attached to the old Town Hall

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.

AUX LILLOIS
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)

 

The Opéra
The Opéra
(Yes – again!)

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.

Street scene
Street scene
With the Église Saint-Maurice

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.

Street scene
Street scene
Unidentified building beside the Cloche d’Or

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 Station
Lille Flandres Station
Our launch pad for explorations

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.

A L'Huitrière
A L’Huitrière
A famous fish restaurant

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.

Lille Flandres after dark
Lille Flandres after dark

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.

Inside Lille Flandres
Inside Lille Flandres

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!

Illuminated fountains
Illuminated fountains
Pointing at our hotel

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).

Sunday, March 23rd 2014

Today is our first full day in France and we are looking forward to making the most of it. Unfortunately, I have a cold in the head and didn’t sleep very well but it is a promisingly sunny day so let’s be optimistic!

Coffee bar
Coffee bar
Starting the day with breakfast

Near the hotel are a number of bars, cafes and restaurants. Among these is a cafe called Coffeeshop Company and we came here for breakfast. This coffee bar is very similar to those you find in the UK – Costa, for example – with an extensive menu of coffees and teas and a selection of food to be eaten cold or heated up. They also offer “Viennoiseries”, something that is very popular in Lille. Another popular fast food item here is “le welch” (plural “welchs” or “welches”, depending on the establishment!). We didn’t sample any welch(e)s, but I gather they are a sort of toasted cheese sandwich, an imitation of Welsh Rarebit and an alternative to the native Croque-Monsieur.

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall
And War Memorial

Our next call was to the tourist information office which had been closed when we visited it yesterday evening. This time we were too early as they do not open until 10am. We settled down to wait and took a few photos to help fill in the time!

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall
Now the home of the tourist information office

While we were doing this, a coach arrived and disgorged its cargo of tourists right in front of the Tourist information office door. We thought we had better quickly assert our position as first arrivals lest we find ourselves at the back of a long queue. In the event we needn’t have worried because the tourists suddenly all moved off on a walking tour just before the door opened!

Lille's City Pass
Lille’s City Pass
Good value

We asked about travel deals and ended up with something called “Lille’s City Pass” (see details in French or English). This comes in a plastic folder and contains information about museums, art galleries and all the places a visitor might want to see. The booklet contains tickets for 32 such “attractions” but its best features are the included tickets for trains and city public transport. For the duration of the Pass (we bought the 3-day version at €45 each), you have unlimited rail travel throughout the whole of the Pas-de-Calais and 24 hours unlimited travel on public transport within the city of Lille. Yesterday we enquired about train tickets to Dunkerque and found that the cost of a return trip would have exceeded the cost of the City Pass. It is worth having just for the rail travel alone.

Platform Zero
Platform Zero
Lille Flandres Station

Tigger fancied a trip to Dunkerque and we set off happily to the station, excitedly clutching  our City Passes. It turned out that on Sundays, getting from Lille to Dunkerque is a little complicated as there are no direct trains. (I don’t know whether this is usual or just a temporary glitch owing to rail works.) We would have to change trains at Hazebrouck.

Boulogne Station
Boulogne Station
We settled for a day here instead

In the event, we didn’t make it to Dunkerque. We caught the first train from Platform 0 (the only other station I know with a Platform 0 is King’s Cross) and were soon on our way. However, once we had changed at Hazebrouck, we realized that the train we thought was going to Dunkerque was not going there and we would have to change again. We decided to give up on it at that point and allow ourselves to be transported to Boulogne instead. Should we berate ourselves for lack of determination or praise ourselves for adaptability? The latter, of course…🙂

Arriving in Boulogne, we set out on a ramble without any fixed purpose. What follows is not an attempt to describe the town but just an account of a few things that caught my attention as we walked around. Though classed as a small town, Boulogne is large enough to need more than the few hours we had at our disposal to see and account for it all.

Henri Planchon Marilyn Monroe
Henri Planchon and Marilyn Monroe
Advertising Boulogne’s role in founding the cinema

We quickly noticed that Boulogne is not backward at coming forward. In other words, it does not hesitate to claim for itself important roles in world history. How justified this is in each case must be judged by the individual observer, but two examples will appear in this account. The first came to light with our discovery of these sculptures on a corner of Rue Nationale and Rue des Pipots in front of an apartment block called L’Espace Lumière. They were sculpted by Silvie Koechlin and one is obviously Marilyn Monroe in the famous blown-up-skirt scene from the Seven Year Itch, but who is the man? If you are not a Boulonnais, you might be forgiven for not recognizing Victor Planchon. Who? Well you might ask, because it is difficult to find out much about this man and even his dates have proved elusive. My Petit Larousse Illustré doesn’t even mention him, an eloquent testimony to his obscurity.

To the good citizens of Boulogne, however, he is no less than the crucial agent in the foundation of the cinema! According to the information panel near the figures, Planchon set up a factory in the now vanished Quartier Capécure and there invented and patented the first flexible film stock and went on to create the film used by the Lumière Brothers. Planchon, it says, has been unjustly marginalized and overshadowed by the Lumières, as indeed has Boulogne-sur-Mer, which describes itself as “Ville pionnière du Cinéma” (the pioneer town of the cinema). Now, I must admit to having little interest in, and less knowledge of, the cinema and its history, and therefore to being unable to judge these claims for myself. Boulogne, though, has no doubts as to Planchon’s and Boulogne’s importance in that history and to commemorate this, the sculptures were installed with due ceremony just before Christmas 2012.

Église Saint-Nicolas de Boulogne-sur-Mer
Église Saint-Nicolas de Boulogne-sur-Mer
Founded 13th century but much altered

This church in Place Dalton was an impressive sight in the sunshine. It is the Church of St Nicolas and its adherents, as usual, claim great age for it. It is said to have been established in the early 1200s in this quarter that was once that inhabited by seafarers and fishermen and their families. There is little doubt that it has been altered and enlarged since those early times with major works recorded in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Théâtre Monsigny
Théâtre Monsigny
Symbol of the town’s growing prosperity

Another important  establishment in Boulogne is its theatre, the Théâtre Monsigny, which started up in 1860. The town, quite small until then, began to grow rapidly in the 19th century and with increased population came increased prosperity, and the acquisition on cultural facilities such as a theatre and art galleries.

Résidence Cour Napoléon
Résidence Cour Napoléon
A more elaborate style of architecture (1853)

It also brought about a more elaborate and decorative style of architecture in contrast to the plainness hitherto typical of Boulogne’s buildings. The one in the picture is known as the Résidence Cour Napoléon, built 1853, and is seen as a prime exemplar of that new style of decor.

Attirer-Repousser
Attirer-Repousser
A sculpture by Patrick Bécuwe

It’s good to see that Boulogne is comfortable enough with art to have sculptures sited in the streets and squares. This one is by Patrick Bécuwe and is entitled Attirer-Repousser (“Attract-Repel”) and represents a couple who may be either confronting one another or embracing, an ambiguity that the observer may seek to resolve or to leave unresolved.

Aux Frères Coquelin
Aux Frères Coquelin
Fountain memorial to actor brothers

Nor does Boulogne lack monuments of a more traditional nature such as this fountain with bronze sculptures of the Coquelin Brothers. Need I mention that the pair were born in Boulogne? Benoît Constant (1841-1909) and Ernest Alexandre Honoré (1848-1909) Coquelin, referred to as the Elder and the Younger, respectively, were famous actors, both in serious roles, such as the plays of Molière, and in more popular performances. The monument accords both the accolade of having performed at Comédie Française. Curiously, despite the difference in their ages, both men died in the same year and only a few days apart.

Fisherman and Family Fisherman and Family
Fisherman and Family
Modern relief, historic theme

This handsome relief above the entrance of a branch of the HSBC bank is modern but it reflects the history of Boulogne, a town whose life depended on the sea. The relief shows a couple, the man with a fisherman’s sou’wester and the woman wearing the traditional headdress of Boulogne. In the picture are other items denoting the fishing industry, including boats and fish. To me, there is something doubly symbolic in the picture: while it does represent Boulogne’s past and to a certain extent its present, it obviously also symbolizes the way in which its maritime history is gradually turning into memories of the past and picturesque attractions for tourists.

Traditional Boulonnais
Traditional Boulonnais
Greeting tourists at the harbour

Another example of that is found near the harbour where these two figures stand. They are meant to represent a man and woman of Boulogne in traditional garb but I am not sure that they strike quite the right note.

The Harbour
The Harbour
Built along the River Liane

Boulogne was familiar to generations making their cross-channel holiday trips, or even day-trips, to France. The big car ferries used to lumber into port here, followed later by the hovercraft. The Channel Tunnel deflated the fortunes of Boulogne as it did those of Folkstone. The ferries no longer call here and the roar of the hovercraft has also fallen silent. The river passing through Boulogne is the Liane, and where it runs into the sea could be conveniently turned into a harbour. I don’t know what trade passes through here now but it seems but a shadow of what it once was.

Brasserie Hamiot
Brasserie Hamiot
A pause for lunch

We spent some time looking for food – the usual problem faced by vegetarians in France. After reading a series of menus containing nothing but meat and fish, we reached Brasserie Hamiot where we managed to find something suitable. It only afterwards occurred to me that this restaurant was one that I knew from previous visits but the whole area had so changed from the days of the ferries that I had difficulty recognizing it.

Frédéric Sauvage
Frédéric Sauvage
What did he invent…?

Near the brasserie, we found this monument and stopped to take photos. This is where we met a second example of Boulogne’s trompe l’œil approach to history. According to the plate on the monument, Frédéric Sauvage (1785-1857) from Boulogne is “universellement connu pour avoir appliqué le principe de l’hélice à la navigation maritime” (“universally known for applying the principle of the propellor to maritime navigation, i.e. to ship propulsion”) and another monument nearby seeks to support this contention.

Not this...
Not this…
…the marine screw propeller

The second monument displays what is clearly a modern four-bladed ship’s propeller and, underneath it, a plate telling us that in January 1832, Frédéric Sauvage of Boulogne “expérimente sur la Liane les premiers essais d’application de l’hélice à la navigation, révolutionnant le Transport Maritime” (“carried out on the River Liane the first attempts to apply the propeller to ships, revolutionizing Maritime Transport”).

This puzzled me because, as far as I knew, the inventors Francis Smith and John Ericsson are credited with independently patenting the screw propeller within weeks of one another in 1835. It’s true, of course, that the screw propeller was an idea whose time had come and that around that time several people were working on their own versions. For example, consider the strange tale of Robert Wilson of Dunbar. Few of these people managed to make their mark, however, whereas Ericsson went off to America and proved his design by building propeller-driven ships for the US Navy.

So could we have we overlooked the true original inventor of the screw propeller, Frédéric Sauvage? In a word, no. Contrary to the implications of the two monuments, Sauvage did not invent the screw propeller. What he invented was the spiral screw, a piece of machinery similar to the Archimedes screw used for raising water. There is a picture of it in this article. Sauvage patented this design and licensed it to engineer Augustin Normand and, despite the latter going on to adopt a more efficient design, refused to accept that it was more efficient than his own design. The truth, then, is that Sauvage’s invention, far from “revolutionizing Maritime Transport”, was a dead end that history has wisely left behind. The authorities of Boulogne need to revise their exaggerated claims for Frédéric Sauvage.

Pretty house Pretty house
Pretty house
One of many in Boulogne

Even though it was not very late, we started to think about returning to Lille. The reason for this was that the journey to get here had been extremely long as the train had stopped at every small station and halt. The thought of enduring another such on our return was somewhat off-putting. However, we had been told that with our City Pass, we could pay a small supplement and travel on the high-speed TGV (“Train à Grande Vitesse”). We paid the difference and boarded the sleek speedster.

It was now getting dark and the train was packed. Normally, there is an indicator on trains in France, as in the UK, telling you what is the next station. On our TGV this was not working and I was concerned that we might miss our stop and end up in Paris. I needn’t have worried. With a whoosh, the TGV carried us straight to Lille, its first stop before hurrying on to Paris.

Boulogne-sur-Mer
Boulogne-sur-Mer
As she appears on the Post Office wall

Despite the slowness of the morning train, our City Passes had proved their worth and we had spent an enjoyable day out. It was interesting to renew my acquaintance with Boulogne-sur-Mer, a town I have often passed through but never paused at. If the once bustling port is now quiet, Boulogne nonetheless has the qualities of a pleasant seaside town where you can agreeably spend time on a sunny day like today.

Waiting for the TGV
Waiting for the TGV
Our last view of Boulogne

Monday, March 24th 2014

This is the second and last full day of our short stay in France. Yesterday we tried to go to Dunkerque but it had proved difficult because the Sunday train service was less than convenient. We hoped today that things would be easier. After breakfast in a coffee shop near the hotel, we crossed the road to Lille Flandres station. We didn’t need to buy train tickets because our Lille Passes were valid for unlimited rail travel within the Pas-de-Calais region.

A local landmark
A local landmark
The clock tower, Hôtel de Ville

We would have to change trains at the Flemish-sounding Hazebrouck but that was a minor consideration. Hazebrouck is quite a small town but its position has made it an important junction for local rail traffic. Its name is a reminder that this area was once part of Flanders and the common language was Flemish.

The Station
The Station
Dunkerque

Arriving at Dunkirk, we set out to explore the town without any fixed plan. I had been here before but only to pass through to catch the car ferry.

A nice feature of Dunkerque is a free  bus, called the Navette Gratuite. The small bus rattles merrily around a circular route, providing a way to see the centre of town. After that we took to Shank’s Pony once more and set about taking a few photos.

Les Bains Dunkerquois Les Bains Dunkerquois
Les Bains Dunkerquois
Will they be saved?

A spectacular discovery was Dunkirk’s public baths, Le Bains Dunkerquois, a flamboyant building in the Mauresque (Moorish) architectural style. The exterior is still beautiful but I believe the interior is in a ruinous state. There is, however, a project to bring the building back into use with a spa, hammam (Turkish bath) and beauty parlours. Will it ever happen? I hope so, because then at least the façade will be protected.

Lion
Lion
Guarding the baths

The baths opened in 1897, at a time when a vogue for personal hygiene was sweeping Europe. Included in the establishment were baths and showers for washing, an oval swimming pool and a laundry facility. Besides these more obvious functions, were steam baths, a hairdresser’s and a sword fencing saloon. Oh yes, and that other important service, so close to the French heart, a bar-restaurant.

Damaged in both World Wars and repaired, the baths continued operating though demand for washing facilities began to decline as these services were now provided in people’s homes. Between 1953 and 1975, the baths enjoyed something of a heyday as a place for social gatherings and athletic pursuits. In fact, demand began to exceed capacity and the town council therefore built new swimming baths which opened in 1971. Les Bains Dunkerquois finally closed in 1975. The exterior has been maintained but the interior has fallen into serious disrepair.

Palais de Justice
Palais de Justice
(Law Courts)

Every self-respecting town has it law courts and Dunkirk has its own Palais de Justice which deals with cases up to the level of “grande instance”, which I believe puts it on a level with a British High Court.

Fontaine Wallace Fontaine Wallace
Fontaine Wallace
Provided by a British philanthropist

Across the road, we found this fascinating installation. You might guess that it is, or was, a drinking fountain, though you might not know that it is a specific type, called a Fontaine Wallace. I did not remember this either, though I should have done because I photographed one in London, in the garden of the Wallace Collection (see Two galleries to keep cool in or here just for the picture).

The fountains were designed by French sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg and the first one was installed in Paris in 1872. They have come to be known particularly as symbols of Paris where a large number survives but they are in fact found in towns all over France. Their name derives from the fact that they were financed as a charitable act by the British philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace, whose extensive art collection was donated to the nation by his widow to form the famous and much admired Wallace Collection.

Jean Bart Jean Bart
Jean Bart
Local swashbuckling hero

Jean Bart (1650-1702) was born in Dunkirk at a time when the local language was still Flemish and his name was probably then spelt Baert. The son of a relatively humble family of seafarers, he soon sought a naval career but was precluded by his lowly birth from achieving high rank. He therefore became a privateer or corsair, fighting with reckless bravery and considerable success against France’s then favourite enemies, the Dutch (though the inscription on the monument adds with a certain malicious relish “and the English”). Bart is arguably as famous in France as Nelson is in Britain. The square in which his statue resides (Place Jean Bart) is named after him and so are many other places and ships and, not least, the biggest of the 48 bells in the Belfry of Saint-Éloi.

La Tour du Beffroi
La Tour du Beffroi
Belfry of St Éloi’s Church

This striking landmark is called La Tour du Beffroi (The Belfry Tower)” or Le Beffroi de l’Église Saint-Éloi (The Belfry of Saint-Éloi’s Church). It was built around 1440 upon an ancient watchtower  and was attached to the Church of St Éloi. That church no longer exists, leaving the tower an orphan, as it were. On top was a platform where a watchman (called a “tourier” after the word tour for “tower”) kept watch. At 58 metres (190 feet) from the ground, he must have had a wonderful view. The current set of 48 bells dates from 1962 and, as noted above, the largest is called Jean Bart.

Cenotaph
Cenotaph
Dunkirk’s memorial to the Great War

In 1923 the base of the tower was modified to house a cenotaph commemorating the 500 men of Dunkirk who died fighting in the Great War.

Church of St Éloi
The present Church of St Éloi
Built 1567, façade 1887

The original Church of St Éloi, to which the watchtower belfry belonged, was destroyed by fire in 1558 and a new one begun in 1567 a short distance from it (separated today by a main road). The new church was never completed, because of insufficient space and money. Plans to remodel it came to nothing and in 1887 the Gothic style façade shown above was added.

Hôtel de Ville
Hôtel de Ville
The fourth to grace the site (1901)

We took a look at the impressive Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) which said to be in Flemish Renaissance style. It is the fourth town hall to be built since 1233. Two predecessors were destroyed by fire and the third demolished to be replaced by the present one which was officially inaugurated in 1901. Its tower is a typically French colossus 75 metres (246 feet) tall.

Decorative sculptures
Decorative sculptures
Representing the great and good of France

The façade is decorated with sculptures and reliefs, mostly featuring the great and good of France, or at least, those safely in the historic past. In that context, though I did not see it myself, I hear that in the vestibule is a stained glass window showing the triumphant return of Jean Bart after a victory.

Harbour
Harbour
Moorings for smaller vessels

Dunkirk has a rather complex harbour layout with sea locks to control water levels (see, for example, this Google map). Today it is quieter than when the cross-Channel ferries operated from here.

La Gare de Saint-Omer
La Gare de Saint-Omer
Saint Omer’s grand but dilapidated station

We now returned to the station and took a train to our next destination, Saint-Omer. This town is named after its patron saint, St Audomar, who is sent to have been the first to bring Christianity to the area. That is why the inhabitants are known as Audomarois (“Audomarians”). I have been to St Omer many times in the past, admittedly only for overnight stays during journeys further into France, and was hoping to see some of the places I knew. In that I failed. Either those parts of town I knew had changed or I never reached them.

What struck us on arriving was St Omer’s large and grand railway station, clearly a terminus expressive of the town’s pride and wealth. It came into service in 1848 and was damaged in Second World War bombing but repaired. However, in 2011. it had to be closed to the public because of the danger of falling masonry and glass.

Side view
Side view
Can it survive?

As can be seen here, fallen ceilings were no sudden and unexpected accident. The building has obviously been allowed to decay. Note how the glass panels have been removed from the canopy over the platform – presumably because there was a danger they would fall on people. The station has been declared a “Monument Historique”, similar to listing in the UK. Maybe it can survive if money can be made available.

Peaceful scene
Peaceful scene
Neufossé Canal

This peaceful scene overlooks part of the canal called the Neufossé. It links two rivers, the Aa and the Lys, though that was not the reason for its construction which was military and dates back to the 11th century. Documents of the period mention the digging of a fossé neuf (“new ditch”) for defensive reasons. The name later appears as Neuffossé and then Neufossé. Today if serves as part of the canal system, its military use having become redundant.

The War Memorial The War Memorial
The War Memorial
Commemorating four wars

Walking into town, we came upon the war memorial, located in the appropriately named Place du 11 Novembre (“November 11th Square”). Inaugurated in 1923, it commemorates the fallen in four wars, the usual World Wars I and II and also those the French fought in Indochina and North Africa.

The female figure atop war memorials in the UK is usually Peace or Victory. In this case, the sculpture, by Lucien Brasseur (1878-1960), represents France, holding the dove of peace and looking confidently into the future. Unfortunately, since 1923, when she first took up her position, three wars and various crises have occurred to shake that confidence.

The monsters of carnage...
The monsters of carnage…
…are crushed beneath France’s feet

Unusually, the monument includes what seems to be a two-headed crocodile or possibly two crocodiles, one of whose bodies is obscured by the robes of France. These are supposed to represent the “monsters of carnage” crushed underfoot by a victorious France.

Church of St Denis
Church of St Denis
In its “enclosure”

In this picture, the Church of St Denis peers picturesquely over the buildings that surround it, forming an enclos (“enclosure”) which one can access only by narrow alleyways once called by the special name of flégarts. The church, which was initially built in the 13th century and partially rebuilt in the 18th, was St Omer’s first parish church.

Église Saint-Denis de Saint-Omer
Église Saint-Denis de Saint-Omer
A 13th century church with 18th century bits

We spent some time wandering around with me trying to recognize the parts I knew from years ago but I couldn’t identify any. I remembered there was a bell tower or clock tower that played a pretty tune and I hoped to find it but all in vain. So I did the obvious thing and gave up.

Le SaintO
Le SaintO
Fast food and proper tea

By now we were feeling in need of refreshment and not a little peckish. Therefore, when we discovered the establishment called Le SaintO, we needed no persuasion to enter. What is special about this establishment is that in addition to some tasty snacks, it also serves and retails a range of leaf teas. So, with our meal  we had a pot of Assam.

I was surprised to find a purveyor of “proper tea”, tucked away in a quiet part of a French town but subsequently I have learnt that the French, after dismissing le thé anglais for many generations, are now taking to it with enthusiasm. Of course, our French cousins are not simply drinking tea but are approaching it up “seriously”, that is, in much the same way as they treat wine seriously. This is both good and bad: bad because a lot of nonsense about tea and tea theory is being spouted but good because quality leaf tea can now be bought in France more easily.

Bank building and fountain
Bank building and fountain

Nearby was this rather impressive building currently inhabited by the banking company BNP Paribas. I know nothing about the building except that it seems to form a unit with  a rather elaborate fountain, though nothing suggests they were built as one piece.

Fontaine Sainte-Aldegonde Fontaine Sainte-Aldegonde
Fontaine Sainte-Aldegonde
Commemorating the opening of the Neufossé canal

The fountain is called the St Aldegonde Fountain but its connection with that saint, or any saint, seems somewhat tenuous. Classed as a Monument Historique, it was installed, according to a nearby plaque, between the years 1754 to 1758, though I don’t know whether that means it took 5 years to build (unlikely, surely?) or that it was erected at some point during that period. It may have been set up to commemorate the opening of the Neufossé Canal in 1756.

The Metro, Lille
The Metro, Lille
Access by Lille Pass

We returned to Lille and had a rest at the hotel. Later we set out to find a restaurant that Tigger had read about. We reached the street where it was supposed to be but could not find the restaurant itself. I can only suppose that it has closed down or moved.

Our Lille Passes provide 24 hours of travel on all public transport in Lille, so we thought we might as well try the Metro.

More Metro
More Metro

It seems to work well enough and plenty of people were using it. In fact it felt a bit like the London tube in the evening rush hour!

Sculpture in the Metro
Sculpture in the Metro
Subject and sculptor unknown

On one of the stations (I don’t remember which one and, of course, my geotagger doesn’t work underground…) we found this sculpture. Perhaps London Underground could take the hint and start installing art works in stations? Come to think of it, we do have a sculpture of sorts on Angel station.

Disappointed by our failed restaurant hunt, we settled for a meal in a bar-restaurant near the hotel before retiring for the night. The journey home was but a few steps and I took just the one last photo.

Bars, restaurants hotels in the Rue de la Gare
Bars, restaurants hotels in the Rue de la Gare

Tuesday, March 25th 2014

This is the last day of our short stay in Lille. My back is still very painful, causing me to take care over all my movements, but I seem able to carry my bag and do the necessary. Our Eurostar journey departs at 9:30 so, although we have no time to waste, neither do we have to hurry.

Last-minute packing done, we take the lift to the ground floor one last time. The polite and amiable reception clerk receives our electronic keys, checks us out and wishes us a safe return. We shall miss the pleasant “Lillois” friendly courtesy of this region.

Today we have to go to Lille Europe station, not Lille Flandres just across the road. We follow the footpath that leads beside Lille Flandres and takes us up the slope to the other station. We mix with the early morning  rush of people going to work. The cafes are full of customers reading newspapers or day-dreaming over coffee and croissants. We want to have breakfast too but prefer to get to the station first.

At the station, we look around for somewhere to have breakfast. I prefer to sit down and inside, if possible. That limits the choice somewhat and we eventually plump for the “Irish Pub” which is offering a “Grand Petit Déjeuner” of bread, croissants and coffee. It is crowded but we find a table. There are also people standing at the bar, so I am not sure whether we should order at the bar or wait for a waiter to come to us. (While the latter is the norm in France, more and more cafes are switching to counter service as in the UK.) The easiest way to resolve the dilemma is to ask. I catch the eye of a waiter as he speeds past.

“Oui, oui, j’arrive,” says he, so I go and sit down.

When eventually he comes to our table he emits a phrase that seems the norm in France now: “Je vous écoute” (lit. “I’m listening (to you)”).

We order the Grand Petit Déjeuner, expecting, if not a feast, at least a pleasant breakfast à la française. We are disappointed. A none-too-fresh bread roll, a small, stale croissant, a small ration of butter and jam, and a cup of indifferent coffee. This is not the France I remember but let’s be fair, we have also enjoyed better service during our stay.

Around 8:30 we repair to the Eurostar departure hall. Nothing is happening yet and the atmosphere is relaxed. Passengers are sitting on the benches and Eurostar staff are chatting among themselves. The barriers are still drawn across the entrance. I approach two women in Eurostar uniform and enquire when we will be allowed through. They respond politely and amiably – they are Lilloises, after all – and tell me it will be soon.

When the barriers do open, I find to my surprise that in contrast to the outward journey, we have to go through two passport controls, not one. The first is a glass booth with two Policiers aux Frontiêres, one of whom glances at my passport with a bored expression, pokes it briefly into the machine and then hands it back, avoiding eye contact throughout. Not a Lillois, obviously. In the British booth, the female official does make eye contact (though probably only to compare my face with the passport’s photo) and says “Thank you”. A Lilloise by adoption perhaps.

There is the usually luggage and body check and here the staff are more helpful than their London counterparts and more tolerant of our fumbling efforts, first,  to pack our belongings into the plastic trays and then to dress and organize ourselves at the other end.

There is another pause while we all sit and wait for the departure gate to be announced. We soon discern which one it will be by the activity around it. The moment comes, and once more we join the crush that surges slowly but determinedly towards the gate, down the sloping passageway and onto the platform where our train awaits. The train has come from Paris and there are already people aboard. Not all of them have reserved seats and some are occupying places for which travellers from Lille have tickets. The situation resolves itself with a little polite shuffling.

Almost before we know it, the train departs while a disembodied voice welcomes us aboard in French, English and German, and asks us to stow all luggage in the racks provided and to avoid blocking the aisles.

Looking through the window at the countryside passing by, I find it hard to imagine that we are travelling at high speed but we must be because in hardly any time at all, it seems, we are pulling into Calais-Fréthun. After a brief stop when no one gets out but a few get on, we depart once more and soon plunge into the Channel Tunnel. We emerge into daylight on the British side and then here is another stop, this time at Ebbsfleet International, after which we speed off towards our last stop and final destination at St Pancras International.

Leaving the train, we can see the familiar surrounding of the upper floor of St Pancras Station but we cannot go straight there. We must follow the crowd as its eases its slow way like a mud flow down the escalator and through corridors and halls, all empty of officials, until suddenly, we emerge blinking into the main concourse where a crowd of relatives and friends and limousine drivers, holding cards with customers’ names on them, press against the barrier that protects our escape route.

Now we are out in the streets of London, among the cars, taxis, buses and hurrying pedestrians. Apart from the cabin bags dragging at our shoulders we might simply be coming home from work or returning from an outing in town. Lille suddenly seems far away and I am looking forward to getting home, dropping the bag and making a cup of tea.

At last we are there. Everything is as we left it but for one important lack: Freya’s absence leaves a virtual hole that follows me around as I unpack, stow my folded cabin bag and switch on the PC to warm it up while I make the tea. Tomorrow I will go to Chingford and bring Freya home. In the meantime, we have plenty to do: there are all those photos to load onto the computer and to tag and map!

Our stay in Lille was short but it was enjoyable. We explored Lille and visited four other towns, Boulogne, Dunkirk, Hazebrouck and Saint-Omer. I had not stayed in this area before, at most spending a night in a hotel in Saint-Omer or one of the other towns along to road. I discovered that it has its own character and atmosphere, perhaps owing to its Flanders past. The people, as I have indicated, were friendly, interested and happy to help and advise.

Our trip was therefore a success. So will we return? Despite the good things mentioned, no, probably not. For one thing, I think we exhausted most of what there was to see in the places we visited and, for another, there are so many other places still to see and discover. We are keen to return to France but to see other parts of it. If the inhabitants of these other places are as friendly as the Lillois, then we are assured of happy travels.

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