Two Saturdays ago, just prior to Valentine’s day, we left a cold, cloudy and windy London to hop onto a Eurostar train and 90 minutes later, arrive in Lille … also cold, cloudy and windy. Ah well, despite the rubbish weather, we still enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. With lots happening with work, we both needed a little time away to ourselves and had decided a month before to visit Lille, the last major Eurostar stop that we had not explored properly.
We checked into our hotel as soon as we arrived and then hit the ground running; the plan was to spend the afternoon walking the narrow streets of the old city. From our hotel, it wasn’t long until we hit L’Eglise Saint-Maurice, a beautiful and surprisingly spacious church with medieval origins. A promising start.
We saw most of the usual sites Lille had to offer that day, from the Vielle Bourse (the old stock exchange) in the Grand Place to the Opera House. The little streets of Lille are absolutely charming and well worth a good afternoon of wandering.
Saturday seemed to be a very busy day for all the shops in the centre and a lot of the patisseries were busy. Oh, they were all so tempting but we didn’t have a way of storing all the pastries that I wished to try. This patisserie, Les Merveilleux de Fred, specialised in meringues covered in whipped cream and rolled in either chocolate shavings or speculaas crumbs. Unfortunately, there was a queue out the door and we didn’t stop to try one.
All that walking had us thinking about having a nice sit down and what better place than the most well known patisserie/chocolate shop in Lille, Meert. Sitting in the tearoom behind the patisserie, we shared two treats: a chocolatey Diderot and their most famous confection, La Gaufre Meert. The Diderot was your classic French patisserie style very chocolatey mousse, with a crème brûlée filling and a little (quite dry) macaron decorating the top.
It was their classic waffle (gaufre) that really impressed though. At first I was disappointed that the waffle was quite cold but one bite shut me up – the creamy Madagascar vanilla filling was outstanding. I bought a pack of six at the patisserie in front before we left.
To drink, we opted for cold drinks as we were thirsty and a hot chocolate could never quench that. That’s my refreshing Evian avec un sirop de grenadine in front and Blai’s excellent Tonic Citrus (orange sanguine, abricot, mandarine, fruit de la passion, citron) at the back. It’s not a cheap little tea shop by any means but it’s definitely worth a visit – the original chocolate shop has been occupied by Meert since 1761.
There was a little more walking to see the Citadelle and its surrounding park (and peering through the gates of the free zoo; it was opening after its winter break the next day and we missed it. We could hear the monkeys from outside though) and then we headed back to our hotel for a little break before dinner.
That night, we had dinner at Bistrot Lillois on the Rue de Gand; this street seems to be the street to eat, it being lined with estaminets and restaurants and is recommended by everyone and every guidebook. However, do make a booking in advance, especially for a Saturday night. I called that morning and didn’t get space at the first two estaminets (the French Flanders equivalent of the bistrot and the places to eat traditional food of the region) on my list. I managed to reserve a table at this bistrot and when we arrived for our meal, we found that it too was complet with everyone without a reservation turned away and indeed, we did find that this homey little eatery filled up with both tourists and locals alike.
We started with a couple of excellent local specialities: croquettes aux crevettes grises (grey shrimp croquettes), possibly a Flemish dish as we had the same in Brussels, and flamiche au maroilles, a tart made with maroilles, a local and very odorous soft cheese.
There were a number of specials written on mirrors on the walls and it was from this selection that we chose our main courses. When we were handed our menus, the chef actually came out and described all the specials to us in such loving detail, it was difficult not to, really! Blai had the medallions de veau a la creme et champignons, frites, legumes. The sauce was wonderful, with plenty of cognac or brandy, and paired well with the tender veal.
I chose the cuisse de canard confite aux navets, frites, legumes; I never would have guessed that turnips could taste so good! Their delicate sweetness, tinged with a bit of characteristic bitterness, paired well with the rich confit duck leg. It was just a shame that the skin wasn’t crisp but the sauce was good.
Our tummies were starting to ache but we pressed on with dessert. A crêpe au sucre for Blai was just that – well, two crêpes with cassonade, a brown sugar, to sprinkle on top. He adored them. Likewise, I was enjoying my huge pain perdu à la cassonade et sa boule de glace vanille, a large slab of French toast sprinkled with more of that brown sugar, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and swimming in a pool of crème anglaise. It was delicious but I just couldn’t finish it all. Doesn’t it remind you of those thick slices of toast that are popular in Asia?
The next morning, we walked all the way to the Marché de Wazemmes, through a city that was amazingly deserted – ah yes, Sundays in France. Everyone seemed to be at this market which sold just about everything and located about a 20 minute walk out from the old centre. No photos from that as it was extremely crowded and by the time I found the indoor food market, I was feeling a bit lazy to pull out my camera. Well, not too lazy to photograph a freshly made waffle filled with chocolate and strawberry paste we bought for only 70 cents from one stand.
Not long after, it was lunch time and I randomly chose Chez Justine, just on the edge of the market square. We could have purchased goodies from the market itself but we had no place to eat them. If you ever go to Lille, here’s a tip we learned after: most people buy drinks at the bars on the square and then sit down on tables set outside to eat their treats from the market. Despite the fact that the rotisserie chickens looked amazing, I’m glad I sat inside, out from the cold! Anyway, this little place looked just the ticket and we both ordered from the menu on a chalkboard on the wall. Blai started with a terrine de campagne that didn’t look particularly great but tasted delicious.
We then got to try two more local specialities. Our main courses of poulet au maroilles (chicken with maroilles, that strong local cheese again) and carbonnade flamande (a local beef stew made with beer and spice cake) may not have been much to look at but both were very flavourful. Both were accompanied with large plates of freshly fried frites and a simple and refreshing salad with a strong mustard dressing.
I ended my meal with a slice of tarte au speculoos maison, which wasn’t anything to shout about but it was quite interesting to see how a biscuit can be transformed into other forms. I had also purchased a speculoos spread earlier that day in a supermarket.
Actually, something I’d like to mention here is the popularity of a dish called a Welsh throughout the city. Of course, this turned out to be a Welsh rarebit made with the local beer!
Our afternoon was then spent at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, considered to be one of the best general art collections outside Paris.
We spent a few hours there and managed to see everything they had on display. It’s definitely quite a good collection and well worth the visit. Our favourite piece was possibly Dirk Bout’s La Chute des damnes, a spectacular depiction of what hell is like (possibly).
We weren’t contemplating a heavy dinner that night but there was still space for a treat before we caught the train back. Unfortunately, the centre of the city is absolutely dead on Sundays but there was one place that was open – Meert! Yes, we headed there again. This time I got to try their Tartelette Framboise-Macaron, which I was eyeing up at a neighbouring table the day before. This was quite a unique raspberry tart with a thick frangipane base and gosh, it’s just beautiful, isn’t it?
Blai went the simple route and chose a pain au chocolat, a fabulous and flaky pain au chocolat.
I have to mention their chocolat chaud that I forgot to photograph. It didn’t promise much when it appeared as it was thin and obviously quite milky. But the taste! Sure it was thin but that just made it so much more drinkable. It was very chocolatey with none of the powderiness that always puts me off. Delicious. We whiled away the time here, trying to keep our thoughts away from the realities of the next day.
And so ended our trip to Lille. We walked back to our hotel, picked up our goodies we had purchased at a supermarket the day before (really, if you go for a weekend, do all your shopping on the Saturday) and went to the train station (walking rather briskly as it was cold!). It had been a lovely weekend and just in time for Valentine’s Day too!
It might just be my feeling but I feel like this little city, despite it being one of the main Eurostar stops, isn’t promoted enough; there wasn’t a single mention of it in the on-board magazine, which was all London/Paris/Brussels only. I think it’s definitely worth a visit! (On a serious note, Eurostar, you really have to sort out your toilets at the Lille station.)
All my photos from Lille, including the most adorable meringue poodles, can be found in this Flickr photoset. Also, a great article on estaminets in French Flanders appeared in the New York times a week after we came back!
27, rue Esquermoise
Le Bistrot Lillois
40, rue de Gand
12, Place de la Nouvelle Aventure