The April issue of Living France magazine hits the shops today – and in it is an interview with me about Lille. I thought I’d use it as a chance to share my top ten things to do in this great northern French city.
Nothing quite prepares you for the craziness of the braderie in Lille. The annual antiques fair cum flea market stretches over a whopping 100km of roads throughout the city on the first weekend of September each year.
The braderie has been a feature of the city’s calendar since the 11th century. These days, more than 2 million people visit the city to try to bag a bargain.
There’s no shortage of good restaurants in Lille. Top of the list for me is La Table, a Michelin-starred restaurant within the beautiful Clarance Hotel in the old town.
We discovered it on a long weekend in Lille, 18 months before we moved here. We were bowled over by our lunch there – particularly the cheese course – and it became one of the places that made us think we could live here.
Forget the Palais des Beaux Arts, even though it holds France’s largest art collection after the Louvre. Instead hop on the metro and head for la Piscine in Roubaix.
As its name suggests, it’s an old swimming pool that’s been converted into a museum. If whatever exhibitions are on at the time don’t grab you, just sit back and enjoy your surroundings – Art Deco at its best.
Perhaps the most unlikely of the local gastronomic specialities is le Welsh – an uber-cheesy and decidedly orange take on Welsh rarebit. I gather the original was brought to the region by Welsh soldiers during Henry VIII’s siege of Boulogne in 1544 and it caught on.
The best place to try one is the cheese-themed restaurant Le Broc. They have two branches, but the city-centre one on Place de Béthune is the best.
France’s markets are one of things tourists say they enjoy most about the country. The Sunday market in the Wazemmes district of Lille is unlike any you’ll have ever visited before. It’s ten times larger – and noisier.
At its heart, is a covered market, where stallholders clamour for your attention. We never leave without a visit to the traiteur – the pâté he makes to a recipe handed down by his grand-mère is delicious!
14 July is a very special day to be in Lille, when France celebrates its national day. Along with the pomp and ceremony, there’s a lot of good humour on the streets.
In the evening, join the crowds as they head to the city’s Citadel. From 10pm, the skies are lit up by a seemingly never-ending free firework display.
With the Belgian border just 12km from Lille’s city centre, it’s no surprise that some gastronomic traditions are shared. Among them are moules-frites – and they’re particularly popular during the braderie. Some 500 tonnes of mussels and 30 tonnes of frites are said to be eaten over the braderie weekend each year.
After a couple of bad experiences with mussels in the past, I’ve avoided moules for years. However, last year’s braderie convinced me to try them again – and I lived to tell the tale.
Turcoing jazz festival
If you’re under 25, you might want to swap this suggestion for seeing one of France’s top acts perform at the Zénith. Lille has a young population, so all the hippest bands make it here.
If you’re, ahem, more mature, the Tourcoing jazz festival – held every October – offers a wide range of artists and styles to enjoy. Tourcoing’s at the far end of Lille’s metro and tram network, about 20 minutes from Lille city centre.
The old town is where many of the best shops and restaurants are. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals alike.
One of the highlights of it is the Vielle Bourse, the old stock exchange. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, and of a Sunday, stallholders surround its inner courtyard, selling old magazines and memorabilia.
Independent wine fair
It’s not every day you find 600 independent winemakers in one room, vying for your attention. But each November, Lille hosts the travelling Salon des vins des vignerons indépendants – I think Wine Heaven would be a better and infinitely catchier name for it.
We’ve attended each year we’ve lived here. Most recently, we used it to find suppliers for Planches et Plonk, the cheese-and-wine bar we’re setting up in the Dordogne village of Belvès.
We open in June, so our time in Lille is almost up. Lille was only ever meant as a stepping stone, but we’ve enjoyed living here immensely.
Whether you want to live in France or just enjoy a short break, Lille is great place to be.