Last weekend I popped to the 10th biggest city in France, Lille, for a three day stag-do. While days one and two were naturally spent in bars and kebab houses, a late train home on day three meant I had the chance to look for a bit of culture in 2004’s European Capital of Culture.
Wherever I go on my travels, I like to climb the tallest building available to get my bearings and take in the views. In Lille, that means a visit to the top of the belfry at the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Only 19 people are allowed in at any one time (I’ve no idea why they settled on that number), so you may have to wait a while like I did before gaining entry.
After climbing 100 steps just to get to the ticket office, you’ve got a choice of taking a lift to the top or walking up another few hundred steps. Stupidly I walked up, and got the lift down – I’d recommend you do it the other way around.
Once I made it to the top of this 104 metre high tower, I got my breath back by looking out into the distance, trying in vain to make out landmarks I’d seen over the last two days, and regretted not paying the €1 charge to rent a pair of binoculars.
Compared to the belfry in Bruges, this one is not much of a looker from the outside, but at 21 metres higher, the view from the top is pretty good. I spent half an hour getting my bearings and planning my itinerary for the rest of the day.
Lille’s main square, Grand Place (above), a twenty minute walk up Rue de Paris from the Hôtel de Ville. The buildings around the square are topped with gold, and the fountain in the middle seems to be a favourite meeting point for down-and-outs.
The city’s smaller second square, Place du Théâtre, is just behind and features another clocktower (below) attached to the Chamber of Commerce, although you can’t get inside this one.
Guidebooks rave over my next destination, Vieux Lille, the old part of the centre with its cobbled streets and tiny shops, but I don’t know why – I’ve seen far prettier old towns across Europe. The fact that everything was closed (being a Sunday) didn’t help – neither did the fact the streets reeked of sewage.
Nevertheless, this is probably the nicest part of town, so getting lost in the alleys of Vieux Lille is a requisite for any whistle-stop tour of the city.
You can go on a boat trip around the waterways of Lille for €6, but although I could find the website easily enough, I didn’t have much luck finding the actual boat.
Instead I crossed Pont de la Citadelle and found myself in Lille’s free city centre zoo, Parc Zoologique. By this time the sun had come out, so I spent an hour wandering around amongst zebras, rhinos, giant tortoises and dozens of French families who come here on Sundays.
The highlight is the Vallée des Singes, an island in one of Lille’s canals where gibbons swing from tree to tree.
Outside the entrance to the zoo, there is a huge World War I memorial. Au Pigeon Voyageur is a monument to the thousands of pigeons who died for their country. Yes, even pigeons can be war heroes.
Messenger pigeons were important as a means of communication for the French army at the time. When the Germans occupied this part of northern France, they made releasing pigeons illegal and thousands were killed, along with their colombophilies (pigeon handlers).
Time was running out, so I headed back towards Lille Europe station on the eastern edge of the city centre, which is where a lot of modern offices and hotels are found.
Just past the immense Euralille shopping centre, which like everything else on a Sunday in Lille is closed, are two giant multi-coloured tulips and behind that the distinctive grey Tour de Lille office block, known as the ‘ski-boot’.
I had wanted to bring some of the notoriously smelly local cheese, Maroilles (a.k.a ‘old stinker’) home with me, but couldn’t find anywhere open to buy it from. Apparently it’s so stinky, it was once banned on public transport, so maybe it was for the best.
As I boarded the Eurostar home, I reflected on my time in Lille – as the city centre is only 1 hour 22 minutes from London, there can’t be an easier continental city break.
If you haven’t got time to get to the great cities of Belgium, or have been there before, Lille is the next best choice for your Flemish fix.