Written by Laurence Phillips
To celebrate the release of the fourth edition of our Lille City Guide, we chat to author Laurence Phillips about the city, the wider region and his tips for travel-writing.
It was an accident, pure serendipity: raining, in the middle of the night and I was stranded in France with just a few coins in my pocket. In my other life, I worked as a playwright and theatre critic and I had been invited to join a panel to decide the future of the Field of Agincourt, from Shakespeare’s Henry V. I was flat broke, but had been offered the ferry fare and a hotel for the night in Boulogne and a lift to Lille the following morning for a meeting with the British Consul and the Regional Culture Committee. A train strike in the UK meant that when I arrived at Dover (this was in the days before Eurostar) the last Boulogne ferry had left, so I had to take a boat to Calais. Stranded inCalais, late at night, in a storm and on crutches (another long story!) I thumbed a lift to get to my hotel in Boulogne, but the only driver who stopped was heading for Lille. And so I arrived atmidnight, the yellow lights of the Grand’ Place spilling into the puddles on the cobbles.
Lurching through the narrow, gabled streets of the old town, I got lost and could not find my way back to the square, so I popped into a bar to ask for directions. One of the locals left his beer and insisted on walking me back to the centre, shook my hand and welcomed me to his city. With the few francs I had with me, I sat at a café table on place Rihour and made a bowl of delicious onion soup last ’til sunrise; eavesdropping and people watching, as the post-party student crowd segued into the early morning street cleaners and public transport workers. Got changed in the restaurant loo ready to appear respectable for coffee and pastries and my midmorning meeting with the smarter movers and shakers.
Your guide reviews over 100 restaurants, bistros, bars and cafés, can you recall a dining experience in the city that still stands out?
The white-napkin experiences in the smart dining rooms are always special, as is a hearty bowl of soup in a simple estaminet or the cholesterol-packed white-knuckle ride that is the Welsh (melted cheese in beer smothering the food hidden deep inside the bowl), when shared in an old fashioned brasserie over a glass of something brewed locally. Food and dining are like music, your taste buds and goosebumps tingle with the alchemy of the moment – your dining companion, the celebration, the location. Of the new places I discovered for this latest edition of the guide, Jour de Peche is wonderful, with the simplicity of good ingredients, perfectly prepared and served by people with whose lodestar is passion not pomposity. Experience in the kitchen has its own special delight: I’ll always treasure the mellow jazz vice of La Cave aux Fioles, my inaugural dining experience on the food trail that is the rue de Gand.
When is the best time to visit Lille?
Outside the summer months, whenever the students are still in residence. With 40% of the population under 25, there is a buzz about the place for most of the year. I like to come in spring, when the students launch their annual listings of the hottest and coolest addresses in town with the Ch’ti party. The Braderie (first weekend in September) is the busiest time, a 200km flea market encompassing every doorstep and street corner. But for me, the most magical time of all is late September for the final summer tango night in the Vieille Bourse: an amazing, almost impromptu ball in an open Renaissance cloister, where old men, young fashionistas in heels, classy elderly ladies wearing gloves, and students in trainers are thrown together on the dance floor as they tango the night away to the sound of scratchy old 78 recordings of Latin songs. This year, the parties and celebrations for the Lille3000 international art festival will be a must-see, must-do visit.
Lille is home to some of the richest art galleries outside of Paris. What would be your must-sees for an art lover exploring the region?
The MaM in Villeneuve d’Asq is the address for modern art of course, and I was blown away by the new Louvre in Lens (well worth the train ride out of town), with its time gallery where you walk through the centuries of Eastern and Western art running parallel in a huge open space, with no dividing walls. My two favourites though are La Piscine in Roubaix for the setting (a fabulous Art Deco swimming pool – where you can still hear the squeals and splashes as you wander the galleries), and Lille’s very own Palais des Beaux-Arts, if only for two wickedly satirical works by Goya. Les Jeunes shows two teenage girls reading a letter, with the heartless self-absorption of any modern youth texting and tweeting; Les Vielles is a pair of elderly crones at a dance, watching the youngsters around them with delicious, toothless malevolence. These two paintings are a celebration of the joy of human weakness.
With an extended chapter on exploring beyond the city, your guide is perfect for those either returning to the city or staying for a little longer. What would be your perfect day out exploring in the local area?
Public transport is pretty wonderful, so a visit to the bargain shopping outlets in Roubaix is an easy 15-minute metro ride away and hardly counts as leaving town. St Omer is a good excursion for a varied day out. The town itself has museums, a brewery and the crystal d’Arques factory for formal attractions. But La Coupole, a former Nazi V2 rocket bunker is a brilliant twin museum of the space race and life in occupied France, and on the edge of St Omer itself is Les Audomarois, floating market gardens in the wetlands habitat of kingfishers and reed birds – an unusual boat trip to provide a breath of fresh air, especially after a heavy night before!
What are your travel plans for the rest of 2015?
This month I am heading south for the summer, to theLanguedoc, the real South of France. I’ll be spending a few months mooching around the Etang de Thau, in the ouster fishing and winegrowing port of Marseillan, with a few side trips to the canals of Sete and the Cathar country of the hinterland. Then towards the end of the year, I will be on the equally unspoilt Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy researching another foodie region of France. And if I am very, very good, I’ll be allowed out of France to discover some lesser known corners of Italy.
What tips would you offer to aspiring travel writers?
Don’t be a travel writer. Be a traveller, and be a writer; there’s nothing more boring than a list of facts. After all, no-one cares how many metres high was the mountain or the church steeple. But everybody shares a thrill when told a great story about a special moment at sunrise, a chance encounter with someone who once felt the breath of history on their cheek. Go out, explore, discover and, above all, live the experience, and then sit down and share it.