Rain. Nord Pas-de-Calais — France’s northernmost region — has a reputation for it. That and, well, not being terribly exciting in comparison to the nearby sparkle of Paris. Indeed, most travellers have pigeonholed it as flat farming land famously embroiled in World War I. But ever since Eurostar included Lille, the region’s capital, as a stop-off on the London-Brussels train route, interests have been piqued and rumours of an à la mode province have carried on the cross-Channel winds ever since. Using the fourth largest city as a base, I set out to pinpoint the allure of Le Nord.
Being British, I felt compelled to tackle the weather concerns first. “Pah! The weather here iz exactly the same as in Paris,” laughs Audrey, my guide for the morning, with a swipe of her hand. Three years ago, she left the wide boulevards and pouting pretensions of La Ville Lumière (City of Lights) in favour of Lille and hasn’t looked back. “Everyone is so much friendlier here,” she enthuses.
Indeed, northern France has its own brand of bonhomie. During World War I, soldiers from central France made fun of their northern comrades’ accents because they’re heavy on ‘sch’ sounds — ‘c’est moi’ is pronounced ‘chez moi’ — and nicknamed them ‘les Ch’ti.’ Parisians would have broken their baguettes in a huff, but the northerners took it on the chin and plastered the moniker on their regional beer.
Right on cue, the proprietor of the first shop we enter issues a loud and friendly ‘Bonjour!’ Like a man, the best way to a region’s heart is through its stomach, so Audrey had decided to introduce me to the city’s edible specialities. Our first stop is Meert, Lille’s oldest food shop. Its intricate cream-and-green floor titles and elaborate gilded ceiling haven’t changed since 1831 and neither has the recipe for its famous gaufres: two slivers of waffle traditionally filled with vanilla buttercream.
“They’re handmade in the kitchen at the back of the shop,” says Audrey, as I plunge my teeth into one, the sweet paste squeezing out the sides.
In need of something savoury, we wander through the Old Town to find fromagerie Philippe Oliver. The shop bell jingles and an almighty whiff of cheese-heavy air swirls in my nostrils as we step over the threshold. We’d come to have a nibble of Maroilles Mignon, a regional favourite churned in the L’Avenois district southeast of Lille.
“Ooo, it’s lovely melted down in a sauce and poured over steak,” Audrey and the shopkeeper coo. “We also melt it over bread spread with mustard. We call it a ‘Welsh’. I think you call it Welsh rarebit, non?”
Let them eat cake
Sauntering further along the cobblestones, we pass a Paul’s bakery. Branches of the artisanal boulangerie are found all over the world, but the sight of their rustic loaves and fruit-laden tartlets lined up in the window still make me drool. Audrey catches me swooning. “You know Paul’s originated in Lille, don’t you?” she comments, nonchalantly. “The Holder family opened their first shop here in 1889.”
“If it’s cake you want, you must try one of our Merveilleux,” and I follow her to Aux Merveilleux de Fred on Rue de la Monnaie, a corner shop with large glass windows. Peeping through, I see a woman clad in a white hat and apron smoothing fresh whipped cream around two swirls of meringue and then rolling them in white chocolate flakes. Merveilleux have been a popular Flemish treat for decades, but Lille resident Frédéric Vaucamps has taken them to a whole new level of perfection by making them extra light and experimenting with flavours.
“You should see the queues on Sundays,” Audrey says with raised eyebrows. “They go all around the block!”
While I’m fired up on sugar, Audrey senses her chance to slip in some history. “Did you know that Lille started life as an island? The name comes from the Latin for ‘insula’ [meaning island]. All this used to be swamps,” she says pointing to the Old Town streets. “The streets weave because they used to be waterways leading to a port-cum-market cobbled together on what is now the Grand Place.”
The city’s connection with the sea is still strong: one of the most elaborate shop facades belongs to A L’Huîtrière, a family-owned oyster bar that’s been dishing up northern French pearlies for nigh on 100 years. Inside, colourful fish-themed mosaic tiles cover the walls and tanks of lobsters await their fate amid streams of bubbles.
“Let’s go to this fabulous fish restaurant I know for lunch,” enthuses Audrey. The suave owner of Jour de Pêche, Stellio Lestienne and his crisp white shirt greet us warmly with two kisses. Everything is homemade, from the seaweed butter to the ice cream. I opt for cod, delivered that morning from Boulogne-sur-Mer, and a glass of white wine to wash it down.
“It feels so decadent drinking wine at lunchtime,” I say with a wink. “It’s not decadent — it’s French,” Audrey retorts, with a grin.
We finish with a dessert of fresh summer strawberries piled up on a homemade tablet of chocolate and nougat. I spoon up a berry and pop it into my mouth. My tongue starts to tingle and fizz.
“Ah, it’s the citron salt — marvellous, eh?” laughs Audrey in response to the surprised look on my face.
With all the wine and conversation, I miss my train to visit the Louvre-Lens Museum — an offshoot of the Louvre in Paris — a 40-minute train journey to the southwest. Instead, having bid Audrey au revoir, I decide to explore the city’s ties to World War I.
Lille was captured almost immediately at the start of the war and wasn’t liberated until October 1918. As a result, it was one of the few cities to escape heavy bombardment and much of the elegant 19th-century architecture still stands.
Its proximity to the Western Front also made it the ideal base for the Allies wishing to contact the Resistance movement. One of those members was Léon Trulin, a young Belgian who set up a network of teenage spies code-named ‘Noël Lurtin’ (an anagram of his name), after being turned down by the Belgian Army on account of his small stature. They collected information and photos of the occupied zone and passed them onto the British Army until he was arrested by the Germans near Antwerp, sent to Lille and sentenced to death on 8 November 1915 — he was 18 years old. I seek out his small bronze statue on the corner of Rue Léon Trulin and Rue Anatole France and study the chiselled features.
Next, I wander westwards towards the Deûle River to find the quirky, but oddly touching Au Pigeon Voyageur monument, dedicated to the 20,000 pigeons that died trying to deliver messages to the front line. The city made a point — excuse the pun — of not adding any deterrent spikes to the statue, so that the birds could sit on the stones freely but, ironically, there’s not a single white-and-grey dollop of pigeon poo on it.
Small memorials like these are just the start: Nord Pas-de-Calais is also home to Fromelles, Cambrai and Arras where major World War I battles were fought.
With time to spare, I hop on the metro and travel 20 minutes north to the satellite town of Roubaix. Audrey had scribbled directions to a museum, known as La Piscine, on the back of my map. A few twists and turns through the foyer and there it is: a 1930s art deco swimming pool painstakingly converted into an art gallery.
It’s utterly unique. The ceramic-tiled showers and changing rooms are still in place, some displaying delicate vases or designer dresses of distinction; alabaster nudes perch by the water’s edge as if contemplating a dip; and, at either end, huge stained-glass windows of sunbeams cast soft yellow light across it all. Occasionally, a recording of children splashing and shrieking echoes around the hall.
As I weave my way back from the metro to Lille Europe train station, charcoal clouds are gathering fast overhead and the first raindrops begin to splash onto my bare arms. So one of the rumours is true: it does rain in Le Nord, but perhaps it doesn’t matter when the food is so good, the cobbled streets so quaint, and the history and art so compelling. As an old Ch’ti proverb says: ‘A visitor to the North cries twice: once when he arrives, and once when he leaves.’ I’m not in tears, but that’s because I know I’ll return.
Lille is easily traversed on foot.
Try the V’lille city bike-rental scheme: the first 30 minutes is free, then €1 per 30 minutes thereafter.
Buy a Lille City Pass for 24 (€24/£19), 48 (€35/£27) or 72 (€45/£35) hours for free access to attractions and a free public transport ticket.
When to go
In summer (July–August) when temperatures are between 11-22C. Winters are mild, but wet.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.26.
International dial code: 00 33 3.
Time difference: GMT.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights from £449 per person, including Eurostar tickets and B&B accommodation.
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)