Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lille. October 2007

My only contact with Lille had been en route to Paris via Eurostar. The train stops momentarily in a concrete structure that bodes ill.
But sitting next to a civil servant at Lord’s cricket ground, and discussing holidays, he recommended L’Hermitage Gantois hotel in that city as his favourite holiday destination. So, wanting a short break in France, we aimed for it, getting a good deal through “the net” at a very expensive place.
The hotel had been a religious institution and centre of hospitality since the 15th century. It had been turned into a luxury establishment by joining up buildings of religious accommodation around four courtyard gardens. The main, central courtyard, had been glazed over to form a light and airy atrium. In this stood a central bar, surrounded by comfortable pale blue leather armchairs and sofas. To the side of this courtyard was a fully furnished church. So it could be an ideal hotel for those of a religious inclination.
Our spacious room was decorated in new oak panelling in the Louis XV style, with an equally grand Carrara green marble tiled bathroom. But there were strange omissions in design. There were no drawers, and minimal hanging space for clothes. The electrics worked magically by placing the room “key” in a slot just inside the door. But there was only one bedside light, and to turn off the two bright overhead lights, it was necessary to get out of bed and switch them off in the corners of the room. There was no bidet (are they really so out of fashion? How sad.). I often think that in a “no-expense-spared” hotel room that there should be a small pissoir for men near to the lavatory. Men, by their nature and structure are inclined to dribble and splash. So for hygiene’s sake one would be an advantage. And it would save men from having to always raise and lower the lavatory seat. There was no lavatory brush. To turn on the bath water was a job for a contortionist – and a contortionist who would get soaked by the shower in the process. So I eventually had to fill the bath through the spout and shower. The grey marble basin was a pleasure to use and charm to the eye. It took the form of a small cascade rather than the normal bowl. The towels were great, many and thick, with creams and shampooy things exemplary.
Hanging on the oak panelling of the room were some pleasant reproductions of 18th century prints. The one above my side of the comfortable bed was of a mother spanking her naughty child with a bunch of flowers. It was titled: “Punishment of Love”.
We had arrived in time for lunch after an uneventful journey by rail. So, in our usual way, we sought advice on where we might eat. Recommended places were either too grand for lunch, or closed. But in the rue de Pas stood Les 400 Coups. It was full, the waiters busy and efficient, and the menu offering mostly grilled meat. We were fitted in, and noticed that this was a place for trenchermen, and with the food served on trenchers. With a view to possibly returning, I picked a sample dish of all the grilled meats on offer (ribs, lamb, beef, chicken and gammon). Margreet chose two meats. With whole roast potatoes and salad, the helpings were huge and excellent, washed down with Bel Pils beer and equally excellent carafe red wine. We had made a great choice for our first meal in Lille.
As is our wont, we are inclined to overdo our eating on the first day in France. And this was no exception.
After shopping unsuccessfully in Galeries Lafayette and Printemps we took our aperitifs in a café on the large central square (Place G. de Gaulle) – a square rather too large, not particularly interesting architecturally, and with too small a central feature to hold it all together.
As we had noticed already in the shops, the dress for both sexes was drab – blacks browns and greys. To see someone, even wearing a coloured sweater, was cause for joy. And there were a surprising number of the halt and maim.
We decided to eat in our hotel’s red painted and golden vaulted dining room. One dish (the hors d’oeuvre) was exceptional. It was a fricassée of snails, garlic, butter, parsley, cep mushrooms and duck liver – one item having a distinctly smoky flavour. With bread and wine it could have made a splendid meal on its own.
A visit to the Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille was instructive. Its vast halls had so much wall space it was as if they had to purchase the largest works of classical art as possible to hang on them. But there were jewels to be found there. The best was a Brueghel of a snow scene that held interest in the details of what was going on at the time and, if standing back, the entire composition. There was a Bosch and two large Goyas to make the visit memorable.
On leaving those halls of art it was time for a quiet lunch at the Bistrot de Pierrot nearby. Next to us at first was a furniture manufacturer who gave us good advice on what to eat there, choosing from the blackboard menu.
Then in came six large men of our country’s Rugby fraternity, en route to Paris for the World Cup semi-final between England and France. They were in festive mood, of considerable importance in life, and discerning of food, wine, and accommodation. In no time we were on intimate terms, soon to be joined by a French couple whose nephew is the one who smuggles in a live cockerel to England/France matches at Twickenham.
So with much banter and in fine spirits, we conversed, laughed, drank and ate. So our “quiet” meal turned out to be a rather noisy one.
The “crunch” match was to be played in Paris that evening. So we shopped in Lille for an evening’s television picnic of bagette, bressaola and Morbier cheese. For the wine, we chose one that we knew well - Lidl’s excellent South African Pinotage (at under £2).
After drinks in the hotel’s covered atrium, we settled in for a night of picnic and sport.
The television build-up coverage was considerable. Interviews, replays, expectant hosts, the favourites… on it went. And the more it continued in that vein, the more we were conscious of the huge expectation that the French nation had placed on the shoulders of their team. Could the Latin temperament take it?
Then it was “off”. The match was nail-bitingly close. The final whistle was blown, with the underdogs, the English, victorious.
The shouts from our room of “on a gagné” were so loud that we must have rattled the bones of those hermits and nuns who had once resided in the surrounding hospice cells in silence.
The television programme then turned to interviewing the sad, defeated players – ones who had so hugely let their country down. There was only one brief shot of the victorious English. The French were suffering – and made to suffer more in their defeat. They were still the hosts for the Rugby World Cup, but now only as onlooking hosts, no longer participants. One really felt quite sorry for them.
So Sunday came, and our plan was to investigate “Old Lille”. The buildings were ornate with deep carvings and glowing colours – more Dutch/Belgian then French. In fact, the entire old town and its way of life felt more Belgian than French. Margreet pronounced the women’s fashion shops there to be excellent.
In the rue de Monnaie, at the Place du Concert, was a quite splendid and very crushed market, where locals were doing their Sunday and week’s shopping. Cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers, roasting meats and much more, were there for those willing to force their way around the many stalls.
We drank beer at a roadside pavement café table to watch the drably coloured but well dressed people go about their business.
With many restaurants closed on the Sabbath, where were we to lunch? I asked a flower shop assistant about to display his wares on the pavement. Where did he like to eat in the district? The restaurant recommended was Chez la Vieille, in the rue de Gand. It was closed, but a sign in the window told that their sister restaurant, Au Vieux de la Vieille, in the Place aux Onions nearby, was open on Sundays. So, in this simple and unsophisticated café/restaurant we ate excellently and cheaply. Typical of Flemish food were dishes cooked with Maroilles. What were Maroilles? I thought that they sounded like mushrooms. It turned out to be a cheese, with a very pungent smell of a farmyard and taste to match. I had it in a white sauce surrounding chicken – yes, distinctive.
So, wanting only a token meal that evening, we returned to Au Vieux de la Vieille, where they like to serve food on wooden planks. So we started with two small, hard sausages, served on its plank, to be cut with a sharp knife. Then we shared a dish of a mixed plank, consisting of two cheeses, two thick slices from terrines, salad and chips. It was quite enough, and accompanied by a jug of wine – from the simple list choice of red, white or rosé.
Back at the hotel we watched a television programme of the other Rugby semi-final, with South Africa beating Argentina.
For our last lunch we ate up-market, and very well, on scallops and roe deer chops. But the uniqueness of the restaurant, La Part des Anges, in rue de la Monnaie, was that the wine, chosen from an extensive blackboard list, was only available “by the glass”. We thought this to be an excellent idea.
So our short break in Lille was almost over. Our feelings were that we liked Lille very much in almost every respect. We never had a meal that was less than excellent – and all much to our taste. The shops, especially the fashion boutiques, were top class. But with no “heart” in the form of movement from the activities of river, canals or port, we might go somewhere else next time. But I doubt if we’ll eat as well.