24 hours in Lille, France
Updated: Jan 15, 2019
Most of the trips we take are planned in advance – after being on some sort of ‘must-do’ list for some time. But our visit to Lille wasn’t like that. We had a rare opportunity to get away for 24 hours without the kids so we wanted to go somewhere that didn’t take too long to get to. In a toss-up between the Cotswolds and Lille, Lille won (not just for the food but also the Christmas markets) so we jumped on the Eurostar.
Within 2 hours of leaving home, we were in France.
Lille is close to the Belgian border and its Flemish influence is evident in the centre of the old town, where 17th-century buildings adorn a large town square, Grand Place.
But as much as I love a bit of culture when I travel, we only had limited time. That ruled out visiting churches. And museums. Instead, we got our history fix from our hotel and prioritized eating (we were in France!)
On our first day, we headed straight for Les Compagnons de la Grappe … a restaurant recommended by the locals for its take on traditional and regional cuisine. It’s hidden among the back streets of Lille in a courtyard that dates back to the 18th century. The atmosphere is casual and lively; the food is tasty and well-priced and the staff are joyously friendly but efficient. We sampled a tasting plate of Flemish delicacies then tucked into their home-cooked stew. Of course, we washed it down with champagne and dessert then practically waddled our way to the Christmas markets.
These markets are apparently one of Europe’s best. They’re beautiful. A huge Christmas tree and ferris wheel light up Grand Place, its Renaissance architecture providing the most magical backdrop. It had all the usuals you’d expect at any Christmas market including mulled wine and Christmas decorations but there were also some fabulous hidden gems; huge chocolate-covered marshmallows, stuffed toys that can be
microwaved and used as a warm cuddly; and the best saucisson I’ve had. Infused with porcini mushroom, we bought 5 of them which will keep us going well into February.
We loved the vibe and decided to have a quick drink at one of the bistros overlooking Grand Place. That turned into dinner - moules frites- mussels, served with a pungent and almost bitter local cheese, maroilles. I wasn’t a fan but wasn’t really that hungry anyway.
Our hotel was a short stumble from there – L’Hermitage Gantois. It’s now a 5-star hotel but for 500 years, it was a hospice. Much of it has been preserved including a chapel from the 16th century, nun’s refectory and hospice room. What was a courtyard has now been covered with a glass ceiling some 2-3 storeys high, making it a most cosy spot to have a cuppa or something stronger, particularly if it’s raining!
Our best meal of the trip was lunch at Rouge Barre. This Michelin-starred restaurant with a red brick and hippy interior came highly recommended by a good friend. The chef, Steven Ramon, is local and has a very loyal following. We enjoyed the set three-course menu which went hand-in-hand with a fabulous bottle of French plonk – and were rewarded with an extra couple of courses, compliments of the chef. This was possibly the best French food I’ve had. Truly memorable!