A delicious breakfast in our Lille abode fortified us for the snowy sightseeing and battles with bureaucracy awaiting us outside.
We do love trains in France. Short Metro rides were needed to whisk us around the sights in Lille, we thought, so we began with a Seniors Metro Day Pass, a card you buy from a machine, in English, that you can top up the next day. One wishes Myki in Melbourne were so easy for tourists and day-trippers alike. It turns out we never used it again because we saw most sights in one day, and walked the next.
Lille is the ancient capital of, and largest city in, French Flanders, with a city population of 232,000 and larger metropolitan population of 1.1 million, making it the fourth largest in France after Paris, Lyon and Marseille. It became French only as recently as 1713 after 17th century wars with the Protestant Dutch. It has much Flemish Baroque architecture made from local red or brown bricks, and also houses people in terrace houses as in Belgium and England, but unlike the rest of France.
The textile industry was huge in wealthy Lille in the 16th and 17th centuries, then mining and coal followed. As previously described, it has now moved to a services-based economy, but still holds the highest pollution records in France, which is sad given the huge preponderance of wind turbines en route from Paris. 1,800 people died last year in Lille from pollution-related illnesses.
On subsequent departures from Lille when we explored the WWI battlefields, I was prompted to research the huge “pyramids” which line many auto routes in the region. It turns out these are slag heaps left over from mining AND they have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. It appears the definition is: “distinct geographical areas or properties uniquely representing the combined work of nature and of man“. Therefore, these man-made edifices are up there with the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef! If you want further reading, click here, but this was unbelievable:
Our first stop was the famous Belfry, or Beffroi, the tower which dominates Lille. At 104 metres, it is the tallest belfry in Northern France and is a World Heritage site. This was a bit weird as it was only built in 1932 after the old Mairie had been destroyed in WWI, but the building of it seemed to reunite the saddened city at the time. Symbolically, the belfry is a watchtower that guards the citizens and they seem fond of it.
Firstly there is a ticket box, then 100 steps to climb to the next stage from whence where you can take the lift, or climb the remaining 306 steps. We’d purchased Seniors’ tickets for €6, then turned up our ageing noses at the lift and went the whole way on foot. It’s what we do. I count steps; I always have. They lied. The first pass to the lift was 112 steps, and the 306 was actually 305.
Daily exercise done, we saw the splendid 360 degrees view of Lille, and laid our plans for our assault on the old part. Next was the mini Porte de Paris nearby which was splendid and also provided a home, complete with tent and outdoor loo to a homeless male, glimpsed huddled inside in the snowfall.
Now hungry and in need of a loo, we finally relented in the name of market research and bought two Big Mac medium meals for €13.60, and dined in. That’s $20 on the Big Mac Index, so now we know, and need never do it again. Travellers are permitted one, and only one, foray into McDonalds in a strange country, and usually to visit the loos.
Without using the Metro we were an easy walk from the Grand Place (officially Place du Général de Gaulle) and it well suits its informal name. The heart of old Lille is a big plaza, lined on two sides by fabulous Flemish houses, along the third is the Vieille Bourse, the Old Stock Market, from the heady textile days, a building which would put a new stock market to shame, and on the fourth side is the Grand Garde, the old guard house that is now Théâtre du Nord. In the centre is the Goddess in bronze, about to light a cannon with a linstock, commemorating Lille’s refusal to surrender to an Austrian siege in 1792.
It seems like everyone has wanted to conquer Lille at some point. In its life it’s been held by the Romans, Francs, Vikings, Gauls, Spanish, Dutch, French, Austrians, Germans and even Britain after the wars. Its parentage is as confusing as its architecture. But in this sublime plaza the cameras clicked a lot.
Every French city is marked by a big cathedral. In a heavily Catholic country, this edifice is usually grand, glorious and golden, laden with stunning glass windows, faded paintings, soaring towers, frowning statues, Baroque pulpits and masses of marble to confound the illiterate and keep them believing in God, Hell and eternal damnation. In Lille, it is we who were confounded. The Notre Dame Cathedral is an Art Deco monster, with only two redeeming features: the front window is made solely from translucent marble and glows golden from the inside, and the modern statue of The Peace. Nevertheless, we liked it a bit for being “different” then moved on up the street to admire the Opera House and the Commercial Tower, both more to our Baroque tastes.
Enough time had been spent walking the streets in zero degrees, and even when a thin sun shone it only rose to one degree. The rest of our day was spent inside the fabulous Palais des Beaux-Arts, considered the second-most important art gallery after the Louvre. In fact, the Louvre, being over-stuffed with artworks, has embarked on a global campaign to send its pieces around the world and draw in new fans by hosting permanent art exhibitions in other countries. UAE, for instance, is the beneficiary of the “new” €600 million Abu Dhabi Louvre. In France, sad, confused Lille was chosen to be tizzied up with new art works on loan from its fabulous parent.
The collection is enjoyable, but over-rated, though we enjoyed finding Monet’s Houses of Parliament London, not his best work, and Picasso’s Olga in Fur Collar, along with works by Pissarro, Rodin and Delacroix.
McDonalds had done its work and quickly digested as only pure sugar, fat and salt can do, and we were hungry again. The local dish is moules et frites, mussels and fries. We found a restaurant we liked and dined in, using our bad French extensively and improperly. I chose the local dish while Keith had some other fish.
The Old Enemy hit hard, and we stumbled back to the Metro, and into bed by 9.00 p.m., this time taking sleeping pills immediately to force sleep, as we had a busy day the next day doing “business”. This led us next morning, after breakfast and packing, back into Lille to buy SIM cards for our mobile phones and open some bank accounts.
Orange is the only brand of SIM card to buy in France, if you want maximum coverage in rural places, just like Telstra at home. Locating an Orange shop, we specifically asked for an English-speaker, and he was wonderful, charming and made us an appointment. Adopting new technology is bad enough, we thought, but we didn’t want to learn it in French.
Returning at the appropriate time, we found he’d gone to early lunch. I couldn’t help but feel that he ducked off on purpose because 1. We were two Seniors likely to be difficult and ask lots of questions about the tech, and 2. Selling two pre-paid SIM cards just doesn’t earn the same commission as selling two new phone contracts. Just like Telstra at home.
Our “assistant” was young, French and capable, but without a word of English. Somehow we made it work, somehow we bought the right SIMs, somehow we got all three phones working, ours plus a burner with my old SIM in it, and somehow we left smiling, although I still don’t know how to re-charge the card, how to record a greeting, whether I can change the gigabytes of data next month to something fewer or whether I can call international on it. I suppose the English-speaking guy knew what he was doing after all, when he avoided all that.
Next stop was to open a French bank account. I assumed this would be the same as our banks back home, in that you could walk into any branch and they would lovingly and caringly pore over you while they made “sales” of three new bank accounts. I had with me all the documents I could imagine they would need. Their first question was, “do you live in Lille?” No, we are going to live in Belves. “You may only open a bank account in France in the town in which you live”. And that was that. Task postponed due to French bureaucracy. I guess they feel they can identify you better if they see you in the local market buying duck each Saturday? We are still wondering.
In the afternoon, we moved to our new abode, the Mercure International at Lesquin, Lille Airport, where the IPC annual conference was due to take place next week. At last we were in a place for a while and could unpack properly. It was a vast room with two King Beds, and huge wardrobes so we unpacked everything, cranked up the heater, did some hand-washing and set off on foot to find the local supermarket.
This was our first foray into Auchan, a huge chain apparently, complete with supermarket and mall. Trudging and sliding through snow which had become ice, mush and mud, we discovered that Auchan was 15 minutes away, on a sunny snowy day. It was huge. The rows and rows of produce were bewildering. We bought only what tourists buy – wine, cheese, beer, olives, bread, biscuits, tea bags and juice, and invested in a lime-green Auchan-branded shopping bag to carry it all home.
This bag became our fridge. As the room did not supply a bar-fridge, we simply put everything that needed refrigeration into our Auchan bag, and deposited it on the window-sill outside, complete with a long ribbon tied through its handles, used to haul it back inside. As the temperature never rose above one degree the entire three weeks we lived in this hotel, it was the perfect solution, and also kept our water bottles chilled. In fact one night they even froze into ice.
The days quickly ran into business days. Firstly a two day workshop for Gail, as part of the executive which runs the IPC, then more Delegates arrived for the two days of the Open Meeting, and it was a joy to meet up with old friends again. Breaks, meals and evenings were spent talking, meeting and discussing, as we lobbied for or argued against proposals, had a number of quick Bureau (Executive) meetings to resolve issues, weighed the consequences of certain paths, selected candidates for various positions and laughed and drank with our colleagues, all of which culminated in the final two days of the Plenary Meeting when all the voting was done.
Each Committee (there are 18 in total) has to make an annual presentation on their actions and outcomes. When I made mine, Finance, it was to demonstrate to the IPC that based on my analysis, if they continued down their current path, they would be out of funds in two years. It went over like the shock wave it is, and generated an appropriate course of action which meant raising our prices, something that hadn’t been done in 14 years.
At the end of the IPC Meeting, Keith and I elected to remain at the Mercure Hotel. It was very comfortable for us, we had lived there for eight days by now, the price was right, and positioned where it was, at the intersection of major auto routes, it was ideally located as a home base for exploring the WWI battlefields of Belgium and Flanders. Not only that, the Auchan fridge was working perfectly and the beer was always cold. We sadly bid farewell to all our parachuting friends, and began to make plans for the next eight days of battlefields, Belgium and the move to Belves.
I reflect upon Lille with fondness. We had great hospitality and a really good time here. Despite its mixed messages and disjointed architecture, it is an easy city to be in. There is a wind tunnel right next door to the Mercure Hotel, so chances are I will come back one day to Judge here. I can catch up then with other sights that we missed. These include a Museum in a Piscine (swimming pool), a mediaeval hospital and Charles De Gaulle’s house, but then I think, Lille is really a one-day city, masquerading as a tourist hot-spot. They are trying to extract the most out of tourists’ pockets by carolling these attractions as “must-sees”. I can also give them a miss and never miss them, you know what I mean? This means I am as confused as Lille.
On to the Battlefields!
Chapter 7: Battlefields, Belgium and Bruges