Take a one hour train ride north from Paris and you’ll arrive in the colourful city of Lille. Lille itself has a population of around two-hundred thousand people, although the metropolitan area consists of some one million inhabitants, the fourth largest metropolitan area in France.
Arrive from Paris, and you’ll get a small town feel. Of course. Everything else in France presents itself with a small town feel after the hustle and bustle of Parisian daily life.
It’s not just the lack of overcrowded streets, the minimal number of tourists or the smaller, more modest buildings that provide this city a welcome relief from the Parisian noise and carnage. It’s the people here, too.
The Parisian is not as bad as the general public reports. Be open minded and have general courtesy and they will, contrary to popular reports, treat you with a similar respect. But it’s almost as if they wait for you to make the first move. What kind of a person are you? What’s your story? Present yourself and then they will decide how to treat you.
It’s a matter of trust. And the majority of Parisians have, for one reason or another, lost it when it comes to strangers. Lille, not so. Here, you are treated without suspicion that you could be malicious. Here, you are innocent until proven guilty. Is this a case of Paris versus the rest of France in behaviour? It’s hard to tell, but it will be interesting to monitor as the travel continues.
Walk down the streets and there is more space. Not just due to lack of parked cars, but the footpaths are wider. The roads, in the suburbs at least, do not contain the same historic feel that the Parisian counterparts do, but the buildings still do provide a sense of antiquity.
And the colours. The buildings, stacked neatly one against the other, change colour as you continue down the street. There was never really a sense of monotony when walking the streets of Paris. No, the many restaurants and cafés will prevent that. But now in Lille, it becomes more evident that the apartment block in Paris never really did change much – at least in colour. Lille possesses yellows, blues, purples and variety.
It lies in the Flandres region, roughly twenty kilometers south of the border with Belgium and in many respects, it feels as if it belongs a part of Belgium. The region is famous for it’s moules frites (mussels and fries) and beers. Waffles are commonly sold at corner stores.
As with most places, the best time to see Lille is on a bright sunny day. The colours become more vibrant. The many parks and fields become more green and lush. People pour out onto these parklands to enjoy what is generally considered to be a rare occurrence of a sunny day. These can be few and far between in the north.
Walking through the city of Lille, it presents itself as a more modern centre than that shown by Paris. Continue walking until the Grand Place, and you will soon find yourself in the Vieux Quartier (old quarter), which presents the highlight of the trip.
Here, the Flandres style architecture is on full display. The buildings are still colourful, but they become more magnificent in form and size. The streets are narrow and twisted and are entirely composed of stone surfaces. There are more people here now. This is clearly the centre of Lille and the main attraction, but it’s easy to understand why.
Lose yourself in the winding streets and end up facing a marvellous church. Admire the chocolatiers through the windows. It does not hold anywhere near the same history or reputation, but in many respects, Lille can show as much charm as Paris itself. But Lille has an admirable modesty about itself. It does not excessively reach out for tourism. It gets a steady supply coming across from Calais when the British take the English Channel tunnel to France.
Lille is quite content to continue to provide a more relaxed, affordable means of life for it’s citizens. And I’m quite content with Lille, too.