Le Vieux Lille Stole My Heart
As you already know, I spent four solid days in the northern French city of Lille to tape another House Hunters International. I had never been to Lille and knew nothing about it until then. In order to be less than an idiot on the show, I studied up on all Lille had to offer. You can read all about that in last week’s French Property Insider…but that was before having time to really get to know the town.
Le Vieux Lille is what stole my heart. Without even Googling it, it’s evident that the city has gone through quite a metamorphosis over the last 20 years or so. It is not the merchant city it once was, thanks to the decline of the Industrial Revolution from the 1960s and onward, but in the 1990s, the city began to take on a new face and hasn’t stopped making improvements.
The city center is vibrant, clean, pretty and architecturally charming. Shopping abounds, as do the multitudes of cafés and restaurants. The architecture, characterized by its 17th-century red brick town houses, is reminiscent of Brussels, London, New York and even Boston. One could see why an American might feel right at home there.
One of the nicest and oldest streets in Vieux Lille is rue de la Monnaie, starting from the Place Louise-de-Bettignies and continuing to the Place du Concert, from where it is extended by the rue de la Collégiale. The street owes its name to the Hôtel de la Monnaie established by Louis XIV and abolished in the middle of the 19th-century. It’s the only street mentioned in the 1066 Charter of Donation of Baldwin V to the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter, the first known document concerning the city.
Today it is lined with chic boutiques and specialty shops, including “Maison Meert,” a pastry shop founded in 1761. The shop is renowned for its confectionery specialties and pastries typical of the Lille region, such as waffles filled with Madagascar vanilla. The store and its frontage are classified as historical monuments, by order from August 5, 1980. As I was wandering down the street, I ran into our HHI crew, capturing the “contributors” sampling the pastries, as part of their “back story.”
Along my route, I passed by the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille, a Roman Catholic church and basilica, just behind rue de la Monnaie. The houses that line the back gardens of the cathedral own a little slice of heaven. I coveted their position in the center of town with so much greenery seen from their windows—also a spot few people even know exists. One must assume these are some of the most prized properties in town.
One district in which we taped, Vieux Lille West, around rue Saint André on route to the canal and the Citadel, at one time was not as classy and desirable as it is now—and will continue to improve, much like Le Marais has in Paris. You will find trendy bars and restaurants, industrial looking row-houses freshly painted, artisan boutiques and hipsters walking their dogs. A short walk into the historic center makes this a great new place to live. It was in this neighborhood that Charles-de-Gaulle was born, on November 22, 1890 at 9 rue Princesse in his maternal grandparents’ house. It’s now a museum and classified as a historical monument.
The arrival of the TGV and Eurostar has contributed to turning the city into an important hub between Paris, Brussels and London…so access to these cities is easy, fast and inexpensive. Travelers can easily hop a train in central Lille and be at any of those airports for international flights, making it very convenient for North Americans. Lille’s airport is considered international because of the flights to North Africa, but mostly the flights from Lille are within Europe and not to the western hemisphere.
The Flemish influence is as evident in Lille as is the Italian influence in Nice. Over dinner with a past client who has lived in Lille now for six years, she expanded on that idea by describing what it’s like to work with the Lillois who are culturally mixed. She explained that some approach things in a very Anglo Saxon way—”monochronic” and low texture culture with an emphasis on logic and facts, and others in a very French way—”polychronic” and high texture culture where the rules of communication are dominated by contextual elements such as body language, the social or familial status of an individual, and the tone of voice employed during speech. (To learn more about this, visit this site.)
She gave an excellent example. As a professor, and as an Anglo Saxon, she views her students’ grades as The Grades and if they don’t reach a certain grade level, they simply don’t pass. There is no discussion. For her French counterparts, they like to gather together to discuss each student’s performance, and the grades, can be overlooked if they “like” the student, or think the student can improve. For them, the facts matter a whole lot less than the way they feel about the student. She says the discussions can be quite comical…and frustrating…at least for her as an Anglo Saxon.
This mix of cultures makes Lille potentially a city in which Anglo Saxon expats can feel more comfortable. A lot of British visit the city, too, because of its proximity to England via the Eurostar, and that makes it easier for Americans because of language—so much English is spoken in Lille. I heard quite a lot of it everywhere, although they may have been tourists, not residents, at this time of year.
The Flemish influence over the cuisine is not high on my list of pluses. This is hearty food fit for the working class living in a cold, wet environment. Expect a lot of bread, meat and cheese in every classic dish. My client and I had dinner in an “estaminet” for Flemish classics like carbonnade flamande, gratin crèpes and fricandelles (a sort of minced-meat sausage)—Estaminet Chez La Vieille on rue du Gand with a traditional brick-lined dining room. This is one of the main streets of the Vieux Lille district and is lined with restaurants of this kind.
An estaminet was originally a drinking establishment, synonymous with a café or brasserie, but usually serving beer and also offering tobacco and traditional games. This type of restaurant is indigenous to Belgium and northern France and is part of the cultural heritage of northern European countries. We had excellent food in other types of eating establishments, however, so the LIllois do know how to cook. I wouldn’t starve, but now that I’m back in Nice, I am happy to be on my Mediterranean diet of fresh fish and vegetables once again!
During the week, an episode we had taped in February in Montpellier aired for the first time—“A Newlywed Homecoming in France”—Season 176, Episode 10. I had a chance to watch it early in the morning (late night in the U.S.) and take a few screenshots.
If you missed it, you can watch it now during a free trial. Click here.
Before leaving for the airport on Saturday, and just as we called my portion of the taping “a wrap,” the crew presented me with flowers and chocolate to thank me for my 50 episodes of House Hunters International service! I broke into tears; it was so touching. The flowers survived the flight home, but not a lot of the chocolate. Most got eaten since the flight back to Nice was delayed, making it awfully tough to resist!
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
P.S. Speaking of House Hunters International…You can easily view all of our past issues—all 49!—and check to see any re-airing dates. And, we will always let you know in our Nouvellettres® when any episodes are scheduled to air. Check them out on our HHI page.
Always enjoy your writing and your news, but the inclusion of the menu from the bistro in Lille said more than anyone could describe! Great great great choice to include and so fun–got the picture and want to order a couple of items just to taste them…
Thanks again, you did make the pandemic easier to bear. Enjoy the sun in Nice!
Always look forward to each Nouvelletre, but the timing of this one couldn’t have been better. We’ve got a couple of spare days, unexpectedly, at the beginning of October, and were wondering where to go. Now we do! We’ve never been to Lille–not by design, but purely by chance–and now can’t wait to go and explore it.
Many thanks once again for a great story (as usual!),