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Published: September 4th 2018
We have been in France before and for an extended period. On that trip we had a vehicle and spent most of our time in the smaller towns, villages and rural areas. A week or so in Paris is our only real experience of a French city. This time we decided to use the trains as our primary means of transport and check out some of the cities. Not too many, though. We prefer to move along slowly and take our time to have a look around.
Lille is relatively close to the Netherlands and Belgium and is, therefore, the first French city we would come to. We had a bit to do at our first French railway station. We needed to collect rail tickets bought on-line, and organise and pay for our French Seniors Card. These are available to anyone over 60 and provide reductions on train travel of 25%. They cost 60 Euros each though so you need to look at your numbers. Booking and buying early is still the best way to find a good deal.
On our last trip to France we had a car and we tended to stay out of the cities, partly,
I will admit, because I wasn't keen on driving in those tight old city streets with impatient other drivers putting the pressure on. In this area, though, we did spend some time moving around the WW1 and WW2 sites of most significance to Australians in Flanders, and more generally. We were able, on that visit, to find the grave of a great uncle of the Kirkham clan.
It was a 4 hour journey from Breda to Lille. One change of trains in Antwerp and not on a train that was especially fast but we travelled out of the Netherlands, through Belgium and into France. Just down the road really.
We came into Gare Lille de Flandres and it was immediately apparent that we were in another country. Not bad at all, just different. In a new place it is handy to appreciate as soon as you can how things are done, so you pay attention. Outside the railway station (the Gare) we needed to cross the road. It was obviously a road because there were cars and buses on it but, other than a line of relatively slender bollards, it looked exactly the same as the footpath or
the station forecourt. There were traffic lights and pedestrian lights. The one facing us was red but people were happily moving through the crossing. There weren't that many vehicles on the road but the few that were there at the time seemed largely unworried by having to share the area, nor much concerned about the lights.
After dutifully waiting at the red light we crossed the road and commenced our normal discussion about the direction of the hotel and whether Google Maps was pointing us in the right direction. Immediately, a passing stranger stopped and offered assistance. This doesn't always happen and, if it did, there would be a chance that we would have such discussions less publicly. It was, nevertheless, helpful and much appreciated. Neither our friendly guide nor us spotted the large flashing sign indicating our hotel about 40 metres away from where we were standing.
Obviously, you can't generalise too much on a couple of instances but they do provide an indication of some possible differences between France and the Netherlands. Whereas in the Netherlands people tend to follow the rules fairly well, in France things are a little more loose or relaxed. If you
seek assistance in the Netherlands it will be enthusiatically provided, in France there is a good chance it might be offered if you look like you need it.
In many cities the centre or old towns, sometimes the same place and normally close to each other, are the places to which tourists tend to gravitate. I have seen some recent articles that suggest that there are cities that would like to keep tourists to those areas so that numbers can be more controlled and the country can handle large numbers more easily. Of course, in some places, there is only much interest by visitors in the 'old cities' or places where the history of a place can be seen and enjoyed, but I suspect that it will be difficult to keep tourists solely in such precincts.
Lille has its own history, often of conflict, being taken over by the Romans, Spanish, Germans, French, and sometimes on multiple occasions. These changes are reflected in the building programs over the ages. This has led to some interesting juxtaposition of different architectural styles.
Lille's old city seems to have a real role in the city as the place where major
markets and celebrations are held and is also clearly the place where young people come to play. There is plenty of life in the area with lots of restaurants, bars and coffee houses. We also walked areas that were more residential. These were less lively, as you would expect, but still very attractive. The Centre is close by and is as modern and as any city we have visited in Europe. All of the stores you would expect are there and shopping would appear to be good. We were more interested in reducing our load rather than adding extras.
There weren't any walking tours in English in Lille when we visited but we were able to take a city tour by bus. This took us on a trip more widely than the old city and was successful in demonstrating to us that Lille has taken substantial steps to set itself up to take a strong leadership role in its region. While maintaining historical buildings it has also established a 3 hectare park in the middle of the city providing some useful green space.
One thing that struck us about Lille - and it may have had a lot
to do with where we were staying - is the number of students, particularly university students in the city. There are a number of universities in the city and a lot of them were having their 'orientation week' or 'integration week' in the couple of days we were there. Restaurants were full of proud parents and excited young people.
One of the features that struck us initially in Lille was the level of preparation for possible attacks by those wanting to cause trouble for everyone. We had become accustomed in the Netherlands to the sight of heavily armed police and military wandering in small groups through the streets. In Lille we had the same presence of the police and military but also large concrete barriers ringing the railway station and lots of other bollards on the streets, partly to control traffic and partly, possibly, to prevent speeding cars from doing excessive damage.
We were also impressed at the amount of development going on around the Gare Lille de Flandres and Gare Europe which is basically next door and houses the fast train station - the TGV. A large shopping mall has been incorporated into this development. A handy
place on a rainy day waiting for a train.
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