With the first holidays in France coming up (les vacances de la Toussaints), I thought that I would share with you some of my travels here on this blog. Considering that I traveled quite a bit during my first year as an assistante d’anglais, I hope to give you a glimpse of what I had experienced beyond the photos that I had taken and shared with friends and family, and perhaps even give some tips on how to budget travel, places to see and do, and everything in between.
Without further ado, let’s get to the first!
During my two-week vacation last October (called les vacances de la Toussaints, or “All Saint’s Holiday”), I started it off by visiting Lille, the fifth most-populated city in France, located way up in the north near the Belgium border. It was on my bucket list of places to visit whilst in the country, so I thought why not? Plus, I had plans to hop over to Belgium afterwards, so it was convenient just to pass through this Flemish city.
How did I get to Lille? Even with reduced prices from my carte de jeune train pass, it was still way too expensive to take the train up from Normandy, where I was living at the time. I also hadn’t been paid yet for my assistante work (not until the very end of October), so money was limited for a big trip elsewhere.
Instead, I did BlaBlaCar, a French-based app in which you, literally, carpool with strangers to the same destination, at a cost significantly less than trains, airplanes, or buses- some as much as 50 percent! Consider it as a form of hitch-hiking, and while it sounds very iffy at first (I admit, I was reluctant to do so, since it was my first time), I ensure you that, as long as you read the profiles and go with your gut feeling, you will avoid any shady/dangerous drivers and be totally fine. I did BlaBlaCar many times during my first year in France, and I can say that I had no problems at all. Then again, it depends on you, so you’re not obliged to go with it if you don’t feel comfortable!
Any case, I got a BlaBlaCar ride from a couple, who were super nice and we spent the three-and-a-half hour ride from the Normandy region to Lille chatting a bit about each other and whatnot. Super-nice couple, and you can bet that I left them a good review on the app!
We arrived in Lille around noontime and I actually ended up spending the afternoon with them, since they were also there to explore the city. They had made reservations at a “traditional” Flemish restaurant, and they were kind enough to call ahead and include me in with them for lunch. We headed over to the restaurant, or rather, tavern. Seriously, the place was tiny, with rustic, wooden decorations all around, too, which made me feel like I was transported back to the 15th century. Very cozy, if you know what I mean.
For lunch, I ordered la carbonnade flamande, a dish originally from Belgium, but has since passed over to the Flanders region in northern France. Essentially, it’s a hearty beef stew drenched in tons of beer (a specialty up in the North) and served with fries, which had been double-fried and was amazing. Not necessarily good for the diet, but in the cold, almost-wintry months of October, who cares?!
Afterwards, I spent the afternoon wandering around the old town of Lille with my BlaBlaCar drivers. While I’m no architecture expert, I admire all forms of buildings, shapes and sizes, and I usually make it my goal to visit places with architecture that strike me. Lille’s did not disappoint!
Aside from the popular attractions such as the Grand Place, Palais Rihour, and la Cathédrale de Notre Dame de la Treille, I really loved just wandering the narrow, winding cobblestone streets of the old town and admiring everything about the place!
After a few hours of walking around Lille, I was starting to feel a bit tired and wanted to head over to check in at my hostel and relax. I said goodbye to my BlaBlaCar drivers, thanking them for taking me over and allowing me to spend the day with them, and then I walked over to my hostel, located about 15 minutes from the old town.
Just like with BlaBlaCar, that was my first time staying in a hostel, and I didn’t know what to expect from it. But I got there, checked in, and was promptly given the keys to my room, so there was no problem at all. I got the top bunk (I prefer the bottom for easy access to get out of bed and to the bathroom/outside), but I accepted it. What striked me about the hostel room that I got was that, aside from sharing it with seven or so other people, it was quite spacious with a sort of hardware-store feeling to it (e.g. grey walls, metal bunk beds, wooden floors) and my locker underneath made a super-loud noise whenever I pulled it out to put/take out my stuff. And aside from the fact that it got pretty loud and crowded in the lobby-bar area that night (I was too tired to partake in it), I thought my first experience in a hostel was all right; not the greatest, but good enough.
Although I was having fun, I was also pretty stressed: I was only in Lille for one night before I needed to head over to Belgium, my next destination for vacation. I hadn’t reserved transportation yet and I was worried that I wouldn’t get anything, let alone on a budget. I tried looking into BlaBlaCar again, but either the times weren’t optimal (leaving super early or super late in the day) or over-priced. That said, I decided to head over to the train station in the evening to buy a ticket at the machines, but somehow it didn’t work, and so I ended up heading back to my hostel, used the computers there to book my tickets, and printed them out for the next day. I was heading to Bruges, but had to transfer at Brussels (which I would visit later), since unfortunately there are no direct trains over there. The tickets came out to 34 euros, which was crazy expensive just to hop the border; I found out later that I shouldn’t have booked with SNCF (the French train system) and should have opted for the Belgium trains instead, which had tickets significantly cheaper than the French’s. That was a huge regret on my part, but I’ve learned to forgive myself, considering that in those circumstances, I just didn’t know.
With transportation issues resolved, I went to bed and woke up early the next morning to check out and explore the rest of Lille before I needed to catch the train to Belgium. It was a Sunday that day, and so the whole city was pretty much silent- I’m not kidding. I was even able to jay-walk a couple of times through several round-abouts, because let’s face it, they are an obstacle for pedestrians. Many of the shops were closed, but I happen to get myself a white chocolate merveilleux (a meringue confection originally from Belgium) at one of the patisseries opened that day. While I’m not a huge meringue fan, I found the pastry delicate and quite tasty, even if it was literally just sugar and air!
I also walked over to see the iconic Belfry of Lille, which is attached to the city hall and is the tallest tower in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region in France:
Finally, I visited the Beaux Arts de Lille, or the Fine Arts Museum of Lille; I had heard that there was a good collection of Impressionist paintings, which I absolutely love, but unfortunately, I found the visit to be a bit disappointing since I didn’t really see a ton of them and had paid 4 euros for a 45-minute visit (which isn’t much, I know, but again, I was on a budget!).
Any case, I had to catch the train to Belgium shortly thereafter, so I left the museum and headed straight for gare de Lille-Europe, the train station that serves international destinations. Got my reserved tickets at the ticket office, boarded the train, and was off to Belgium.
In total, I would say that Lille was a good destination to start off my first holidays in France, even though I found the whole experience to be modest (I blame the grey, wintry weather, which is often associated with northern France, anyway). I think one visit was good enough, but should I decide to return to the very north of France anytime soon, I wouldn’t mind passing through Lille again!
That said, I’ll be posting more of my old travels during les vacances de la Toussaints soon. Look out for them! Until then, à bientôt!