I’m in Lille. Yes, you heard right: Lille.
Since Jean-Baptiste had a few days with no work – the whole of working France comes to a stop round 15 August and goes to the seaside – we decided to to follow the crowd and hit the roads out of Paris as well. We hired a brand new VW Golf at the Gare du Nord, and headed off north with a precise plan in mind: a visit to Jean-Baptiste’s old friend, Didier, in the city of Lille where, a couple of decades ago J-B attended university, a trip to Berck-sur-mer on the coast to see Rosy have her latest race and, eventually, on the Tuesday, off in ‘direction Dunkerque’ to meet the MV Boularibank, which is due (when it decides it’s ready) to float me across the seas to New Zealand.
So, first of all, Lille. I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it had a top football team, I knew that it was a large northern city, and I had visions of a French version of the industrial parts of Hull or Newcastle-on-Tyne. But it isn’t like that at all. The coal mines and steel factories of northern France have long disappeared in the face of more modern industries and businesses, and the old central city of Lille – freshly emblazoned as the Cultural Capital of Europe -- is nothing less than a thing of beauty: an area of large squares, fascinating little streets, beautiful old buildings (although the town is ancient, the great surviving constructions are from C16th-C19th) and buzzing with life. I liked it enormously.
We spent our first evening – Jean-Baptiste, Didier, his friend Ali and I – eating the traditional northern moules and frites in the celebrated Chicorée Restaurant (‘open all night’!) on the Grande Place (the mussels mightn’t come up to NZ ones in size but they are very sweet) in the midst of a rainstorm, and wandering the streets of the old town. Once again, I was lucky in my guides, for Ali is a student of Art/History and was able to tell me exactly what I was looking at.
Friday dawned fine and, after a leisurely start, we all bundled into the Golf and set off for Berck-sur-mer. Berck-sur-mer actually is ‘on the sea’ and what it is, in effect, is the Blackpool of France. The once-upon-a-time workingman’s holiday resort. I have a feeling it hasn’t changed too much over recent years. The racetrack opens just for this holiday weekend and it is a decidedly jolly country fête.
Actually getting into Berck was a bit of a problem, with traffic jams being the order of the day, but we made it in plenty of time to meet up with Marion and Teresa and Rosy, and for me to introduce my team of novice racegoers to the basics of the game. Rosy was handicapped to 25 metres in her race. She began brilliantly and was soon hard up behind the leaders, but what we could not see from the stands was that the pretty green grass track was actually an absolute quagmire, that she was hating it, and before the last turn the poor girl was visibly struggling. So there was no happy ending to the raceday part of our story and, saying ‘a l’année prochaine’ to the Hue family, I swapped (figuratively) my racehorse owner’s hat for a Kiss-me-quick one and we headed off into the heart of Berck-sur-mer.
The most notable thing about Berck is, without doubt, its beach. You could fit Blackpool into it several times. The tide was out, and the vast expanses of real sand were covered with merry holidaymakers who were not obliged, because of the available space, to lie shoulder-to-shoulder. Donkeys have, these days, been superseded by more modern entertainments such as the ‘char à voile’, a vehicle pulled at considerable speed by a kite-sail and in which Jean-Baptiste showed a worrying but thankfully temporary interest.
We satisfied ourselves, instead, with a stroll along the sands in the sunshine, a few stops for food and beer, and, in sum, had nothing more nor less than a good old-fashioned visit to the extremely ‘populaire’ seaside, before pointing the Golf back -- rather sun-and-air-wearily -- back towards Lille.