Lille is now within my earth-hugging travel preferences these days, thanks to those splendid fellows at Eurostar. Consequently I don’t have to put my trust in 5000 gallons of aviation fuel to behave itself whilst it sloshes around between two red hot engines. It was also thanks to Eurostar that I found myself travelling to Lille, from their brand new station at Ebbsfleet, for a mere £30 day-return.
Ebbsfleet is a newly-named area that doesn’t even exist on the maps as yet. It occupies a patch of the marshy, no-man’s land between Greenhithe and Northfleet in North Kent. If World War One had ever made it across the channel, then this would have been the area that nobody really wanted but they’d have spent four muddy years fighting over.
Such is the sogginess of the land that in the past the only things that would have been here would have been wading birds and oil-slicks. However thanks to the draining of the marshes, and the shooting of the wading birds, there’s now a brand new train station sitting atop this former swamp.
A word of caution though, if you were planning to fuel your early start at this recently opened bog-raft with a wonderfully greasy fried breakfast. All that’s on offer is a Costa-Lot coffee to be washed down with one of their undersized muffins, and not much change from a tenner for the privilege. With the surrounding area being full of crocodiles and swamp-sprites there’s no chance of a local greasy-spoon sizzling up some sausages for you either. So bring your own frying-pan and camping-gaz stove for the departure lounge.
Eurostar claimed that Lille could be reached in a piddling 75 minutes from Ebbsfleet. This is thanks to their super new tracks which have withdrawn the need for a man with a red flag to walk in front of the train whilst it is still in Britain. I somewhat doubted their proud boast as I was sure they hadn’t realised that Lille is actually in another country, and a country that is all the way off in a different continent called Europe.
My suspicions were confirmed as were delayed by an hour. This was due to a train being stuck in the tunnel because a handful of asylum seekers had chosen that day to make a mass attempt to live with the bad food, bad weather and bad temper of England as opposed to luxuriating in the exquisite continental delights that they’d been enjoying in France. I can understand why it took an hour to sort out. Being hit by a high-speed train whilst walking through a pitch-black tunnel, holding hands and whistling ‘The Great Escape’, is going to make a bit of a mess.
Lille is very small, although it claims to be France’s fourth biggest city. I think it is fibbing. Even the metro is like a totally automated toy-train with plastic carriages that are only six feet wide. The platforms are three times as long as the trains. So it is quite possible to be stood at one end of the platform and for whoever is operating the Hornby-controller to sneak the train in quietly at the other end, and then scoot it off again by the time you’ve run down the platform. The tiny train is only half the story of the city, because Lille has neither size nor quality. So when compared to the cultural colossus of Paris, Lille appears like a bad-tempered midget.
The state of the city’s art gallery is symbolic of Lille as a whole. They have a wonderful van Gogh painting of some cows. Unfortunately it is languishing at the end of a dimly-lit corridor and hanging on a stained hessian wall. Most curators would kill for this picture and make it their star-attraction. A further ignominy is then committed, by the half-wit that runs this gallery, when you get to the gallery shop and find that they stock only square postcards that will fit no known postcard album. Even worse it means that one of van Gogh’s cows has had its buttocks excised in order to fit this draconian square format. So pity poor old van Gogh, mad as a hatter and suffering for his art, spending all week on this painting only for some philistine to come along a hundred years later and decide that this cow’s arse doesn’t fit his new postcard regime.
To me that little act of artistic vandalism summed Lille up and until it gets its act together it’s alright for a morning’s mooching, a long lunch and an afternoon fuming about where the bovine bum went. Then get yourself home in time for tea.