Get a Feel for Lille; All the Things That France Does Best - from Food to Architecture to .Ne Art - Can Be Found Just Two Hours from London. Genevieve Fox Gets the Lille Deal

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Lille is perfect for a day trip. It is even better for a one-night mini-break, not least because you can then spend the night in a cell, and a swanky one at that. The four-star L'Hermitage Gantois is a refurbished hospice, once run by nuns. The result is an upmarket retreat, complete with chapel and library, cloisters and a courtyard that has now been turned into a funky bar and lounge. For decor, think Louis XV meets Philippe Starck.

L'Hermitage is a two-minute walk from the biggest prize in Lille, the Palais des Beaux-Arts.

Otherwise there is nothing good about the location, a dreary ten-minute walk from the main square, La Grande Place.

The Palais des Beaux-Arts is a dream. It's got the reputation, rightly, as France's second museum after the Louvre. It feels small, doable. Yet the journey it takes you on, from the Middle Ages through to the Renaissance and beyond, is breathtaking. Brueghel, Bosch, Rubens and Goya are all wonderfully represented here, but there is something for everyone, including a large entrance hall housing contemporary works.

It was so hot, as soon as we were turfed out of the museum we dangled our feet in the fountain in the Place de la Republique before sauntering off to Vieux Lille. This is where the best bars, restaurants and boutiques are, as well as historical pit-stops. The distinctive mixture of Flemish, art nouveau and gabled architecture is enchanting.

We stopped for a citron presse at le Square d'Aramis, a small bar on Rue Basse that looked modern on the outside but had that bistro-cosiness on the inside. You can watch people go in and out of the old haberdashery shop opposite or walk past with designer shopping bags picked up on the historic Rue de la Grande Chaussee, Lille's answer to Bond Street.

That night we had a sensational dinner at L'Huitriere, a Michelinstarred .sh restaurant a stone's throw from the cathedral. It seems to me that if you are only whizzing in and out of

France, it is your duty to eat memorably. I can still remember my crab ravioli in a sharp consomme and the heavenly .rst bite of my baked strawberry souf.e. I would go back to Lille just to eat here again.

The next day we walked down to the 17th-century Jesuit college, the old military hospital and the Citadel. The aim was to work off a breakfast so large les Bon Soeurs of the Hermitage Hotel would be tutting in their graves.

It was with some guilt, then, that we stole into the 17th-century Couvent Minimes by the Quai du Wault, the city's former port, for refreshments. The convent is now the trendy Alliance Hotel, a .ne spot for an evening drink or prix .xe lunch, though not a patch on our considerably more intimate Hermitage. …


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