by Harry Pope
…So said our coach driver as we approached the drop-off point in Lille last Saturday, which was the first in December 2019. We had come from Eastbourne on the south coast for a day trip, with an allocated 4 ½ hours to be spent in France’s fourth city.
‘if you give the beggars any money, it will be given to their minder at the end of the day, who collects them in a mini coach to take them back to their basic accommodation.’ We were astounded at the number of these people, the majority of whom looked like they came from eastern Europe, ladies with babies sitting on the ground with a begging bowl. But they were not intrusive, we had a great time, starting with lunch.
Coach companies are obsessed with visiting chocolate factories, our drivers were no exception, so instead of direct through the tunnel to Lille, we went across the border into Belgium to a remote location in a side road with a small outlet called PJ’s. they did have part of their unit dedicated to chocolate manufacture, but I am not too sure if any machine’s red start button had been pressed during the year 2019. They had a fair degree of chocolate variety, with some free samples. Before we exited the coach, the co-driver told us not to help ourselves too greatly because ‘we have to come back here again and it looks bad on us if you help yourself to all the freebies.’ The fact that they were receiving some kind of incentive to bring fifty-odd passengers was overlooked.
We didn’t buy anything, making us in the minority.
It was a further ninety minutes to our destination, with the exhortation to enjoy the Christmas market. ‘we are dropping you off at a public bus stop, so we will be collecting you at 4.30pm sharp English time. Don’t bother re-setting your watches to French time, all times I give you will be English. Go down the road, it bends to the left, past the railway station which is called a Gare, you will see a big wheel. Just past is the market. Have a great day, don’t get lost.’
We walked past the station, found the main square with the big wheel, and beyond was the Christmas market. As we had been up since just gone four am, we had only eaten our marmalade rolls on the coach so were pretty peckish. Between the wheel and the market is an area full of restaurants, mainly with marquees outside sheltering gas heaters to keep patrons and their food warm, we waited in line for a table for two to become vacant. After quarter of an hour we were led up via narrow stairs at the rear of the main restaurant to a poky room on the first floor. At the very back was a small table for two, a long banquette with wall behind, and a high stool for the other patron. We sat, examined the menus, decided it was too uncomfortable, little room to appreciate a meal, and nothing on the menu that said ‘eat me’. No-one asked us why we were leaving, they were too busy scurrying to serve those who were comfortable in their surroundings.
We went the other side of the big wheel, finding a restaurant with another marquee, far less crowded, and there was a comfy table for two adjacent to a gas heater. The menu looked good, we sat. I had a glass of dry white wine, Pam was desperate for a refreshing coffee, which was superb. Complimentary water and bread, I had tartiflette, which came in an earthenware oval dish. It was small potatoes cooked with bacon/ham, onions, and melted raclette cheese. Superb. Pam had three shrimp coquettes, with an accompanying salad with small grey shrimps. Delicious. A reasonable £32 after converting from euros.
We looked at the big wheel, decided against. The December winds looked stronger up there, the wheel stopped frequently to allow passengers to sit, then went pretty fast once full. Our days of fairground adventure are sadly gone. It was through to the market, with security tight before entering. What a lot of people. All you could do was shuffle forward as you kept your hand on your wallet. Lots of food stalls, no shortage of people stopping to buy Christmas items such as baubles, souvenirs, decorations, and we did buy at a lovely stall that sold small squares containing a candle, that when the heat rose it turned the eye-catcher above. Quite a reasonable 14 euros. The ancient lady stall-holder had a twinkle in her lined face that would make you take a bite from a poisoned apple.
We still had time to kill, so sat in the station for almost an hour, watching the world go by. We saw a family of seven, two women and five children of varying ages, work through begging, with some success. We found the bus stop without complication, our coach arrived, then it was off to the Calais wine warehouse. This sold alcohol from many countries as well as France, we bought what we wanted, then back onto the coach.
Another passenger was talking to the co-driver on the return journey, he and his wife were on another day trip tomorrow. This time to Bruges, in Belgium. One long day sitting on a coach was uncomfortable but bearable because we had enjoyed a good day out. But another to immediately follow, this was self-imposed perdition.