A Lille beauty
Lille's traditional pattiseries and bars are as popular as ever. Lille has about 900 restaurants. Picture: Steve McKenna

These days, you can get from London to Paris in two hours and 16 minutes without even leaving the ground. The Eurostar really is a modern marvel.

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But while it's tempting to whizz straight between the two famous capitals, via the Channel Tunnel, I find it's good to take a break at the one hour and 22 minute mark (if coming from London's St Pancras station), for this is when the train pulls into lovely Lille.

Although it doesn't have the kind of world-famous, heart-melting sights that Paris specialises in, Lille makes up for it in other ways - and not only because it's less pretentious, far kinder on the wallet and free of pestering touts. Its outskirts are clogged with ugly industrial sites but Lille's centre is a beauty.

A pleasant 10-minute walk from the Gare de Lille Europe station (from which high-speed trains also head to Brussels), and past its adjacent, futuristic-looking hyper-market, I find the city's heartbeat.

Lille's centre flaunts some ornate Flemish-French architecture and atmospheric alleyways. Picture: Steve McKenna

Fringed with beautifully ornate 17th and 18th century buildings, Place du General de Gaulle is named after France's legendary president, who was born in Lille in 1890. Today, people are casually ambling across it munching freshly-baked baguettes (which smell absolutely delicious), while filling the air with those wonderfully polite French greetings ('Bonjour Madame!' 'Bonjour Monsieur!'). It's hard to believe you could be somewhere so different from London, so quickly, without flying.

Not that Lille is the most typically French of cities. Lying just 20km from the Belgian border, it was once part of the County of Flanders, which encompassed swathes of northern France and Dutch/Flemish-speaking Belgium. And both French and Flemish influences seep through Lille's make-up, infusing everything from its diverse gastronomy to its glorious architecture. A prime example of this enticing French-Flemish hybrid is Vieux Lille, an old labyrinth of cobbled streets, winding alleyways and quaint little squares.

Perfect for sauntering through. The neighbourhood is full of restored old Flemish guild-houses, which had been built with the proceeds of the booming medieval wool trade, but which are now home to boutique clothes stores, art and antique galleries and an astonishing number of places in which to eat, drink and be merry.

Some of the family-run patisseries and chocolatiers serve croissants, sweets and waffles that are almost too tasty to be true and, not surprisingly, they attract long queues that stretch out into the streets.

Lille has about 900 restaurants in all, including scores of typically sophisticated French bistros and brasseries, plus a lively Aussie joint, Cafe Oz. But I'm drawn to the traditional Flemish establishments, which, in these parts, are called estaminets. Popular with locals, T'Rijsel oozes character and doubles as a cosy pub and restaurant, with home-brewed beers and hearty, meat-heavy Flemish fare on the menu.

At my rustic candle-lit wooden table, I take in the ambiance while savouring a delicious Pot'je Vleesch (a terrine of chicken, veal and rabbit) with draught blonde Ch'ti beer. Later, I check out Omnia, a bar-restaurant with a fantastic cocktail and wine selection, a colourful history and more of a French feel. The interior - characterised by seductive red lighting and cushioned booths - looks as if it were designed by the people behind Moulin Rouge and the waitress tells me how it was once a theatre, then a brothel and, finally, a porn cinema before flourishing in its current incarnation.

There's a eye-catching new sculpture near Lille's Eurostar rail hub. Picture: Steve McKenna
Lille has several cultural sights worth exploring, including the Palais des Beaux-Arts, which showcases, among many others, Flemish and Dutch masters such as Van Dyck and Rubens. It's regarded as France's best fine arts museum after Paris' Louvre.

Elsewhere, Lille's sublime neo-classical opera house regularly hosts concerts and dance performances; there's an interesting museum about President de Gaulle in the house in which he was born; and the city's unusual Notre-Dame cathedral melds an ageing neo-Gothic body with a striking modern facade.

Flea markets are another of Lille's attractions. On Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings markets are held in the working-class residential area, Quartier de Wazemmes.

Over the first weekend of September, La Braderie - said to be Europe's biggest flea market - attracts more than a million visitors. At this event, it's a tradition to scoff a dish of moules frites - mussels served with fries - and the town's restaurants compete to see who can build the highest mountain of empty mussel shells.

There are plenty of highlights on Lille's edges, including the WWI battlefields and cemeteries. Ypres, which is just across the Belgian border, is the most famous, but the tiny French village of Fromelles (17 km west of Lille) has a new war-grave site that commemorates hundreds of dead British and Australian soldiers. Their bodies had been dumped in mass graves by German troops after the 1916 Battle of Fromelles, only to be rediscovered by archaeologists in 2008. You'll need to hire a car - or join a tour - to visit these sights.

If you prefer modern art to war history, hop on Lille's cool driver-less Metro to reach the town of Roubaix, home to one of France's quirkiest museums. Housed in a former municipal swimming pool, La Piscine hosts exhibits and paintings in old shower cubicles and bathrooms, while the centrepiece is the old pool itself. Lined on each side by impressive statues and sculptures, it's bathed in light from two beautiful stained-glass windows, casting a red and orange glow over the room.

La Piscine is quite a spectacle and, for me, a nice way to round off a stopover full of pleasant surprises. Next stop: Paris.


FACT FILE

• Eurostar offers one-way fares from London to Lille from $60 (£39) or return from $106. eurostar.com. TGV trains run regularly from Lille to Paris.
tgv.com

• The Couvent des Minimes Alliance, a four-star hotel set in a gorgeous former 17th century convent, offers doubles from around $207. alliance-lille.com

• T'Rijsel is at 25 Rue de Gand. estaminetrijsel.com. Omnia, is at 9 Rue Esquermoise; omnia-restaurant.com

• Lille Tourist Office organises a Flanders battlefields tour from Lille to Ypres in English every Saturday from April to December: $51 per person. lilletourism.com

The West Australian

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