If you are looking for a new angle on the well-trodden paths of France, then travel to the country’s borders.
These three melting-pot
cities showcase the best of France, while giving a tantalising glimpse into the
rest of Europe. Lille skims the Belgian border in the
north, Strasbourg grazes Germany to the east and Perpignan lies close to the southern border
with Spain. Each city shines a fresh light on
Gallic culture with unexpected flavours and simmering nightlife.
Lille: A party city with all you can eat
This city’s strong northern
accents and cool weather prompt plenty of good-natured ribbing from the rest of
France, but Lille has the last laugh. With chocolate-box-pretty town squares,
hearty Flemish-inspired cuisine and some truly original attractions, the city is
an overlooked gem.
Lille’s Palais des
Beaux-Arts has a world-class art collection, including pieces by
Rubens, Goya and Delacroix. But La
Piscine art gallery in Roubaix steals the show. Housed within an Art Deco
municipal swimming pool, 20 minutes by train from the city centre, it showcases
fine arts, applied arts and sculpture in a delightfully watery environment.
After mingling with the
cultured crowd, fuel up with a galette (buckwheat
pancake) at Le Galichon. This
understated but trendy eatery will serve you galettes stuffed with smoked
salmon, brie or gut-busting tartiflette (potatoes, cream, bacon and
Reblochon cheese). Burn it off by pounding the cobblestoned streets of
Vieux-Lille (the old town), perhaps with a sinful stop-off at macaroon-maker Patrick Hermand on rue Basse. These
almond biscuit treats come in a rainbow of flavours, from salt caramel to a
very jammy raspberry.
Lille springs to life at
night: taverns and brasseries start to fill from around 11 pm, when tourists
and locals share stories in the wooden-walled drinking holes off the Grand
Place and throughout Vieux-Lille. Try Le Bar Parallèle (41 rue Lepelletier, 03
20 55 40 33) for knockout
cocktails, creaking stairs and blatant disregard for the “no dancing” sign.
Finish your night with some mayonnaise-drenched frites in a 24-hour brassiere like La Chicorée (15 Place Rihour, 03
20 54 81 52).
Only one and a half hours
from London by Eurostar, this friendly city is a popular weekend break for
Brits, and it is a great location for onward travel to the Somme battlefields,
the gothic spires of Amiens or the chocolate-filled streets of Belgium. That
is, if you have any energy left after a fast-paced lillois weekend.
Strasbourg: Canalside walks at Europe’s heart
Strasbourg mixes cut-and-thrust
modernity with a rustic, village feel. As the seat of the European
Parliament, the city can be
packed with politicians during the week. But there is a gentler pace to the
city, with canalside strolls, an inspiring skyline, a thriving art scene and
stately gardens bedecked in flowers.
Locals get around on trams
and the Vélhop bicycle rental system, but Strasbourg’s main sights can be seen
easily on two feet. Start at the looming rust-hued Cathédrale
de Notre Dame in the middle of Strasbourg’s Grand Île. After
admiring this gothic masterpiece, make your way to the glassy canals of the Petite
France district to see the best of Strasbourg’s famous half-timbered
buildings and zebra-striped house fronts. To experience something slightly more
cutting-edge, head towards the Musée
d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, where the metallic exterior houses
plenty of artistic greats, like Monet, Picasso and Magritte.
works up quite a thirst, and its proximity to Germany means the local winstubs
(taverns) serve every shade of beer you can imagine. There is much to savour
for vinophiles too: wines from the Alsace region are famed for their dry,
complex character. But make sure you line your stomach with some dense Alsatian
cuisine, perhaps a sticky fondue at La Cloche a Fromage (27 rue des Tonneliers,
03 88 23 13 19).
When it is warm, race a
rowing boat across the water in Parc
de l’Orangerie and wander around the city’s free zoo. Come winter,
Strasbourg explodes in a cinnamony cloud of seasonal cheer, as Christmas
markets sprout around the cathedral. Think sparkling lights, spicy biscuits and
lashings of super-strength mulled wine.
From Strasbourg, it is only
a couple of hours by train to Stuttgart in Germany, or to Switzerland’s festival capital of Basel.
Perpignan: Catalan fortresses and festival flair
Finish your border
crawl in the beautiful south. Colourful Perpignan is nestled by the Pyrenees
mountains and -- at a mere three hours by train from Barcelona -- it is a great
stopping point if you are travelling between Spain and France.
Give the city some time to
shine. Scarlet and gold flags fly high across the turrets of Le
Castillet, a 14th-century gate and ex-prison. Step inside to ruminate on Perpignan’s Catalan heritage and be uplifted by superior
views of the city.
Drench yourself in more
history with a walk to the Palais
des Rois de Majorque. This blush-tinted 13th-century fortress dates
to when Perpignan was the capital of the Kingdom of Majorca.
People-watching is the
perfect way to unwind – pick a waterside eatery and chow down on
Spanish-influenced dishes and the freshest fish for miles: try a fancy fish
supper at Perpignan institution La
Better yet, time your visit
for July to experience “les jeudis de Perpignan”, a festival in which the
streets come to life every Thursday night with dancers, jugglers, pyrotechnic
theatrics and convivial drinking in the warm summer air. Expect to finish the
nights dazzled, covered in glitter and swearing to come back next year.
The article 'The best French border towns' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.