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'Just 90 minutes on Eurostar and I was at de Gaulle's birthplace (shame it was closed!)': Author Hunter Davies takes a bargain weekend break to Lille by train

  • The Mail on Sunday's Hunter Davies got a weekend break to Lille for £254
  • The break, for two people, included one night in a four-star hotel 
  • It also included return tickets on Eurostar from London St Pancras Station 

Over the tannoy at St Pancras Station came a message telling Eurostar passengers that they could upgrade to standard premier for only £39 – and get a free meal on board. Sounded good. After all, I was on a bargain trip. I could afford to splash out.

I could hardly believe the deal when a friend came across it – £254 for two people for one night in a four-star hotel in Lille, plus return tickets on Eurostar.

I suspected the hotel would turn out to be a pension on a roundabout, but as I had never been to Lille, I thought why not?

City of elegance: Sightseers wander through Grand Place in the centre of Lille

City of elegance: Sightseers wander through Grand Place in the centre of Lille

Eurostar is now the quickest, easiest and nicest route to almost anywhere in Europe. 

It takes just 90 minutes to reach the French city from London, whizzing along at up to 185mph. Getting to Brighton often takes longer.

I remember as a lad going on a school trip to Amiens from Carlisle which took all day and night.

More than 30 years ago, when the Channel Tunnel – which had been planned since Napoleonic times – looked like becoming a reality at last, I bought my three children shares in the tunnel company. 

Blend of old and new: Hunter said the hotel in Lille, the Couvent des Minimes (pictured above), turned out to be brilliant with beautiful brick-vaulted cloisters and a huge courtyard

Blend of old and new: Hunter said the hotel in Lille, the Couvent des Minimes (pictured above), turned out to be brilliant with beautiful brick-vaulted cloisters and a huge courtyard

They cost just £100 each, and came with the promise that when the tunnel did open, shareholders would get a free trip to Paris. What a con!

Yes, they were eventually offered a free trip, but they had to take it when the company said, which was always in the middle of winter. 

None of my children ever took up the free ride.

A statue of French general and statesman, Charles de Gaulle

A statue of French general and statesman, Charles de Gaulle

But Eurostar has turned out a marvellous success, even more so now that airports are hell. My ambition in life is never to go to Stansted or Luton again. 

All those people, the noise, the queues, the chaos at security. 

Airports can often put four hours extra on your journey – one hour to get there, and three hours to get through the madness and on to the plane.

It was the euphoria of an easy journey to France, and the fact that the trip was going to be so cheap, that I went mad and upgraded, handing over my £39, getting confirmation that I would get a meal on the train, plus wine. 

That’s not cheap for a meal, but sitting in a posh coach and scoffing delicious food… what could be better?

However, nothing appeared until we had exited the tunnel – and then it turned out to be a croissant and a roll, still semi-frozen. 

I refused to eat it and called for the manager. 

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He said there was never lunch on this train, only continental breakfast. 

I made him write down my details and showed him the receipt. Then I forgot all about it.

The hotel in Lille, the Couvent des Minimes, turned out to be brilliant. 

A converted 17th Century convent on the edge of the Old Town, it was artistic, gracious and quiet, with beautiful brick-vaulted cloisters and a huge courtyard.

Lille itself was also a surprise – not at all industrial as I had imagined. 

The Old Town was enormous, and took an hour just to walk across, through elegant squares and cobbled streets featuring massive Flemish-style public buildings, churches and monuments.

Almost every place on the globe has a famous person who was born there, so I was delighted to discover that probably the most famous Frenchman of the modern age – Charles de Gaulle – was born in Lille.

I set off with my map to find his house, which is open to the public. It was closed, it being Tuesday. I just laughed. 

The daftness of closing on Monday and Tuesday in the summer season.

Lille does have a nice sense of being unpushy, not flash or tourist-obsessed, letting you discover it rather than hitting you over the head with its wonders.

Then a lovely thing happened on the way back. 

My complaints to Eurostar had worked, for when I checked in I found I had been upgraded to the top class, business premier. 

Food and wine all the way home! Merveilleux!

Hunter Davies’s latest memoirs, A Life In The Day, is published by Simon & Schuster at £16.99.

TRAVEL FACTS

Eurostar (eurostar.com) offers one-way fares from London to Lille from £29. 

Superbreak (superbreak.com, 0800 042 0288) offers a two-night B&B break at the Hotel Couvent des Minimes from £225 per person, including rail travel.

Tags Travel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR celebrityrave

Journalist, writer and broadcaster, based in London and Paris, her latest book is Touché: A French Woman's Take on the English. Read more articles from Agnes.

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Everyone went outside to smoke cloves and bitch about having to stay after for the State.

Jon Stewart on events following Charles — January 19, 1999