Walks on the GR221 around Soller, Majorca

Fresh orange juice, gnarled olive trees and a cloudless sky. Can I tempt you to walk the GR221?

The GR221, also known as the Dry Stone route, is an 87 mile trail that runs across the Serra de Tramuntana from Port d’Andratx to Pollença in Majorca. Although the GR221 is a relatively new route it often follows old cobbled paths between the olive terraces, hence its name.

Olive groves, GR221
Olive groves, GR221

Rather than walk the path in its entirety we based ourselves in Soller and spent three days combining parts of the trail with other local walks. We used a combination of the Sunflower Mallorca guide and a locally bought Soller 1:15000 hiking map and guide to plan our walks.

1. Deia to Soller (Sunflower guide – walk 13, 6.2 miles)

Our first walk on the GR221 was a great introduction to the trail.  It offered a variety of scenery; sea views, shaded woodland and olive groves. And cake.

From Soller we took the bus to Deia, a 25 minute ride up and over the windy hillside for the grand sum of 1.55 euros each. Some walkers choose to walk from Soller to Deia but there’s a risk the bus will be full on the return journey.

Cala de Deia
Cala de Deia

Leaving Deia we walked downhill towards the coast, diverting onto the GR221 before we reached the beach. If you’re following this walk I do recommend a detour down to the cove, Cala de Deia. We originally missed this out so returned a few days later to visit. There’s a couple of restaurants on the beach, one of which starred in The Night Manager back in 2016.

Leaving Deia on the GR221
Leaving Deia on the GR221

Back on the GR221 the path is straightforward and relatively easy going but you do need to keep your eyes on the ground as there are stones aplenty to trip you up.

Much of the early walk is in the shade, passing under holm oaks and beside huge boulders. We quickly became acquainted with the Spanish love of wire fencing and keep out signs.

Olive trees on the GR221
Olive trees on the GR221

About an hour after leaving Deia we reached my highlight of the walk, Son Mico Finca. Yes, a cake stop! We sat on the outside terrace and between us sampled chocolate and pear tart, lemon meringue pie and orange tart. All were amazing, but the coffee less so (stick to the orange juice). Be aware the toilet doesn’t have a sink so bring hand sanitiser.

Coffee and cake at Son Mico
Coffee and cake at Son Mico

After leaving Son Mico we walked down the cobbled path, eventually passing a 13th century chapel. According to the guidebook this is in ruins but it looked newly restored to me. Either that or we found the wrong chapel.

View from the GR221, near Soller
View from the GR221, near Soller

This walk is justifiably popular. This brings with it the very British problem of how to address walkers coming in the other direction. We stuck to Hola but after you realise most of the hikers are German it’s tempting to use Hallo. Actually, we always knew when Spanish hikers were approaching, they were the ones dressed in down jackets, hats and thick trousers!

Following the Cami des Rost to Soller
Following the Cami des Rost to Soller

Leaving the GR221 we took the path towards Soller, finally emerging on the town’s ring road. Despite the earlier cake there was still space for an ice cream so we headed into town to sample the locally made orange and lemon delicacies.

2. Es Barranc circuit (Sunflower guide – walk 17, 4 miles)

This was the shortest walk we followed in our Sunflower guide but it was quite tough going due to the combination of afternoon heat and a strenuous ascent. That said, the spectacular views made up for the extra effort.

From Soller we walked to the village of Biniaraix where we stopped for a drink in the village square. Leaving the shade behind we followed the GR221 Cami d’es Barranc for a few minutes, stopping frequently to admire the views back over the village.

Biniaraix, Majorca
Biniaraix, Majorca

The guidebook described a turn on to the Cami Vell a Cuber opposite a carob tree. This helpfully answered one of my son’s questions, namely what are the things on the floor that look like black banana skins? Answer, carob pods. Native to the Mediterranean the pods can be used as a substitute for chocolate; the pulp from the pods is ground to make locust bean gum.

Our path took us high above the ravine, zigzagging up through the olive trees and stone terraces. Another mystery required an answer. Why does every olive tree have a bottle hanging from it? Fortunely you can still get 4G in the mountains. Answer, they’re a deterrent for the olive fruit fly.

View from Cami Vell de Cuber
View from Cami Vell de Cuber

Our walking map offered a short diversion to Cova de ses Alfabies. Leaving the cobbled stone path we followed blue dots painted on stone to a large overhanging cliff where water drips from the ceiling into clay pots. These have somehow petrified into the rock; I’ve no idea how old they are but in my imagination they are of Roman origin!

Clay pot, Cova de ses Alfabies
Clay pot, Cova de ses Alfabies

Back on the olive terrace a new game was invented en route; guess the famous person. Potentially a minefield when your teens think famous people are social media and YouTube stars. Oh the generation gap.

After trekking uphill in the afternoon sun we finally crossed a pass and began to descend into some welcome shade, soon reaching a small waterfall. Time for a paddle and photo stop.

Waterfall, near GR221, Cami d’es Barranc
Waterfall, near GR221, Cami d’es Barranc

Heading downhill we rejoined the GR221 Cami d’es Barranc for the descent to Biniaraix. The path runs down the ravine beside a stream which was dry during our visit but must be spectacular after heavy rain.

Walking the Cami d’es Barranc
Walking the Cami d’es Barranc

Back in Biniaraix we stopped for another much needed drink. We’d drank all of our water by this time; this is definitely a consideration if you’re walking in the warmer months.

The road back into Soller took us past orange and lemon trees, flowering wisteria and the occasional cactus. Idyllic, although the lack of footpaths means you need to keep your wits about you!

3. Walk around Cuber reservoir to L’Ofre (Sunflower guide – walk 20, 7.4 miles)

This circular walk started from the car park at Cuber reservoir. We drove but it’s also possible to take the once daily bus (April to October) or a taxi. This is the easiest option if you want to walk the classic route down to Biniaraix.

Walking beside Cuber reservoir
Walking beside Cuber reservoir

From the car park there’s a great view of Puig Major, the highest mountain on Majorca. It’s off limit to walkers as it’s a military base, with a large bulbous radar tower on top. I can easily imagine it as a villain’s lair in a James Bond film!

Cuber reservoir, Majorca
Cuber reservoir, Majorca

On this walk the GR221, took us along the northern edge of the Cuber reservoir. The reservoir provides water to Palma so there are strict rules; no swimming, fishing or boating. The waters were crystal clear, albeit with fully grown trees emerging from it. I can only assume the water levels were higher than usual due to the winter rains.

As we walked a couple of red kites flew above us. Impressive, but as we live in Oxfordshire we’re used to seeing these birds. Instead we were on the lookout for a much larger bird, the black vulture.

Walking from Cuber reservoir to Coll de L’Ofre
Walking from Cuber reservoir to Coll de L’Ofre

Leaving the far end of the reservoir we walked up to the Coll de L’Ofre. From here’s the GR221 descends to the Barranco de Biniaraix. However we were off to climb L’Ofre, a 3579ft peak.

If you ask a child (or indeed me) to draw a mountain they’ll probably come up with something that resembles L’Ofre. Seen from Soller it’s easily identified as it’s an almost perfect cone shape.

View from Coll de L’Ofre
View from Coll de L’Ofre

After traversing around L’Ofre we started our ascent. There is a path, of sorts, up through the rosemary bushes marked by small cairns and blue dots. There are a couple of hands on rock sections. And, for me, bum on rock going down.

By now we’d seen a couple of black vultures soaring high above nearby mountains. Halfway up L’Ofre they chose to glide directly over us, what an amazing experience. These vultures are the largest raptors in Europe and were bought back from the brink of extinction in the 1980s.

View from summit of L’Ofre, Majorca
View from summit of L’Ofre, Majorca

It’s difficult to decide whether the views from the summit or the vultures were the highlight of this walk. Up top Cuber reservoir sparkled in the distance and all of the surrounding peaks were cloud free.

Descent from Coll de L’Ofre
Descent from Coll de L’Ofre

We ate our picnic after descending to the main path. My son was mesmerised throughout by a large scarab beetle rolling sheep dung. Even more so when he managed to video it falling off the edge of a rock still holding on to the dung. Hilarious if you’re a 13 year old boy.

We returned to our car via the opposite side of the reservoir, accompanied by the sound of sheep bells. Photographs are great but it’s the tinkle of sheep bells and the smell of citrus groves that will forever remind me of our Majorcan holiday.

More info:

  • We found Soller an excellent base; plenty of tourist facilities but a working town too. We stayed in a centrally located Airbnb flat overlooking a small orange grove. The citrus aroma from our balcony  was divine!
  • Spring and autumn are the best times for a walking holiday. Temperatures in April ranged from 16-22C although nights were chilly.

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15 things to do with the family in Ghent, Belgium

After the success of our short break to Lille a while back I was keen to explore other destinations  accessible via Eurostar. Ghent fitted the bill perfectly; a Belgian city just a couple of hours from London.

What did we do in Ghent?

We travelled as a family of  four; two adults and two teenagers. With this in mind you’ll appreciate our sightseeing and food choices were attuned to pleasing the whole family. Or attempting to at least!

View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent
View from Kraanlei across the Leie, Ghent

So, how did we spend our time?

1. Climb the Belfry

I always make a beeline for the highest viewpoint in any new city. In Ghent it’s the 91 metre belfry, the highest one in Belguim.

View from Ghent belfry
View from Ghent belfry

A lift can take you part of the way up but we climbed the steps (to offset the waffles later). At the top there’s a 360 degree viewing platform with excellent views over the town centre, churches and cathedral. You’ll also discover how much building work is happening in the city.

View from the Belfry, Ghent
View from the Belfry, Ghent

Aside from the views check out the Roeland Bell (which was chimed to warn of approaching enemies) and listen to the carillon which plays every 15 minutes.

2. Wander the streets around Graslei and Korenlei

In the Middle Ages this area was a busy port and the centre of the Flanders grain trade. Nowadays it’s tourism central but for good reason; cobbled streets, historical buildings and, in the summer at least, pavement cafes. It’s a good place to take a boat tour or simply wander.

Korenlei
Korenlei

After dark it’s a completely different view with the illuminated buildings reflected in the water. Visit it as part of the Ghent light tour (see below).

3. Visit Gravensteen (Castle of the Counts)

This medieval fortress has seen many changes of use in its lifetime. From the seat of the Council of Flanders to a prison to cotton mills; at one point it was even going to be demolished and the land sold for development. Fortunately saved by locals it was restored extensively and is now one of Ghent’s main attractions.

Gravensteen - Castle of the Counts
Gravensteen – Castle of the Counts

Don’t expect lavish decorations inside the castle. For me the appeal was very much around the physical architecture, the towers, turrets and staircases. Although, thanks to those restorations, it was rather weird to walk up a heated staircase; the last thing you expect in a castle.

One room that is decorated, in a macabre way, houses the torture equipment. A reminder of the castle’s gruesome history. I found this fascinating but you might want to avoid it if you have younger children.

4. Ghent by light

We missed the Ghent Light Festival by a few days. Held every three years this would have been a spectacular sight but sadly it didn’t correspond with half term.

Ghent belfry at night
Ghent belfry at night

Even though we’d missed the festival Ghent illuminates many of its key buildings and monuments after dark, making an evening stroll obligatory. We followed the route on the Ghent light plan which took us to parts of the city we hadn’t seen in daylight. I highly recommend the walk but wrap up warm in winter.

5. Eat frites with mayo

A Belgian classic. We got ours from De Frietketel, a student hangout famous for its fries and burgers. Oh my word, the portion size! We ordered two small portions with mayo between the four of us and couldn’t even finish one portion.

It’s not haute cuisine but is tasty and cheap. Veggies and vegans can have their fill of junk food too; there are loads of options for non meat eaters. Indeed Ghent is known as the veggie capital of Europe.

6. Discover the city history at Stadsmuseum Gent (STAM)

I really enjoyed STAM, a museum covering the history of Ghent. I’d suggest visiting as early as possible during your visit to get an overview of the city. I’ve chosen my highlights below.

City map, STAM, Ghent
City map, STAM, Ghent

The first room houses a huge map of Ghent printed on the floor. Once you’ve donned protective shoe covers visitors ca walk across it. It gives a sense of scale and geography of the city, particularly outside of the main tourist area.

The museum also includes a room dedicated to the Ghent Altarpiece (evidently one of Europe’s premier art works) which is in St Bavo’s Cathedral. I discovered it’s the most frequently stolen artwork of all time. Indeed following the most recent theft in 1934 one of the panels is still missing. It was really interesting to read about the police investigation and conspiracy theories, even if, ahem, we didn’t visit the actual painting whilst in Ghent.

Lego building, STAM, Ghent
Lego building, STAM, Ghent

The family dived into the huge pile of white Lego bricks left out for visitors to enjoy. Experts can attempt to recreate Ghent’s towers. Mere mortals can build small block houses.

7. Enjoy some warmth at the Botanic garden

If, like me, you prefer warm weather then head for the greenhouses at the University botanical gardens. It’s a little way out of the city centre but you can combine it with a walk through Citadelpark.

Botanic garden, Ghent
Botanic garden, Ghent

The outside garden didn’t contain a huge amount of interest in February but there was plenty to see inside the tropical and sub-tropical greenhouses – and they were warm!

8. Eat waffles

Another Belgian speciality. I realised halfway through my chocolate and cream covered concoction that I’d never eaten waffles in Belguim. It bore no resemblance to any waffle I’ve ever eaten before. It was sweet, light and slightly chewy, delicious!

Waffles cost a couple of euros from most street vendors, more if you cover them in melted Nutella. Ignore the calories, you’re on holiday.

9. Saviour the view from St Michael’s Bridge

The three towers, Ghent
The three towers, Ghent

This is the quintessential Ghent view, described as the Manhattan of the Middle Ages. Or, in non-tourist talk, it’s the opportunity to see three towers in a row; those of the Belfry, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral and Saint Nicholas’ Church. I think it’s the one picture all tourists attempt to take even if it does mean getting mown down by a bus whilst you’re standing in the road.

10. Wander the streets around Patershol

This trendy neighbourhood is a small area of cobbled streets and restored houses. A place to wander aimlessly.

Cobbled streets of Ghent
Cobbled streets of Ghent

We visited during the afternoon when it was very quiet. Lovely to look at but almost deserted. I assume the restaurants liven things up in the evenings.

11. See the vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey

We stopped here on our walk back from the botanical garden as I wanted to see another city centre garden.

Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent
Vineyard at St Peter’s Abbey, Ghent

This garden is unique as it contains a vineyard. In the middle of a city. Although only planted in the 1980s there are references to earlier vineyards onsite from the 9th Century. The monks must have loved their wine. I wonder what it tasted like?

12. Graffiti street, off Hoogpoort

This is a pedestrianised alleyway full of graffiti which gives you a break from the medieval-ness of Ghent. It is as its name says; full of tags rather than street art. The teens liked it.

Graffiti street, Ghent
Graffiti street, Ghent

13. Ride a tram

Ghent tram
Ghent tram

The centre of Ghent is easily walkable so there’s no great need to use the trams. However my son was desperate to ride one so we took a tram to the railway station on our final day. It would have been cheaper to use a taxi but nowhere near as novel.

14. Little noses (cuberdons)

Cuberdons, Ghent noses
Cuberdons, Ghent noses

These cone shaped sweets (like noses) are a Ghent speciality. You can buy them for around 3-5 euros from street vendors. Fruit flavoured, with a hard shell and soft filling, they were an acquired taste but my son insisted he liked them.

15. Visit the cathedrals and churches

I’m not religious but do appreciate the history and architecture of churches, particularly ones as huge and ornate as those in Ghent. That said, with teens in tow visiting the cathedrals and churches was never going to be top of the sightseeing list.

St Peter’s church, Ghent
St Peter’s church, Ghent

Despite this we visited St Bavo’s Cathedral, where we spotted a whale skeleton but missed out the Ghent Altarpiece.

We also popped into St Peter’s church (next to the Abbey) and admired several others from outside.

Ghent – the verdict

We loved Ghent and I’d highly recommend it as a short break destination. We easily filled two full days with sightseeing. Another day, or even two, would have been ideal so we could see more museums and perhaps take a boat tour.

View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent
View from St Michael’s Bridge, Ghent

Ghent isn’t as overtly pretty as Bruges but I preferred it. There are far fewer tourists (in February at least) but lots of students which gives it a different feel.

More info:

  • We travelled by Eurostar to Brussels. From Brussels we took a train to Gent-Sint-Pieters Station. The train takes about 30 minutes; we’d already bought a Eurostar ticket which was valid to any Belgium station so there was no need to purchase a separate ticket.
  • We stayed in a studio apartment which you can see on the Stay at Ghent website. The second floor duplex studio was perfect for us but had a mezzanine and is reached via a steep staircase so not suitable for those with mobility difficulties or young children.
  • Belguim has two official languages; Flemish and French. Whilst I can get by in French Ghent is in the Flemish speaking area. It pains me to say but you’re better off speaking English.
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10 things to do with your family in Côtes-d’Armor, Brittany

Are you thinking of a family holiday to Brittany? We stayed for a week in the Côtes-d’Armor department and discovered just how much there is to see and do in Brittany. Read on to find out our top ten suggestions for a family trip.

1. Visit the Pink Granite Coast, near Ploumanac’h

The Pink Granite Coast is one of Brittany’s premier tourist attractions. The coastal walk, which follows a former coastguard footpath, from Perros-Guirec is very popular and a great introduction to the pink rocks.

Pink granite coast, near Perros-Guirec
Pink granite coast, near Perros-Guirec

Many of the formations are named after the shapes they resemble, including a rabbit and a witch. I’ve no idea if the large rock below the lighthouse in the photograph is an ‘official shape’ but it looks like a sideways face to me!

2. Eat a crepe

It would be hard to come to Brittany and miss out on crepes. There are creperies everywhere, with traditional lemon and sugar fillings plus the ever popular Nutella option.

Crepes, Guingamp market, Brittany
Crepes, Guingamp market, Brittany

My favourite was a takeaway from a market stall eaten on a rainy morning. We ate posher crepes, with knives and forks, but nothing surpassed the simple joy of eating a crepe, oozing warm chocolate spread, direct from a paper bag.

3. Chateau de Tonquédec, Tonquédec

This is possibly my favourite castle in France. Built in the 15th Century, it is still owned by descendants of the original family. If you like your castles intact and perfectly restored this is not for you; it’s definitely a work in progress.

Château de Tonquédec, Côtes d'Armor
Château de Tonquédec, Côtes d’Armor

There are lots of interesting areas to explore; dark stairways to venture down (if you’re brave!) and towers to climb. Children will love it but do keep an eye on them as some parts resemble a medieval building site. Watch out for the local goats too; on our visit they were sitting high up on top of one of the walls.

Château de Tonquédec, Brittany
Château de Tonquédec, Brittany

4. Hisse et ho, Plelo

My kids loved this! Think of giant nets suspended from trees, rather like a cross between Go Ape and a trampoline park. There are slides, balls and hoops and bouncy nets to jump around on. Definitely a place to wear off some energy.

Hisse et ho! Char à bancs, Brittany
Hisse et ho! Char à bancs, Brittany

It’s not just for kids either. I enjoyed it too although the bounciness made me feel travel sick after a while. I was happier sitting and watching from the picnic table.

5. Watch the waves at Site du Gouffre, Plougrescant

Coastline, Le Gouffre, Brittany
Coastline, Le Gouffre, Brittany

The peninsula is probably most famous for Castel Meur, a house situated between two huge granite rocks, which features on postcards and tourist literature across the region. However, I enjoyed walking the coastline and watching the waves force water through the nearby gouffre. Although relatively peaceful during our visit the power of the waves was very evident. I’d love to return on a stormy day.

6. Centre de Découverte du Son, Cavan

The Sound Discovery Centre may sound a tad boring but it’s the complete opposite. It’s a quirky and unique attraction, which I highly recommend. Visitors follow a trail through the woodland where musical instruments are ingeniously incorporated into the surroundings. There are strings to strum, drums to tap and plenty of tubes to blow (mouthpieces provided).

Sound Discovery Centre, Cavan, Brittany
Sound Discovery Centre, Cavan, Brittany

After the woodland trail there’s a garden designed in the shape of the ear, along with a few more sounds to discover. The whole place is cleverly put together and great fun for all ages.

7. La Vallee des Saints, Carnoët

If, like me, you have an (unrealistic) yearning to visit Easter Island then a trip to the Valley of the Saints might just suffice. Perched on a hill there are currently more than 60 granite statues dedicated to Breton saints.

Valley of the Saints, Carnoët, Brittany
Valley of the Saints, Carnoët, Brittany

Visitors are free to wander around the saints, all of which are funded by donations from local communities and organisations. Over the next 50 years the project aims to create 1000 statues; a definite Easter Island contender.

8. Abbaye de Beauport, Paimpol

Founded in 1202 Abbaye de Beauport was once a centre of monastic life but in recent years the buildings have housed apartments, schools and a farm. Although parts of the abbey have been restored I preferred the atmospheric ruins. Pink and purple hydrangeas brightened up the grey stone walls. Very photogenic.

Abbaye de Beauport, near Paimpol, Brittany
Abbaye de Beauport, near Paimpol, Brittany

There’s plenty of information available in English, including a discovery trail leaflet and multi-lingual information boards. There are grounds to explore too, including a walled orchard and marshy coastline.

9. Explore Dinan

We arrived in St Malo on the overnight ferry and had a few hours to fill before our campsite was available. A visit to the medieval town of Dinan, with its half timbered houses and extensive ramparts, proved the perfect stopover.

Dinan
Dinan

We spent most of our time wandering through the picturesque lanes and browsing the shops. However, we exerted ourselves a little climbing to the top of the clock tower for a view over the roof tops.

Dinan, Brittany
Dinan, Brittany

I’m glad we managed to get some exercise as Dinan is also notable for providing our first, and best, taste of  Kouign-amman. This heavenly Breton cake consists of 30% sugar and 30% butter so I’m rather glad it’s not readily available in the UK!

10. Île de Bréhat

Having holidayed in Guernsey and Jersey I was keen to visit Île de Bréhat which is marketed as the French Channel Island. The island is just a mile off the Brittany coast, but after a ten minute ferry ride you feel miles from anywhere.

Île de Bréhat consists of two main islands. Both are car free so visitors either walk or hire bikes to see the islands. We chose to walk which I think was the best option to access the more remote beaches. Although it was a rather warm day for too much strenuous activity!

Île de Bréhat, Brittany
Île de Bréhat, Brittany

The island is incredibly beautiful although in August it was also incredibly busy. I felt rather sorry for the locals but I guess they also rely on the summer tourist invasion.

Have you visited Brittany? Where else would you suggest visiting?

More info:

  • Chateau de Tonquédec costs 5 euros for adults, 2.5 euros for children. It is open daily at varying times from April to September, and weekends only in October.
  • Hisse et Ho is open daily in July and August and weekends from March to November. Adults cost 12 euros, children cost 10 euros.
  • The Sound Discovery Centre is open 1-7pm from March to November, every day during the French school holidays. Entrance costs 7 euros for adults, 3.5 euros for children.
  • Boats to Île de Bréhat depart from Pointe de L’Arcouest, near Ploubazlanec. The return journey costs 10 euros for adults and 8.50 euros for children aged 4-11 years. From April to September boats generally depart every hour, there is a less frequent service from October to March. Futher details from Vedettes de Bréhat.
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What to do on a weekend break in Lille, France

Last autumn my daughter and I found ourselves with a spare weekend whilst the other half of the family were off watching rugby. But what to do? After much checking of Trip Advisor and prices I eventually decided on a weekend break to Lille, via the Eurostar.

Lille: what did we see?

We unknowingly co-ordinated our visit with Journées du Patrimoine (similar to heritage open days in the UK) so the majority of tourist attractions were open and free. This meant we visited more attractions than I would normally recommend squeezing into a couple of days.

Vieux-ville (old town)

We spent most of our time exploring the cobbled streets of the old town. It’s home to the Musee de l’Hospice Comtesse, the birthplace of Charles de Gaulle and the best patisserie in Lille.

Vieux-Lille
Vieux-Lille

It’s a great place to wander and browse, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the architecture. There are plenty of (pricey) independent shops to discover and cafes to stop for a coffee in.

Église Saint- Maurice de Lille
Église Saint- Maurice de Lille

Most shops are closed on Sunday so it’s best to visit the old town on a weekday. This includes the large Carrefour near the railway station!

Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse

This is a former hospice in the old town, originally founded in 1237 to care for the poor. The gound floor is a reconstructed Flemish house. Upstairs we found art, wooden sculptures and a couple of large globes. My favourite room was the kitchen as it was decorated in individually hand-painted blue and white tiles.

Musée de l'Hospice Comtesse
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse

Outside we admired the buildings from the courtyard and wandered around the medicinal herb garden. There’s a chapel on site too but this looked closed. I hadn’t originally planned to visit the hospice so we only popped in for a quick look; if you have time to spare there is an English audio guide.

La Maison Natale Charles de Gaulle

This house is the birthplace of former president Charles de Gaulle. The house belonged to his grandparents and has plenty of his childhood mementoes.

Le Musee de la Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle
Le Musee de la Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle

We joined a 40 minute tour in French. Fortunately my daughter was given an English leaflet as I only understood about one word in five.

Place du Général de Gaulle (Grand Place)

The Grand Place is Lille’s main square and is full of Flemish style buildings, including the old Stock Exchange.

Place du General De Gaulle, Lille
Place du General De Gaulle, Lille

It’s a good place to sit and people watch as there are plenty of pavement cafes and restaurants. We bought pizza slices for lunch and ate them sitting beside the fountain.

Sound and light show, Lille
Sound and light show, Lille

We came back later that evening for a special sound and light show, one of the free events that formed part of the Journées du Patrimoine weekend. The light show was projected onto the theatre and was made up of a series of short films with impressive lighting effects. It reminded me of the illuminations on Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert (although Madness didn’t appear!).

Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange)

Old Stock Exchange, Lille
Old Stock Exchange, Lille

The Vieille Bourse is a Flemish style building in the Grand Place. It consists of 24 identical houses built around a courtyard. Nowadays this houses stalls selling old books, posters and records. On Sunday evenings it hosts the Lille tango club; that would be great to see!

Ronde des géants (giants’ parade)

Parade of giants, Place du Theatre, Lille
Parade of giants, Place du Theatre, Lille

This was the unexpected highlight of our visit to Lille. There’s nothing better than arriving somewhere and realising you’ve actually managed to coincide your visit with a local event.

La Ronde des géants, Lille
La Ronde des géants, Lille

The giants appear in carnivals and processions in many towns throughout this part of northern France. Dating back more than 600 years each town keeps up the tradition, maintaining and displaying their own giants. The structures are built on huge wickerwork frames and rolled and danced through the streets, accompanied by bands.

Parade of the giants, Lille
Parade of the giants, Lille

Wazemmes market

Locals head to the market at Wazemmes on Sunday. I’d heard it was very crowded so we left our hotel early. After a quick trip on the Metro we discovered we were way too early as most of the stallholders were still setting up.

Wazemmes market, Lille
Wazemmes market, Lille

Undeterred we wandered around the cafes that surround the square and chose one populated by stallholders. Despite mistakenly ordering café crème rather than café au lait it was the best coffee and pain au chocolat ever!

The market itself wasn’t so good. Although the fruit and vegetable stalls looked good there didn’t seem to be much local produce. Most of the market consisted of the typical stalls you find everywhere; clothes, household goods and cheap toys. However my teenage daughter really enjoyed it and bought food presents for most of the family.

Parc zoologique (Lille Zoo)

My daughter was keen to visit Lille Zoo and although I had my reservations I was pleasantly surprised. The collection is quite small but the enclosures are large and well maintained.

Lille Zoo
Lille Zoo

We loved watching the red panda and the entertaining meerkats. There’s also a tropical house with snakes, marmosets and tortoise and a couple of larger areas housing zebras, rhino and tapir.

The zoo is located in a large park, about 20 minutes walk from the old town. The park is also home to the Citadel but this is usually out of bounds to casual visitors as it houses some of NATO’s Rapid Reaction Corps!

Beffroi de Lille (Lille belfry)

I enjoy panoramic view of cities and always seek out a tower to climb. In Lille this is the town hall belfry.

Lille belfry
Lille belfry

As we visited on a free entrance day there were a lot of people waiting to go up. After queuing outside we climbed 109 stairs to a small shop and registration desk where we had to queue again for the lift. We eventually reached the top but our visit was rather rushed and we didn’t fully appreciate it.

Patisserie

Not a tourist attraction but definitely a Lille highlight was sampling the local patisserie. Our weekend treat was a trip to sample the sweet concoctions at Meert restaurant. It wasn’t cheap, and it was incredibly hard to make a decision, but we eventually chose and shared an amazing chocolate tart.

Aux Merveilleux
Aux Merveilleux

However, Aux Merveilleux de Fred was almost as good and much cheaper.  We watched the merveilleux being made (meringues sandwiched together with whipped cream and rolled in chocolate) and then joined the queue of people stretching out of the bakery. A few minutes later we sampled the merveilleux; they literally melt in your mouth so cannot possibly contain any calories!

Lille: our accommodation – Hotel de la Paix

We stayed at Hotel de la Paix, a small Art Nouveau hotel. We chose it for its excellent location, about 10 minutes walk from the railway station and less than 5 minutes to the main squares and old town.

Hotel de laPaix
Hotel de la Paix

Our room was on the third floor and was quiet and clean, with colourful decoration. It won’t appeal to all tastes but I enjoy places with character. The wifi was hit and miss in the room but worked well in the communal areas. There is a small breakfast area where we ate the first morning but it was much cheaper in local cafes.

Lille: getting there and getting around

I couldn’t believe how quick and easy it was to reach Lille via the Eurostar. It took less than 1.5 hours from London St Pancras; quicker than visiting many cities in the UK. The only slight stress was arriving in a new city late at night and having to walk past groups of people who tend to congregate near railway stations the world over.

The main attractions of Lille are easily walkable but you’ll probably want to use the Metro if you visit Wazemme. The Metro is straightforward to use and if travelling 3 stops or less you can buy a zip ticket which is cheaper. Remember to validate your ticket in the machines before you board.

Lille: the verdict

Although there were no amazing ‘must see’ sights we easily filled our weekend. We started out early on both days but still missed out several museums so there’s more than enough to see on a short break.

There were a couple of negatives. Dog owners don’t appear to worry about picking up after their pets. We also noticed groups of beggars, generally children, working the outdoor cafes around Grand Place asking diners for money. But overall we loved Lille and highly recommend it for a city break.

If you’re interested in other short breaks via Eurostar you might also like my post about our family trip to Ghent.

More info

  • The Lille tourism website has full details of opening hours and costs for all attractions.
  • You can pick up a schedule of giant appearances from tourist offices in northern France, further details available from the La Ronde des Géants website (in French, but Google can translate it).
  • We booked our hotel via a well known hotel booking website as it offered better deals than going direct. The Hotel de la Paix website currently shows a rate of €98 per night for a double room.
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