Sunday, September 6, 2009

To Lille or Not to Lille

Well, we got there and thankfully got back again. How to describe it? We took a train from Paris Gare du Nord and arrived at about 11:00 a.m. Friday, thinking we'd see some of the city before the Braderie started on Saturday at 2:00 p.m., after the various foot races.

Vieux Lille is charming and definitely worth a visit at any other time, and I understand the Musée des Beaux Arts is the second best collection in France after the Louvre, but half the town was closed getting ready for the market, and the other half was getting out of town to avoid the hordes descending. Every Lillois I met was planning to stay away or gearing up to rake in tourist Euros, and all dreading the horror to come.

We were able to get a taxi to our hotel on arrival, but the driver spent the entire trip telling us about precautions to take in the crowds, for our persons and our purses. The last thing he told us was that there was absolutely no chance that we could get a taxi back to the station on Saturday night. The hotel confirmed that there were no public transportation options that would get us from the hotel to the station, that no taxis would be willing or able to get through, we would have to walk and that the usual 10 minute walk would take about 40 minutes through the crowds. In the event, it took 50 minutes at 6:00 p.m. Had we taken our originally planned 9:00 p.m. train, it would probably have taken more than an hour.

While several streets were kept ostensibly stall-free for safety vehicles, there was no way to avoid the Braderie streets. At several points on the way to the station we were pressed so tightly in the crowd on one of the smaller streets that we literally couldn't move. I found myself thinking of being trampled to death in a panicked crowd. In this case it would more likely be death by suffocation. Claustrophobes might have been screaming at this point. I started elbowing. At a couple of points someone larger and stronger pushed through and we took the opportunity to follow in his wake. Since he was rude enough to push through in front of mothers with strollers (what were they thinking?!?) and large women in wheelchairs, who were we to remain politely dying in the throng? Besides many of these folks had beers in hand and seemed perfectly content to stand still until they needed another.

As for what there was to see, this is in fact a true flea market, not an antiques market, with an incredible range of items for sale, from new shlock, used clothing, toys, broken furniture, bits and pieces of old plumbing, etc. to used and still usable furniture, pottery, dishes, linens, books, music, and anything else you can imagine. Not as much fun, or as interesting, as the Alameda Flea Market, in my humble opinion. Along the routes are also stands selling fried take-away food and restaurants that set up huge numbers of tables and chairs to sell the traditional
moules frites in black metal pots.

It goes on forever, taking up many of the streets in the center and in many cases forcing you to stay in the stream of gawkers and shoppers whether you want to or not, because the escape options are few. To cross one of the streets we had to ask one of the vendors if we could climb over and around his "backstage" stuff and squeeze between big white vans parked nearly bumper to bumper. As it grew later on Saturday the streets became more crowded and the crowd a bit younger and more evidently enjoying their beer. At some point I had to stop taking pictures because of the crowd.

We saw lots of people with shopping bags on wheels and others carrying large items in their hands, on their backs, and other methods of removal, but from a tourist point of view, you have to come prepared. Think of how you'll get that stuff home. Lots of people, by the way, didn't seem to be buying anything at all, just wandering along, looking at the stalls and cloths on the ground with no apparent intention of buying. Families were out with grandma and the kids.

It was exhausting and, to tell the truth, not much fun, at least for us. I would definitely not do it again, and it's not even one of those things about which I would say, "well, I'm glad I did it once."

On the other hand, you might love it.

1 comment:

Ken Broadhurst said...

Oh well, it was worth a try. Sounds like I would have hated it. When you buy a bowl of moules-frites, can you at least sit down to eat them?