Quelle Surprise! Northern France

Discover an overlooked part of France with this short road trip.

Like a lot of folks, when I think of France, I start with the big hitters: Paris, Provence, the Riviera, the Alps, and maybe, if my mind is truly firing on all cylinders, I sneak a Lyon or a Biarritz in there somewhere. However, after my recent road trip in the North of France for the New Year, I can assure you that this part of France should be on everyone’s list.

It’s easy to get a feel for Lille

Coming from London via Eurostar, getting to Lille is a breeze. Just as you start getting tucked into your book or a nap, you’ve arrived! We stayed at the Grand Hotel Bellevue, which is located right on the large plaza in the center of town. Reasonable. Friendly staff. Big modern bathrooms. (If you like water pressure and have traveled in Europe, you will know why this is important). Terrific location. (The plaza-facing rooms have stunning views.) What’s not to like when you start things off that way?

Around the corner from the hotel, we took in Lille’s cute little Christmas market, which earned some kudos from The Guardian for being one of Europe’s best small Christmas markets. Perhaps the freshly steaming pony crap in front of a justifiably annoyed honey merchant put me off a bit, but having toured quite a few Christmas markets in my day, I wouldn’t say this is a principal reason to come to Lille.

That’s because there are many more excellent reasons to come to Lille. First off, the old town is one of the largest I’ve strolled around– full of every shop you could ever ask for, loads of restaurants, and tons of bars. (Being a university town always helps on the bar front.)  Everything is walkable, and the town is fringed by a vast expanse of green space. The architecture is particularly interesting: the best of French meets the best of Flemish. Bonus: there’s even an impressive (and unique!) Louis XIV star fort still in use as a military base.

One of the biggest art museums in France is also in Lille. It has a very fine collection of numerous eras and nationalities, giving you a great dose of art without overwhelming you. We saw a really interesting Millais exhibition there. (See what’s on when you want to visit here: http://www.pba-lille.fr/en)

The regional cuisine is a tasty and hearty mish-mash of French/Flemish. We ate dinner at Le Barbue d’Anvers, an excellent restaurant full of locals tucked away on a side street off the big plaza. Eating downstairs under the vaulted ceilings was very romantic, the service was excellent, and the food was top-notch. Try the oysters if it’s the right time of year for them, and the waterzooi chicken (a chicken stew) or the carbonnade (beer-braised beef.)

We picked up our rental car at the Lille casino and drove to Amiens (about two hours away). Amiens is a hidden jewel of a town, billed as the “little Venice of the North.” Now, a lot of European towns claim some kind of Venice honours, so I was skeptical. However, Amiens definitely delivered on the charming canals, windy little streets, and overall ambiance.

As it was still the festive period, Amiens Christmas market was in full swing. If you are into Christmas markets, this was one of the best I’ve been to in Europe: lots of great food, many shops stretching for about 2km down the main drag of town, a holiday tableau for

Holiday light show - Amiens
The light show in Amiens did not disappoint (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

photo opps, and lively engagement among the local populace. A holiday highlight was the psychedelic light show on the front of Amiens cathedral. The French are always masters of lighting things, but if you ever get a chance to see it when they do a full-on light show, run, don’t walk to wherever they’re being illuminating (pardon the pun.)

In Amiens, we stayed at the Hotel Le Prieuré just next to the cathedral. Again, a great location, clean rooms, and amazingly helpful staff. The hotel reception pointed us in the direction of Amiens’ old town for dinner; their suggestion of dinner at Le Quai did not disappoint. Delicious dover sole, and if you’re a bit full of braised beef stews, some hearty main course salads can be found here. (In the summer, the terrace here must be amazing– right on a canal with a view of the cathedral.)

After dinner, we sniffed out a wine bar called L’Hexagone (14, rue des Sergents, 80 000 Amiens). This was truly one of the best wine bars we’ve been anywhere ever. Lots of interesting choices from around France, and quite a few organic/biodynamic wines all at very reasonable prices. The staff, again, were very friendly and very knowledgeable. It might be worth going to Amiens just to have a glass of wine here.

After a visit to the cathedral in Amiens, we headed off to Laon for lunch en route to Reims. The medieval part of Laon sits on a plateau above the surrounding region, hovering as if in air. The historic fortifications, epic cathedral, and teeny winding streets almost felt like a movie set– particularly because virtually no one was out and about. (It was a bitterly cold day and during the holidays, so I’m guessing things get livelier with the addition of sunshine and normal routines.) Laon’s definitely worth a visit for the cathedral alone, and if you happen to stop there, have a tasty lunch for a great price at Le Péché Mignon, just down from the cathdral (53 rue Châtelaine).

The goal of our whole trip was spending New Year’s Eve in the capital of champagne: Reims. After lunch in Laon, we got to Reims in just about an hour.

En route, as with most of Northern France, you pass a lot of monuments to battle sites from World War I. Road sides are fringed with ridges from trenches, the ruins of battle boxes, and countless cemeteries large and small. The magnitude of “the war to end all wars” cannot be escaped. It all has a sobering effect even in the giddy heart of champagne-land. As it’s the 100th anniversary of the last year of World War I, I plan to go back later this year solely to visit all the sites.

Once you get into Reims, it’s hard to be somber since immediately upon arriving in the city you are greeted by numerous champagne houses, three of which are part of the wider UNESCO-listed world heritage site in and around Reims. Ancient Gallo-Romans once mined chalk from the Reims hills, which ended up making perfect champagne cellars for the likes of Taittinger, Pommery, and Ruinart. To visit these and have a tasting, you need to make an appointment in advance. It’s a bit pricey, but worth it.

Stained glass – A must-see (Photo: Kathleen Oliver)

I should list all the other sites you should see in Reims: the art museum with David’s assassination of Marat, the site of the German surrender which ended World War II in Europe, the stunning stained glass in the Cathedral…but you can get all that info from the tourist office. The one place you have to add to your Reims itinerary is the Bistrot de Forum (6 Place de Forum). This became our home away from home in Reims, the meeting point where we got a coffee with friends in the morning and where we ended the evenings over beer, wine, and champers. The staff here took us under their wing and made us feel like regulars. You could see from the active local patronage that this warm, collegial service was the norm, rather than the exception. (Note: this is also a great place for snacks throughout the day– harder to find than you think even in a larger French town like Reims).

Beyond snacks, eating out in Reims is a lot more of the Northern/Eastern French vibe of ham, onions, potatoes, and cheese in various combinations. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) A beautiful brasserie with such regional favorites is Brasserie Excelsior. If you’re hankering for something to change things up, the Italian restaurant, La Villa, does not disappoint: an amazing space and some of the best Italian food any of us have had in a long while.

For Reims lodging, we stayed at the lovely, well-situated Grand Hotel des Templiers. Complete with a decent pool and sauna to paddle/sweat off the champagne-fueled excess, the hotel was a perfect base for exploring Reims. (When you book, request a room in the historic main building.) The staff, again, could not have been more friendly or helpful.

If you’re catching a theme here across all the places I visited in Northern France, it’s the people. There are a few places I’ve been–anywhere on Earth– where I have been so universally greeted with a smile and a helpful hint or two about what to see/where to go. As always, it’s not the booze, great food, and historical interest that make for a great trip, but the people you meet along the way.

On reviendra. (Bistrot de Forum, you’ve been warned.)





Travel Advent 3+ – Help! The Holiday Hangover

Kew Christmas lights

It is a sign of the Yule times that this post covers off advent days 3 through 8, most of which is ex post facto. And there’s only one excuse for this: the manic, boozy days of early December.

London is one of the best places on Earth to gear up for the holiday season, but it’s madness. Absolute madness. It’s dark by 4 p.m. Pubs are cozy. Most are also decorated with splendid holiday cheer. Every day, there’s another excuse to go out, whether that’s an official Christmas party or just the old “might be the last time we catch up before the holidays” drink(s). It is the classic death march on cocktails.

But it’s far too early to have a permanent holiday hangover. So, here are a few fresh air opportunities to restore your equilibrium and perhaps give your liver some breathing room.


Kew Gardens  –  Kew is a restorative place no matter the season, but at Christmas, you can have a bracing winter walk to clear the head by day, or in a far more festive fashion, by night. The illuminations in the evening hours are a great way to get some fresh air and avoid the pub for a few hours. If only they didn’t have stalls serving mulled wine…


Hammersmith to Kew Thames Walk – If you have a bit more spring in your step, you can walk to Kew from Hammersmith along the banks of the mighty Thames. Do not walk on the Chiswick side if you are trying to avoid pubs. The Chiswick side of the river starts with the excellent Blue Anchor and continues onward with a series of fine pubs– The Dove, The Black Lion, City Barge to name just three– from there to Kew Bridge. Abandon hope all ye who walk there.

Hammersmith sunset
You are not taking in this view at Hammersmith because you are not walking on the side of the river where there are a lot of pubs

To avoid the pub temptation, walk along the Barnes side. Oh wait, there are two pretty decent pubs on that side of the river….

Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace Walk – One of the things that makes London such a great city is that you can cover quite a few miles without ever leaving a park. A stroll through the Royal Parks is always good for the obvious royal attractions, people watching, and cute dog viewing. Start at Kensington Palace (grab a bacon sandwich at the stall right by one of the main gates off Ken High Street if you’re in need of sustenance), then cross into Hyde Park and walk along the Serpentine towards Hyde Park corner. (Do not get tempted by the siren’s song of the oompahpah band in the German beer halls of Winter Wonderland.) Cross the junction at the Wellington Arch into Green Park and then, you’ll arrive at Buckingham Palace. If the junction is frighteningly crowded, you might be tempted to steer clear of Green Park and head into the quiet backstreets of Knightsbridge where the excellent Nag’s Head and The Grenadier are nestled. But as you are trying to avoid pubs, you will not do this. On the other hand, if you are truly hungover, The Grenadier makes a fine Bloody Mary….

Richmond Park Deer Viewing – It feels festive to go check out the deer of Richmond; if you are bleary-eyed, the big ones almost look like reindeer. As long as you avoid the Park’s limited cafe options, you should be able to avoid drinks for a while. However, if you

The Thames near Petersham, where you are walking to avoid visiting a pub

enter from the Richmond side of things, beware: the Roebuck lies in wait. Having a drink outside on the terrace with a stunning view over the Thames is one of life’s great pleasures. BUT WE ARE NOT DRINKING, ARE WE?


Hampstead Heath – While Hampstead does not have the deer population draw, ambling around the miles of paths is always a joy: fresh air and amazing views of London. Kenwood House is also interesting here– the stately home of one of Britain’s abolitionist judges, and his niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle. (On weekends, there are often classical music performances that can definitely soothe the savage hangover.) But if you walk out to the main road from Kenwood House you will have to steel yourself to avoid going into the Spaniard’s

Hops Growing at the Spaniard's Inn
You would not know that this is a hop arbor at the Spaniard’s Inn because you are not in a pub again, are you?

Inn– a lovely historic pub with a teeny little snug in front. The Spaniard’s is where Keats purportedly wrote “Ode to a Nightingale.” Well, if there’s history involved, why not go in….

Greenwich to Blackheath – You can take a boat to Greenwich, but there’s a bar on board, so the Tube/DLR are safer options. Walk right past the Gipsy Moth– you know you shouldn’t be in a pub again– and head to the park. The Maritime Museum is over here, the Queen’s House, the Royal Observatory– there are plenty of cultural places without pubs to visit in Greenwich if it gets too rainy to be outside. If weather permits, continue out of the park on to Blackheath. It always seems gusty here, so the bracing winds can help knock the hangover right out of you. But wait…what’s that over there off to the side of Blackheath. Is that a pub? Does the sign say “Hare & Billet?” What’s a billet? I cannot live in this ignorance any longer! I’ll just step inside and…


Travel Advent #2: Tinsel Pub!

Some people go all out for Christmas decorations– particularly in the U.S. Fortunately, if you’re a Yankee here in England, you can have your fill of far too much Christmas cheer if you get thee to Cambridge.

Specifically, the Empress Pub in Cambridge. Every year, Cambridgeshire’s supply of tinsel is applied to walls, chairs, and anything (including regulars) who aren’t standing still. Tinsel town’s location details here.

A happy celebrant gets his Christmas on!

Nowhere near Cambridge in the UK? Buy as much tinsel as your arms and budget will allow. Festoon it around every surface of the smallest room in your house that’s not a bathroom. Drink warm beer until you hallucinate.

Travel Advent #1: Creche, creche, baby

An amazing European mini-world…

‘Tis the season for all sorts of good stuff, and in keeping with that spirit, I plan to showcase some of my favorite Xmas and holiday awesomeness from around the globe for the next 25 days. To start off, nothing says Christmas like miniature nativity scenes (aka “crèche” in French). Europe really goes nuts for these, with everything from the Baby Jesus to working windmills to the village pub (often replete with little mini-village drunks, if you’re really lucky).

One of the best places I’ve been for crèche sighting is the movie-set village of Roquebrune Cap Martin, nestled between Monaco and Menton. The good citizens of Roquebrune go all out for their crèche displays,  with hundreds tucked throughout the village and a walking route along which you can discover them all. Think of it as a Baby Jesus treasure hunt. We found them in windows, in plant pots, in light fixtures– some even have special lighting and music just to set the mood.

After your Baby Jesus treasure hunt, don’t miss the exhibition of award-winning crèches. These are complicated, detailed dioramas whose creators have spent lifetimes creating their mini-worlds.  I had a nice long chat with an experienced (and passionate) crèche creator on one visit, learning exactly how to create mini-trees that accurately reflect the surrounding region from dried moss and wine corks. I have not tried this at home. Yet.

This year, from December 9 to January 7, more than 300 mini-nativity scenes will be yours to discover all around Roquebrune village. (There may be more figurines in the crèches than village residents, but I’m no census-taker.) Christmas eve, there are plans for a living crèche in addition to the walking route, and interactive activities where you may be able to get creative with your own crèche.

If you’re down in the Nice/Monaco area, it’s definitely worth a look. More info on these and other Xmas activities here.

Nowhere near Roquebrune? Make your own holiday mini-world. Dried moss, corks, and a whittling knife are recommended.


Perambulate Through Prehistory

Discover a few of Malta’s most impressive prehistoric sites & why there are no more Maltese falcons on Malta

One of my more recent obsessions is European neolithic and Bronze Age sites, and Malta has some of the greatest concentrations of these, particularly impressive given that the island’s fairly pint-sized. Malta’s prehistoric sites are justifiably accorded UNESCO World Heritage status. Even if you’re not that interested in prehistory, the level of artistry in the architecture and stone carvings is astounding even by modern standards.

First, to get some context for Malta’s prehistoric sites, visit Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology, itself housed in a

National Archaeology Museum, Malta
A chubby prehistoric statue

historic building, former HQ for the Knights of Provence. There, you’ll learn theories about how the various sites were constructed. You can also see many of the treasures that have been brought in from the actual temple sites for preservation. The statues and tiny figurines of the “fat ladies” (who may actually not always be women) are astonishing, in that they look like something the modern sculptor, Fernando Botero, may have created, with a little dash of the simple lines of Henry Moore thrown in. When you consider that someone created these thousands of years ago, you have to marvel at our ancestors’ creative genius.

Once you’ve gotten the context, visiting the actual sites is all the more interesting. The Tarxien temples are easy to get to by city bus from Valletta, and fascinating in their own right, but particularly because you’re left to consider them in a seemingly incongruous setting: smack dab in the middle of a busy, modern Valletta suburb. (Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the nearby Hypogeum because you have to book well in advance. Some tickets are available for next day viewings at the Archaeology Museum or the Fine Arts Museum in Valletta, however, but these are on a very limited first come, first-served basis.)

Temple Guardian Statue, Malta
Ancient statuary – front & rear view

To see temples in a more dramatic coastal setting away from an urban environment, the twin megalithic sites at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are breathtaking. The visitor center has a cool, informative, very short introductory film replete with smell-o-vision and 4D effects; afterwards, you can walk among the stones, unlike more well-known sites like Stonehenge.

After taking in the temples, the fabulous walking trails here help you discover Maltese flora and fauna. There are lovely vistas of the sea, and the surrounding hills are dotted with ancient-looking stone huts, once commonly used for bird catching.

Though this practice isn’t completely in the past. As you stroll the walking trails here, you’ll probably meet some friendly Maltese men with super cute dogs. Though they’re not supposed to because of EU conservation directives, the men may be scoping out birds to hunt. In fact, an overenthusiastic passion for bird hunting is why you won’t see any Maltese Falcons on Malta. They’re now extinct. Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are still lovely for both nature and prehistory, however, just don’t expect to see a lot of birds.