I've travelled a lot recently and have been reflecting on the experience.
I love this clip from the Netflix series Master of None 1 where the main character Dev wants Tacos, so goes on a quest to find the best ones.
This is me most days when trying to make dinner plans. When I travel to a foreign city it's even more amplified.
Overwhelmed with choice, with no frame of reference, trying to find the best place to eat often ends up feeling like work instead of relaxation. Websites like TimeOut and TripAdvisor become an all-encompassing part of the travelling experience.
I recently spent a few days in the Northern French town of Lille, close to the border of Belgium. We mainly chose Lille not because it was a destination in and of itself, but because of it's proximity to London on the train. 2
We went not really knowing what to expect, or what we would do.
The Art of Wandering
Lille is a beautiful city. It's small enough that you can get a fairly good grasp of it quickly, but the meandering streets of it's old town allow you to get lost in them. 3 It was August, a busy month for Edinburgh, but quite sedate in the North of France as everyone is on holiday. We had often had the streets to ourselves.
There were some days where we just walked. Without purpose, without Google Maps, without knowing where we were going, or how long we were going to walk for.
We stumbled on an open courtyard and drank Belgian beer in the sun.
We found an amazing cocktail bar late one night in which some locals shared their food with us.
We had lunch in one of the estaminets, trying to figure out what the regional dishes were being served up on tables beside us. 4
Most of the memorable places we visited came from simply exploring.
Ask a Local not your phone
On our last night looking for dinner, we asked a barman for recommendations. His English wasn’t great but he happily obliged. He scrawled the name of a restaurant on the back of a napkin and pointed us in the direction of a little bistro not too far away.
Was it the best food in the city? Maybe not, but it was good. The cosy small restaurant had buckets of charm; it made for a memorable evening. It felt more personal, as though we had been invited into someone else's world.
Using your eyes and not your GPS. Asking people and not Google.
Obvious advice, especially for the generations used to travelling before the internet. But when ratings websites and food blogs have made finding the 'best of the best’ the ultimate goal it was helpful to be reminded of these things.
I don't want to over-romantise it - I have been to some amazing places around the world based entirely on online research, and will continue to do so. But I also want to recognise that a huge part of the pleasure of travel is discovery.
And for that to happen sometimes my phone needs to stay in my pocket.
I'm going to contradict my own advice here by making suggestions on a blog but if you do find yourself in Lille:
- Whatever you do get the waffles (Gaufre de Lille) from Méert.
- Try the local Flemish dishes, which seem to be a combination of beer, sugar and cheese. Unusual, delicious and calorific.
- Wander round the Fine Art Gallery and walk the gardens near the Citadel.
- Find a bakery and some baguettes, because it is still France. Paul bakery started in Lille, and while it is a chain, I can confirm their bread was delicious.
- If you've not watched it stop reading and do so right now. There's only 2 seasons. ↩
- I can also wholeheartedly recommend the Eurostar as a way to travel. Train beats plane everytime. ↩
- Lille is a major shopping destination however. There are a lot of shops, especially for fashion. And an Apple store of course. ↩
- These are local cafe/restaurants selling beer and Flemish food - there were several of them around. ↩