We find ourselves in the small city of Lille in the French Flanders, far enough north to neighbor the Belgian border and thick with Flemish influence; food and architecture included.
“What do you mean you’re going to drink beer and not wine,” my mother questioned. “I thought you were going to France?”
Within the proximity of Lille (pronounced lee-eel) there is a growing trend of microbreweries and beer fooding i.e. beer pairing is a very real thing. We might as well be in Belgium. But we are not. My sister and I dash through customs at London’s St. Pancreas International and zip through the Chunnel into northern France. Only a mere hour and a half later we are on Lille’s doorstep. It’s noticeably colder than London and we immediately complain.
Luckily the city is quite small and manageable for anyone easy on their feet. Within 10 minutes walk we arrive at our hotel in Vieux Lille (Old Lille). This is where things start to appear picturesque and around every corner I squeal “OMG, but isn’t it just so cute?!” My sister Nicole only then grasps that we are in a foreign country and English isn’t the first language. I greet the receptionist with a confident yet mispronounced bonjure and after entering the smallest elevator on earth we land in our immaculate room. Oh Europe I’ve missed you!
We only had a few hours to kill before our grand beer adventure but managed to, what we had initially assumed, see it all. In Vieux Lille we mastered the narrow cobblestone streets and took random turns trying to get lost but actually found our way amongst the cute local shops, craft beer sellers and row upon row of exquisite restaurants. We rode bikes through the windy garden paths of Jardin Vauban, sipped Belgian beers alfresco in La Grand Palais square, and snacked on local specialities like beef tartare, Welsh rarebit and waffles with Nutella. Yum!
At 4 pm we stood in front of the tourist office in anticipation to meet our tour, the beer tasting treasure hunt The Gambrinus’ Stein, organized through the craft beer tasting tourism group L’Echappee Biere. Young Aurelie and her companion Olivier greeted us and whisked us away to our first stop, the unassuming Theatre Cafe, to explain how the game would work. The bad news, Nik and I were the only people on the tour so we weren’t going to make friends as we had hoped. The good news, we couldn’t lose as we had no competitors!
We were handed a booklet that explained it all. 4 bars, 3 hours and a series of clues to get us from one to the next. The clues weren’t googlable and were intended to have us experience the city by observing the elements so easily overlooked when just passing by. This is what made it both interesting, and yet so damn hard! We snorted with confidence that 3 hours would be a breeze, yet 3 hours and 15 minutes later I was texting Aurelie that we couldn’t locate the final bar.
In addition to the clues such as “once on the square that makes you cry when you cook, keep going straight. If you see a beer shop you are following the correct path,” there were also hints, historical notes and riddles. We would receive extra credit for social sharing photos of key points of interest (and smart marketing on their behalf), and once we made it to the bar would hand over our ticket to the barman who was already expecting us and complete a questionnaire on the given beer color, country of origin, ABV and style. Clever little game don’t you think?
Into early evening it grew dark and the game intensified as we peered at etchings in the architecture, storefront names and church nuances. But it was fun! At the final bar Olivier met us to go through our answers and rewarded us points, as if we had been competing against others. It was cute and humble and as we sat and chatted about where we should go eat charcuterie and sample some French wines (heaven forbid) I fell even more in love with this small little company of friends who invented a game to educate tourists on not just their city but the world of beer that is so prevalent in it. Their website states, “there are more than 40 breweries in the Nord Pas de Calais, and approximatively 150 in Belgium.”
Olivier handed over our “winning” prize of a large quadruple Trappist. Aurelie shortly followed with a second bottle, saying there was one for each of us. When we tried to resist that it was all just too much, she replied “for my bad English.” Her English was great by the way, and we even appreciated that our booklet was in English as well.
For 25 euro what an amazing journey. We were educated, awarded beer, and taken to some amazing, unique and colorful bars that we would have so easily overlooked if not had been recommended by locals. I won’t spoil it for you, but I would definitely recommend you give it a go next time in Lille although I’m still unsure if Gambrinus ever found his stein!
We ended the evening with the most exquisite steak with bearnaise, frittes and a cheese and charcuterie board at La Part de Anges followed by a few glasses of burgundy at neighboring wine bar Monsieur Jacques with a big smile and a day well accomplished.