Lille: Five day trip tips

The northeastern, traditionally working-class French city of Lille is known for its rustic cuisine and its position as the capital of the region known as French Flanders. And ever since the TGV and Eurostar high-speed trains began calling at Lille, in 1993 and 1994, respectively, the city has also gotten more attention as a day trip destination. By high-speed train, Lille is 80 minutes from London, 60 minutes from Paris, and just 40 minutes from Brussels.

Lille has a really charming old town (Vieux Lille) with an architectural base quite reminiscent of Flanders proper. With ample pedestrian zoning and lots of little specialty shops, the city is good for walking and for shopping. Here are five tips for making a Lille day trip extra special.

1. Waffles at Meert. There are several outposts of this super fancy bakery and confectionary chain; the grand flagship, at 27 rue Esquermoise, is the one to visit for atmospherics. There is a tearoom for lingering, and anyone in a rush can grab a small waffle to go: €2.50 for a vanilla version and €2.80 for fancier versions, including a spectacular spéculoos brown sugar variety. The waffles here are small and compact, like pockets, with a sweet filling.

2. The Transpole transit pass. A bargain at €4, this pass makes travel from the center of Lille to LAM and back (see below) easy as pie, and allows for unlimited further use as well. Lille’s transit system features two tram metro lines and a network of buses.

3. Art at LAM. The Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary, and Outsider Art (1 allée du Musée, Villeneuve d’Ascq) is worth a visit for its free sculpture garden alone. The most exciting part of the museum, architecturally speaking, is the 2010 extension by Manuelle Gautrand. Most interesting is the museum’s integration of art brut into a collection otherwise dominated by the modern and the contemporary. Combined admission to the permanent collection and the exhibition is €10.

4. Local culinary items. You can’t really move through central Lille without hitting cute shops selling bread, regional cheeses, meats, jams, and other hyperlocal food products. (For high-end items not limited to the region, there’s also a local branch of the Comtesse du Barry gourmet food chain.) Even the tourist office sells delicious little souvenir-sized items. I picked up a small jar of hazelnut caramel produced in a neighboring town for €4. Ridiculously delicious, in a forget-the-utensils sort of way.

5. Lunch at Le Barbue d’Anvers. A mid-scale restaurant designed to showcase old French Flanders–even the plates on the bathroom doors designating gender are in Flemish, not French–Le Barbue d’Anvers (1 bis rue St Etienne) is a good place to sample the rustic traditional cuisine of the region. This ain’t heart smart grub. There are enormous portions of bone marrow, thick slices of potjevleesch (potted meat), and cones of frites. Also, note that the first page of the “wine” menu is devoted to beer. Two courses for €21.

New site helps you plan day trips from Mumbai

As someone who lived in Mumbai for two years, I can tell you there were numerous weekends when I just wanted to get away from the blaring car horns, insane traffic, and “go go go” mentality of India‘s most populous city. I relied on guidebooks and word-of-mouth to find out about nearby hill stations, such as Matheran (pictured at right), and beach-side resorts that were suitable for a day trip or weekend excursion. But even with those resources at my disposal, I knew that there had to be scores of other places that my friends didn’t know about or that guidebook writers didn’t have room to cover.

Thankfully, there’s a new website that is trying to take the mystery out of planning a short jaunt from Mumbai. A Break Please ( recommends places to go depending on how much time you have (one, two, or three days), how many travelers are in your group, your budget, and whether or not you have a car (not a given in a country where the per capita income hovers around $1,050). Somewhat akin to Wanderfly, A Break Please also makes travel suggestions based on the type of trip you want to take. Select from beach, hill station, fort, pilgrimage, and four other options.

Having just launched a few weeks ago, A Break Please is very much a work in progress. For example, you can’t book directly from the site and options such as choosing the type of company you will be traveling with (as mentioned on the website’s blog) are not yet available. But even just a quick search on the site returned dozens of accommodations ideas, complete with contact info, nearby activities, and, for the carless, a train schedule detailing fares and departure times.

While A Break Please may not be practical for many travelers to Mumbai, it does appear to be a useful tool for locals and expats who may just need a break from the frenetic pace of Bombay.

From myth to Empire: Heracles to Alexander the Great

Today’s royals have nothing on the ancients.

Alexander the Great and his predecessors enjoyed a sumptuous lifestyle that beats anything William and Kate will ever enjoy, not to mention real power as opposed to lots of TV time. Now an amazing new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, gives an insight into the life of the royal family of Macedon.

Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world before his death in 323 BC, but he didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the second-to-last king of a proud royal lineage that traced its roots to the legendary Herakles. Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy looks at the development of one of the ancient world’s greatest royal families. Their palace was almost as big as Buckingham Palace and what remains shows it was much more luxurious. There was gold, silver, ivory, and jewels everywhere, and plenty has made it into this exhibition. There’s everything from ornate golden wreaths to tiny ivory figurines like this one, which graced a couch on which a king once quaffed wine and consorted with maidens. It’s good to be the king.

The displays focus on more than 500 treasures from the royal tombs at the ancient capital of Aegae (modern Vergina in northern Greece). Three rooms show the role of the king, the role of the queen, and the famous banquets that took place in the palace.

%Gallery-122395%Especially interesting is the gallery about the role of the royal women, who are often overlooked in all the accounts of manly battles and assassinations. Women had a big role to play in religious life and presided at holy festivals and rites alongside men. They also wore heaps of heavy jewelry that, while impressive, couldn’t have been very comfortable.

The banqueting room shows what it was like to party in ancient times. Apparently the master of the banquet diluted the wine with varying proportions of water to “control the time and degree of drunkenness”!

There are even items from the tomb of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son with princess Roxana of Bactria. Alex Jr had some pretty big shoes to fill, what with dad conquering most of the known world and all, but he didn’t get a chance to prove himself because he was poisoned when he was only thirteen. At least he went out in style, with lots of silver and gold thrown into his tomb with him.

This is the first major exhibition in the temporary galleries of the recently redesigned Ashmolean. Expect plenty of interesting shows from this world-class museum in coming years.

Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures of the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy runs until August 29, 2011. Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip from London.

[Image © The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism – Archaeological Receipts Fund]

Dayzipping Reinvents the Day Trip

Want to get away but don’t have the time or money to go on an extended vacay? Then log on to Dayzipping, a new site dedicated to finding great day-long getaways from anywhere in the world.

The site asks you where you’re located (or where you’re traveling to), and then offers up a slew of options in the area. Suggestions are sourced and reviewed by members (and membership is free) — which means that options are well-vetted and tested. A simple search for New York, New York offered a walk through lower Manhattan, a BBQ in Brooklyn, and a slightly-out-of-the-city foray to Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Home.

The site also allows users to connect with their friends and share reviews and suggestions within friend networks. As with any user-generated site, the suggestions are only as good as the people using the service. So as Dayzipping continues to grow, expect to see more and more options. It’s a great way to rediscover your own town, or get an insider’s perspective on a spot you might be visiting.

Affordable Beachy Day Trips from NYC

Memorial Day weekend in New York City is either an excuse to barbecue or to hit the beach. From Manhattan, reaching a decent beach can become quite the odyssey, especially if you don’t have a car.

Even if you’re not lucky enough to summer in the Hamptons, you can leave the city and lounge on a beach without spending a fortune. Not all beaches around New York City, however, are created equal. Depending on your mood, here are four beaches that are within a day trip from Manhattan and accessible by public transportation.

Coney Island

Good for: Nathan’s hot dogs, a boardwalk with carnival games and rides (the new Luna Park opens Saturday, May 29), the New York Aquarium (the sea lion show is surprisingly fun), and the bone-rattling Cyclone wooden roller coaster.
Beach quality: Expect cigarette butts in the sand, virtually no waves, and murky water that’s OK for dipping in your toes. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone who has actually jumped all the way into that water.
Cost from Manhattan: $4.50 for a round-trip subway card. Give yourself at least an hour in travel time by subway.

Fire Island
Good for: Relaxing on (comparatively) uncrowded beaches.
Beach quality: Rougher waves (beware of swimsuit malfunctions — wear a suit that can take the beating), but don’t expect too much in the way of amenities. Bring a beach umbrella because there’s little to no shade.
Cost from Manhattan: Long Island Rail Road train from Penn Station to Bay Shore (from $21.50 for an off-peak round-trip ticket) then a ferry (from $10 for a round-trip pass). Check the train and ferry schedules carefully, and make sure you don’t miss the last ferry back. For one-way travel times, allot two hours for the train and at least 20 minutes for the ferry.

Jones Beach
Good for:
Summer music concerts, lots of junk-food concession stands, some picnic tables, and decent waves.
Beach quality: Serviceable but crowded with families. Beach umbrella rentals are available.
Cost from Manhattan: $16.50 for the MTA’s Jones Beach package with discounted one-day round-trip LIRR tickets to Freeport and a bus connection to the beach. This year’s service is available on weekends May 29-Sept. 12 plus Memorial Day (May 31); weekdays June 28-Sept. 6.

Atlantic City, NJ
Good for: Gambling, strolling the boardwalk, and people-watching.
Beach quality: Obviously not the Caribbean, but not bad for a quick getaway. Keep in mind that you can easily sit in three hours of traffic trying to get to the Hamptons.
Cost from Manhattan:
The Atlantic City Express Service train from New York’s Penn Station is the fastest route by public transit. One-way tickets start at $29 for the 2.5-hour trip.

Having visited each of these beaches and mostly by public transportation, I feel obligated to share these seven seemingly obvious tips. Feel free to add your own.

[Image Credits: Amy Chen]

Check the schedule. When traveling by train, bus, or ferry, double-check the schedule for any service changes or delays. This is especially important if you need to connect by bus or ferry to reach the beach.

Have a Plan B. If you know you’re the type to dawdle, aim to catch the second-to-last departure on the way home. That way, in the event you lose track of time, you have a buffer and won’t have to stress about finding your way back.

Do the math. Depending on the size of your group or if you’re traveling with a lot of kids or gear, it may be more cost-effective and easier to rent a car. In the New York area, car-sharing companies such as Zipcar and Connect by Hertz offer hourly rentals with gas and insurance included. (Expect to pay a membership fee and familiarize yourself with any mileage limits — I once exceeded the daily mileage limit with my Zipcar rental and paid a penalty that effectively doubled the price of the rental). Don’t forget to factor in any parking fees or tolls.

Lighten your load. Can you rent chairs or umbrellas at the beach? Then don’t bother schlepping all that gear on the subway, train, bus, or ferry.

Know the rules. Does the train, bus, or ferry allow coolers or glass bottles? What about the beach? If certain items are prohibited, you could find yourself dragging unnecessary stuff and then being forced to dump all of it.

Bring a cover-up and a change of clothes. If it took you two hours to get there, you’ll want to be comfortable on the ride back.

Oh, and
don’t forget to wear sunblock.