last l’il bit o’ Lille

Lille houses behind cathedral

It was nice on my second and final morning in Lille. The rain had stopped, the sky was bright with patches of cloud, and the sketchers were still everywhere. I walked over to the little patch behind the Treille cathedral, as drawn by pretty much every urban sketcher in this whole Rencontre, and drew the colourful little houses. These narrow little buildings reminded me of the ones I had drawn in Liege a few years ago. As I sat on the little bench, more and more sketchers came and started drawing (there is just one in my picture, there were at least seven or eight just in this view by the time I stopped, but I’d alreayd drawn that bit). I spoke to a couple of them in French, exchanging tips on pens and other art materials. I was going to draw the cathedral itself but the morning was already getting away from me. I had booked a train ticket to Brussels for later that morning.

Lille hydrant sm

I did get a couple more quick ones in. This is a Lille fire hydrant, because I have to draw a fire hydrant in each town. I think I have drawn ones like this before in France. You might like to see a Flickr album of my hydrant sketches. Below, a sign I spotted outside one of the ‘estaminets’ (restaurants) nearby, with an example of the local ‘ch’timi’ dialect. It says “Qu’o qu’in minge ichi? Des vraies frites d’ch Nord Chti Miam!!” Now I know you’re thinking “haha, a rude word”. What this actually means is “What can you eat here? Proper fries from the Chti North, yum!” Or something like that. It was time to move on from one place that does great frites to another place that does great frites, Brussels. See you en Belgique.

Lille Chti sign sm

Lille, dimanche après-midi, il pleut encore

Gare de Lille Flandres

It stopped raining for a little while after lunch. After walking about the back streets of Lille in the steady drizzle to find a restaurant to sit down in and enjoy some ch’ti region food, with little success (most of the outdoor seating had closed up due to the rain, and places were generally full inside at lunchtime) I ended up eating at the cafe that was that day’s “hub” for the urban sketchers, near the Treille cathedral, and just had a fairly small snack. I ended up chatting with some German sketchers I bumped into, such as Basel-based Tine Klein who I had met at previous symposia, she paints dramatic watercolour sketches I really admire and was talking technique with her friend from Berlin. I didn’t see any of the other sketchers I know, I was planning to join them in the evening for the drink-n-draw (or rather “drink-n-look-at-amazing-sketchbooks”). So after lunch I went back to the hotel to dry off, and when I headed out again the rain had stopped. I headed towards the train station, Lille Flandres. I couldn’t remember if Lille Flandres was the French name for Ned’s wife, on the Simpsons. In the road leading up to the station, Rue Faidherbe, there are these big green sculptures, so I stood next to one and drew the Gare itself. It opened in 1842, known then as just ‘Gare de Lille’. I spent a lot of time in European train stations when I was younger. In the summer of 1998 I took a five week trip around Europe with a Eurail pass, carrying the big Thomas Cook Rail Timetable book with me, but I never passed through Lille Flandres. I love a train though. I got this far with the station and that was enough, because the rain was back.

Lille St Maurice 1 sm

I crossed the street and took shelter in the awnings of a closed cafe. The rain wasn’t heavy (yet), and I felt quite contented. As a resident of Davis California I don’t see much rain any more, so it’s still a thrill to get a downpour, even one that stops me sketching wherever I want (spoiler alert – it rained a lot more on this trip, I still made the best of it). I still had a decent view of the rear of the Eglise St. Maurice de Lille and I couldn’t resist all those triangular turrets. I plotted it out and started sketching, and then the heavens opened up. I’m assuming someone in the heavens left the bathroom taps on. The rain was the heaviest I had seen in a pretty long time, and it was getting hard to really see. It was also being driven in towards me, so I was still getting wet, though not as drenched as those dashing down the street. Well, I thought, no point in trying to draw in pen, so I gave up and went to the next page, and added a wash, before adding in what details I could with the paintbrush (below). Not the sort of thing I usually get to draw but I definitely enjoyed it, and it definitely reflects the mood of what I saw more than the line drawing. I left the original sketch as it was, that’s part of the story.

Lille St Maurice 2

The day’s urban sketching exploration was over though, so I jumped from shelter to shelter and dashed to my hotel. I am glad I stayed in such a good central location. It wasn’t a fancy hotel, just a regular Ibis, but the room had a desk which is something I always look for in a hotel room, as a sketcher who sometimes has to finish stuff off.

Lille people 060522

In the early evening, I walked out to the citadel park, to a little bar where the Sunday night meeting of French urban sketchers was going to take place. There I met with people that I knew from sketching trips gone by, such as Sophie Navas, Vincent Desplanche, Mauro Doro and more, and enjoyed a beer and looked over some amazing sketchbooks. We then went on to meet with my Belgian sketching friends Gerard Michel, Fabien DeNoel and Arnaud De Meyer, as well as French sketchers Martine Kervagoret and Lolo Wagner, it was great to see them all again. There were some others who I did not know as well, and others whose art I was very familiar with such as Jean-Christophe Defline and Sylvain Cnudde, whose work I have been really loving for a number of years (his sketchbook is even more amazing in person, I tell you). We had a quick drink at a cafe, before many of us went off to find some dinner at a place big enough for an urban sketching evening. Aux Moules on Place Rihour was that place, we ate in the large room inside and the staff were very friendly. I did do some sketching on the paper placemat (as did others), and also drew a panorama. Sophie (who I had first met briefly at the Strasbourg USk France Rencontre in 2015, and who now lives in Strasbourg; her sketches are great and she also designs excellent posters) did ask if I minded that everyone spoke French (she knows my French is a bit rusty) but I said that I loved to listen, and that I did understand most of what was being said, but I probably couldn’t join in to speak as much! Vincent Desplanche had copies of his book of sketches from Japan to buy, I snapped that up.

Lille Aux Moules dinner 060522

My moules were great, the beer was nice and it was fun to meet up with old sketching friends (and listen to some French, if only occasionally speaking it!). It had been another long day, so I went off to bed and fell right asleep. Next day I would be off to Belgium for a few days of sketching and exploring.

la pluie à Lille

Lille Paul Bakery 060522 sm

The sudden storm from the night before turned into a steady shower through the night and all morning in Lille. I don’t mind, I like the rain, and the day before had been very sunny. On rainy days when travelling with a sketchbook you do have to be creative, and open to the fact that maybe you will need to sketch inside a lot more, or just have a different experience. I live in Davis California nowadays, so rain is a proper novelty. That said, I went out for breakfast pastries in the morning, and I just had to try and sketch the bakery. Paul is a chain, but the bakery still looked like a good sketch. However there was very little shelter across the street, so I stood back to the wall holding my sketchbook upright and drew what I could, adding in some colour when I got back to the dry hotel room to eat my pain au chocolat. Oh man, French pastries for breakfast is still my favourite thing to wake up. Although on our second trip to France in July, I could tell my wife was getting a bit bored of them. I particularly like the pain au chocolate aux amandes, the one with almonds in it, it’s delicious. Big fan of an escargot as well (the sticky raisin-filled pastry shaped like a snail’s shell).

Lille rue de la Monnaie

As I say, you have to be creative as a sketcher when it rains, and you also have to seize the best spots before they are taken. Here at the back side of the Notre Dame de la Treille cathedral in the middle of Lille I found a shop on Rue de la Monnaie that was not open but still had its awnings out, with a good view down the alleyway leading to the bluish-grey hued church. It was raining steadily but not yet too hard, and generally people weren’t under umbrellas. Another French sketcher came and started sketching underneath the awning too; events like this are nice because there are so many sketchers around and they all say hello to each other, and you get to see other peoples’ styles. Some more passed by, evidently looking for a dry spot. Several French sketchers I had met were seeing Lille for the first time, like me, though I did speak to a local while drawing this as well, he was telling me about how he loves living in Lille. It’s a nice place (and in a great location, so easy to get to London…). Though as with everywhere else in this part of Europe, you get used to the rain. I spent a year in Belgium, I saw my fair share (it rained a lot more there than even in London).

Lille Hospice Comtesse
Lille pumpkinheads

Next up, I stopped at the interesting-looking Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse. While I didn’t go inside the museum itself (I’m here to sketch outside! Rain be damned!) it was interesting to walk around the courtyard and some of the grounds. There is a big purple ‘cosmic serpent’ sculpture as you go inside – two serpents, actually – but it was just too wet to really draw those. There was a small covered area in front of a corridor facing the courtyard, where about four or five sketchers had installed themselves on various little stools. There wasn’t much room, but I squeezed in out of the way, and held my sketchbook vertically to attempt to draw the clocktower. It looks like the two serpents are waiting for someone to come and let them in, or out. The rain was pouring down by this point. I listened to the other sketchers talking in French, they had some very nice art styles. Behind us there was a corridor leading to the Jardin Médicinale, and I could see someone drawing what looked like a little figure with a pumpkin for a head. The sketcher left, and I drew the corridor with pumpkin man at the end of it. He looked a bit dejected, poor pumpkin head. I walked down to the little garden, and it was full of similar figures with pumpkins and other such vegetables for heads. Very realistic little people they were, with believable poses, doing things like watering the plants, or climbing a ladder – I drew that guy quickly. They are called Minitos, and were made by Jean-François Fourtou. according to the Lille 3000 Utopia site, this project originated in “a tale that the artist recounted to his daughter about little characters who lived underground in their garden, digging labyrinths and growing things in the vegetable garden.” I enjoyed being around them. The rain kept on coming down though and I was getting hungry (though maybe not for pumpkin soup), so I went to look for lunch.

bierchope

Lille Beerchope 060422

Saturday evening in Lille, I had dinner outside at a little restaurant near the Port de Gand as it got dark, eating a delicious ‘ch’timi galette’. I did keep seeing these things on the menus of all the ‘estaminets’ in the area called ‘Welsh’, which is apparently a local specialty. The descriptions I was given made it sound like they mostly had ham in them so I gave them a miss, as I don’t eat ham, but will look a bit harder for a non-ham one next time. I was out by myself, and I wanted to try some local Nord-Pas-de-Calais beer before heading to bed, and there was this one little place called ‘Bierchope’ that looked inviting. I could tell as soon as I walked in that this would be a sketch, though you don’t see all the bottles behind glass along the wall behind me. This place had a ridiculous selection, specializing in all the beers in that part of France, so I sat next to a group of people all chatting in the northern French dialect, ordered a really nice beer called ‘Beer Choper’ (the label was amazing), and got the sketchbook out. Within minutes, a massive rumble of thunder. Outside, rain started absolutely belting it down. Minutes earlier I had been sat out there at a table with a galette wondering what a Welsh was, but I’m generally lucky when it comes to these things. The downpour was so heavy and sudden, the noise of the rain was almost matched by the panicked patter of feet splashing down the street for cover. Well, I guess I’m in here for the evening. Flashes of lightning raised a few eyebrows as they reflected through the bar. The bartender was very friendly and played great music. All along the stairwell were framed illustrations of other bar and cafe scenes, not too dissimilar in style to the way I like to draw. When I’m relaxed like this and in a good mood, the drawing really comes easy and quickly. I had had a good day of sketching – it’s never enough, I always need more drawings, but this was a good way to round things out. For my second beer, I went to the barman and asked his opinion, what local beer should I drink? Without even asking what I liked, he grabbed a bottle from the fridge, opened it and handed it to me, a beer from a local brewery with a name like ‘Piggy’, I don’t remember exactly. It was ‘coconut flavoured’, he assured me. A bit too much so, for my liking, but I bought it and I drank it. Not sure of the coconut connection to the coal mining towns of the Ch’Ti region but I suppose when it’s stormy outside, it reminds you of being in the stormy tropics, on a beach somewhere. I really liked this place, and this was my favourite sketch from Lille. Had I not been travelling from north London since 7am and wandering about Lille with a sketchbook all day, I might have stayed for another beer recommendation, but my bed was calling, and I had a full day’s sketching and exploring ahead of me the next day. Just before I left Bierchope, the rain completely stopped. Perfect.

Lille weekend

Lille Beffroi 060422

I arrived in Lille by Eurostar and was immediately overcome with a pretty happy feeling, the one I always used to get when arriving in a foreign country. I had all the time in the world. I was in Lille to attend the Urban Sketchers France Rencontre Nationale, a huge gathering of sketchers from all over France and neighbouring countries, just to sketch everything, not a bunch of workshops like the Symposium, it’s just all about sketching and gathering. I last went to one in 2015 in Strasbourg, one of my favourite cities: https://petescully.com/tag/usk-rencontre-nationale-2015/, and have always wanted to come back to France and sketch again. I usually know a lot of the people that come to these ones, and I have to work on French; this time I didn’t really tell many of my francophone sketching friends I’d be coming, mostly because I wasn’t 100% sure myself that I would make it. After the past three years, along with the family events happening in London (the day before was my dad’s birthday), I had low expectations of this trip actually happening, so I didn’t want to go making plans. So it was really funny when I first arrived in Lille just after lunchtime on the Saturday and was looking for my hotel, when I bumped into sketching friends Fabien DeNoel (from Belgium) and Vincent Desplanche (from southern France), drawing a complicated building across the street. That was a nice surprise! Fabien told me that Gerard Michel (his uncle and one of the urban sketchers I’ve known since the very start, I stayed at his house a few years ago before the Amsterdam Symposium) was sketching in the main square, but I could not find him. My hotel was very close to the square, which is pretty big, and so after putting my things away I went outside and drew the scene above, from right across the street. That is a very similar view to the one I did in my Virtual Tour de France last year (a virtual sketching project I am still working on, very slowly – I have had two real visits to France since starting the virtual one). The huge Beffroi of the Chamber of Commerce is impressive. Lille is an impressive place, and I can’t believe I’d never visited before, given how close it is to London. The station where the Eurostar stops was only a short walk away from the centre-ville, and the city had a nice buzz about it, a ‘first weekend in June’ kind of feel. I could see sketchers dotted about all over the place, I didn’t see many other faces I recognized yet, but I could walk past Godzilla and not notice. I passed through the Place du Theatre past the opera – there was a big musical performance happening outside. There was a pretty lavish looking building opposite – the Vieille Bourse – that I passed through, there was a courtyard in the middle with booksellers and a bunch of sketchers, and on the other side was the Grand Place du General de Gaulle, a big busy square. There were people with sketchbooks everywhere. I found a shaded spot under a tree directly facing the Bourse, and took to sketching all those windows. Other sketchers I spoke to in the following couple of days had also been sketching all those windows, so many windows. Every window counts! But they really do seem to multiply as you start drawing. As I was sketching, the Grand Place became more and more colourful, as this was the weekend of Lille Pride. They came through at just the right moment, a way to break up the monotony of drawing so many windows.

Lille Grand Place 060422

It’s hard to draw so many people moving past but I gave it a go! It was a very musical and entertaining parade, so colourful (using the waterbrush you have to be quick doing the colour changes) but thnakfully some people did stop for a bit so I was able to sketch them for longer. There is one sketcher on the edge of the picture, she was stood to my left, I think she was from Paris. My favourite sign was the one that read “Mieux Vaut 1 Paire de Mères qu’un Père de Merde” (“Better to have one pair of mothers than one shit father”; the pun works better in French). There was also one guy I sketched who kind of reminded me of Timmy Mallet. I wanted to draw the large elephant that was passing by as well (not a real elephant, just a massive painted model) but it went by so fast all I could get was a brief sketch of it from behind. Once the parade had all passed through, I got back to sketching the windows of the Bourse. I do enjoy drawing parades and marches, because it’s an intense quick piece of work and you have no idea how it will go, or what is most important to draw bigger or smaller, so all you can do is draw reactively and see how it ends up, and however it ends up, that is the experience. That said, I’d not been around so many people in a while – well, at least two days, since the Jubilee, a different crowd with more blues and reds and royalism – so my crowd panic was in there, and at those times I need to be drawing something to stay relaxed. The colours and music and festive atmosphere helped though.

Lille Pride March 060422

It was a pretty warm afternoon, and so I wandered off for a cold drink, and found one of very few places that sold Pepsi Max, and sat outside to draw the view below, looking towards the thin tower of the Hotel de Ville. I like the distinct style of the towers on buildings in the far north of France, it reminds me of passing by places like Calais on the coach when I was young, along with the unusual water towers dotted around the countryside. I used to say I would love to write a book about those water-towers, and draw them all, but actually when I think about it, no I wouldn’t, I’d rather do something else with my time. I do like this particualr tower in Lille though, it’s comically thin, like a belfry that’s been on a diet. I enjoy drawing these streets, and if you look closely, some of the buildings look like the French flag.

Lille Rue Mauroy 060422

I looked up where the early evening pre-dinner meeting of sketchers was going to be, and I walked over there but most of the people had left. I did see another sketcher who recognized me from one of the London sketchcrawls a few years ago, and a few other faces I wasn’t sure if I remembered. I didn’t have a ticket to the main dinner event and planned to meet up with my French sketching amis the next evening, so I just went back to the hotel, and rested my legs before heading out for dinner. The sky was grey by this point – rain was coming in – but the early summer evening light meant i had to grab one last outside sketch, so I drew the distinctive dome of the Hotel Carlton. I would have liked to have stayed here, but I saved a few Euros and stayed at the Ibis instead. The sunset was not so dramatic, but the light had a dramatic effect on me so I interpreted it like this – it may have been shades of sunlit grey but this is how it felt. There’s a lot you can do with a grey sky. I only needed the outline and a column of details down the middle and the sketch was done, this is all you need for the mind to fill in the rest, but this also makes the main focus stand out. I was quite proud of this sketch. The day being done, I went off to find some food.

Lille Hotel Carlton

VTDF #5: Rouen

05 - Rouen

The real Tour De France finished a couple of days ago in Paris – Tadej Pogačar from Slovenia won his second Tour De France title, on penalties after extra time, I don’t understand the rules. Well done though, that’s great; he won it last time around too in 2020. Looking at the list of recent winners I recognize a lot of the names, several Brits, and of course Wiggo in 2012. There was someone called ‘No Winner’ who won a lot of them between 1999 and 2005, wonder what happened there, someone with strong arms and stronger legs. But I digress, as you cannot do on a Tour De France. We rejoin the Virtual Tour on stage five, in the region of Normandy and its historic capital of ROUEN

I loved drawing this, as you can tell. Give me a street of half-timbered buildings and I am happy as an appropriate metaphor. Rouen has no shortage of such streets to draw. There are a lot of people too; people add some life to a scene, and create a tangible perspective for us to understand the geometry of the space. Also, a clown with green hair, because every drawing needs a clown with green hair. I have never been to Rouen; I did study the medieval Normans when I was doing my MA in medieval English, my final dissertation focused on the relationship between English and French, in particular Anglo-Norman, the variety of French used in medieval England for a few centuries following the conquest. Specifically I explored the apparent antagonism between the two languages as England moved from French-speaking governance to English-speaking governance, while the English language evolved as it blended with the Anglo-Norman style of French, which itself was becoming seen as a bit of a less-prestigious version compared to that of Paris, even mocked by Chaucer. Rouen, on the river Seine, was the Norman capital – it still is – but was founded by the Gauls, and called ‘Rotomagus’ in Roman times. Famed Rose-Wars-King Edward IV of England was born here. So was famed toilet-sideways-turner Marcel Duchamp, and famed Euro-2000-final-golden-goal-scorer David Trezeguet. And Formula 1 driver Pierre Gasly, which is appropriate because the very first competitive motor-race in the world went from Paris to Rouen in 1894, the “Concours du ‘Petit Journal’ Les Voitures sans Chevaux”. That first race was won by Albert Lemaitre in a Peugeot, although he actually crossed the line second, because the driver who originally came first, Jules-Albert, Comte de Dion, was disqualified due to his engine being ineligible, not the last time someone would win a race in France but later have it stripped for breaking the rules. The Road to Rouen, also a Supergrass album.

You’ll notice Monoprix on the left. Monoprix is a chain of department stores in France that we used to go to all the time in Aix. They had food on the basement floor, clothes on the first floor, upstairs they had TVs and fridges and kids toys, and I would go there for notebooks and pens and stuff. The food was a little more expensive than at Super U but not much, but not as cheap as the cheapy store “Ed”. I remember it would take a long time to find the fresh milk. It felt like doing a fantasy role play quest, trying to find the fresh milk in Monoprix, or any other French supermarket. They like the old UHT over there, but to me that tastes like shite. They make up for it though with their other dairy products, and I really love the French cheese. I remember back in first year French class when Mr Smith brought in a variety of disgusting smelling French cheeses for us to try, and despite being floored by the smell I did like the taste. I remember trying Pont L’Eveque, a cheese from Normandy, and it not being like anything else I’d had before. I do love to go into a cheese shop in France and get the whiff of Camembert whack me in the nose as I walk through the door. Someone asked me once what my favourite French cheese was, I told them I don’t have a favourite French cheese, but if I had to choose I’d probably say my favourite French cheese was ‘Fromage’. Actually in all seriousness I really like Laughing Cow, “the thinking man’s Dairylee triangle”. In French they call it ‘Le Vache Qui Rit’, ‘The Cow Who Laughs’. It sounds like a piece of nouvelle vague cinema. “Le triangle de dairylee de l’homme qui pense.”

And on that note, we sail down the river Seine away from Rouen to the coastal town of Honfleur. Toute à l’heure! 

VTDF #4: Amiens

04 Amiens

Stage 4 of the Virtual Tour de France finds us in the northern city of AMIENS, on the river (and department) Somme. It is difficult to say the name ‘Somme’ without thinking of the historic atrocity of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, in World War I. Three million soldiers fought in that battle, with over a million wounded or killed. Amiens is right in the heart of World War 1 country, and itself saw a 1918 battle that ended in an Allied victory. World War II didn’t exactly pass it by either, with another Battle of Amiens in 1940 when Germany took the town, and later on pretty heavy bombardment by the Allies in 1944 before it was liberated. There were wars and sieges and sackings here in the many centuries before, but Amiens and the Somme are inescapably linked with the awful World Wars.

This is a nice view though, down by the river, looking up at the cathedral. I could imagine coming here and eating lunch by the Somme, before driving on to another town for a bit more history. I found out recently that an ancestor of mine from Dublin fought in World War 1 and was wounded in a gas attack at Loos, not far from Lens. I saw my great-great grandfather’s photo (his name was James Higgins, as was his father, and his son who I think also fought in that war?) and he had the most amazing bushy “General Melchett” moustache. He wasn’t a general though, just a regular soldier. I also saw a postcard he sent home to his wife (my great-great granny) in Dublin from Loos before the battle took place. Fascinating stuff, I never knew he even existed until recently. I never inherited the moustache. It was a big handlebar one with two pointy tails, that reminds me a bit of the Red Bull logo, or two rats fighting. I would not know how to take care of an amazing moustache like that, I would probably get it in my soup, this is why I shave. I only briefly had a moustache, though it was part of a goatee, and that was for a few months in the 90s and that my friend is where for most people goatees should have stayed. Funnily enough I never saw anyone in France with that classic French moustache, the one with the twirly sides, that all cartoon French people have (along with the beret and the onions and the baguette), but I have seen many hipster people in America wear that ‘tache. I couldn’t pull it off.

There does appear what looks like a lifesize Subbuteo figure standing in the river, to the left there. I think it is called “L’Homme sur sa bouée” (“The man on his buoy”). It seems that it’s common for the people of the town to dress him up, put t-shirts on him and so on. He is the work of German sculptor Stephan Balkenhol and was originally installed there in 1993, but being made of wood and manhandled by so many locals it degraded a fair bit over the years and was replaced in 2019 by the artist, this time in aluminium. Or maybe it is still wood but now painted in aluminium, it’s hard to tell. L’Homme sur sa bouée has become a bit of local celebrity in Amiens. There are two other similar statues by the same artist placed nearby against the walls of buildings that the man in the river is looking at. If I ever got to Amiens I will look out for them all. 

After Amiens we leave Picardy behind and head into another part of France famous for its role in World War II: Normandy. So join me on the Road to Rouen. 

VTDF #3: Lille

03 Lille

We have arrived at Stage 3 of the Virtual Tour De France, leaving Boulogne and the English Channel behind for now and heading to one of the biggest metropoles in France, the city of LILLE. In real life, I have only ever been here once, to change from a coach at the coach station to a train at the train station. That was on my way to Belgium, when I spent a year there during university. Despite Lille being so close by, and looking quite nice on my brief dash through the streets, I never returned. Originally I was supposed to spend my year in the nearby city of Tournai, a pleasant looking town, but this was changed at the last minute to the city of Charleroi, which is a less pleasant looking town. Next year the Urban Sketchers France Rencontre Nationale will be held in Lille, so if I’m lucky enough to travel at that time, I might try to go to. Being not far from both London and Belgium I can fit them all in. For now, I just have to make do with travelling via the magic of Google Street View.

There were a lot of places I could sketch in virtual Lille. I chose this one because I could tell there was going to be a theme of clock towers, or just towers in general, in my drawings. Maybe then I could call it “Tours de France”. I think I just needed to do a big complicated piece with lots of windows and perspective, although I didn’t quite intend for the tower to curve inward so much. I blame the reference, as well as the angle my sketchbook was at on my cramped desk. This is also so far the only one I decided not to colour in, just leaving the flags for a bit of bold accent. If I drew this in person, I may choose not to spend so long drawing all those windows. The perspective would also be very different, more in line with human eyes and not the differently-curved lens of a camera. It would also be lower down. It should be obvious in a sketch where the sketcher was standing. It’s obvious in this sketch for example that this was done from a photo taken by a camera taller than a human. If a person would have drawn this, they were either standing on a table, or they have a very long neck. 

Lille – Rijsel in Flemish – is in the French part of Flanders, not the Dutch speaking part which is over the border. It’s the birthplace of Charles De Gaulle, one of the most famous Frenchmen of all time, as well as footballer Nabil Bentaleb, who played for Tottenham for a couple of years. This year the Lille football team (‘LOSC’) held back the oil-state-backed riches of Paris St.Germain to win the Ligue 1 title for the first time since 2011. These days that is quite an achievement, as PSG have been dominating since they won the Gulf-State Lottery, when they never did before. When Lille last won Ligue 1, it was in the middle of a period from 2008 to 2013 where there were six different French champions in six years – Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille, Lille, Montpellier, and PSG. I am quite into French football, and have been since I visited France in the mid-90s when I was studying French A-Levels at college and discovered the amazing France Football magazine. At that time Lille were not really prominent, but a few other teams that have since fallen to the wayside were, for example Nantes, Auxerre and the local derby rivals of Lille, RC Lens. I decided not to stop in Lens on the Virtual Tour, partly because you can’t stop everywhere, partly because there wasn’t much I wanted to draw. Lens, just south of Lille, is in the heart of the mining country of northern France, and this region, including Lille, is the land of Ch’ti. Ch’ti or Ch’timi is the local Picard dialect of Nord/Pas-De-Calais, and not a dialect I have ever studied much of. There was a French film set in the Nord department called “Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’Tis“, which I’ve not seen yet, but was apparently massive in France. It’s translated as “Welcome To the Sticks”, which tells you how the French see the Nord. While the Nord area of France seems really close to me, coming from south-east England, to the rest of France it feels pretty far away and remote. My first knowledge of Ch’ti comes from a French friend I had in Provence, Florian, who gifted me a large bottle of Ch’ti beer when we watched a World Cup game together. I’ve read that the “Ch'” sound is sometimes used instead of “Le” or “La”, for example in “Ch’Carette” (The Car) or “Ch’Co” (The Cat); instead of “toi” and “moi” they say “ti” and “mi”, so that’s where “Ch’timi comes from. I suppose. I need to read more about this dialect. It has been a long time since I studied this stuff; at the library I used to pore over the Routledge book “The Romance Languages” which explored all the different dialects of French, Italian, Spanish etc, but haven’t read about this subject in years. Still, every time I think of Ch’ti I think of the taste of the cold refreshing beer Florian gave me in that hot summer in Aix-en-Provence. One day I’ll drink one sat outside a cafe in Lille, sketching and reading the latest France Football. 

Next up in this journey, we’ll go into Picardy itself and to the city of Amiens. 

VTDF #2: Boulogne-Sur-Mer

02 - Boulogne

Stage 2 of the Virtual Tour De France finds us in BOULOGNE-SUR-MER, a little further down the Côte d’Opale from Calais. This image shows us the town square, with the historic Belfry (a UNESCO world heritage site), the town hall, a cafe, some bins, a cracked plate, a giant watering can, and a massive aubergine, what Americans would call an eggplant. When scouting locations to virtually draw, this was obviously the right choice. Boulogne is a historic town (they all will be, by the way, I’m unlikely to draw a town on this virtual tour and say “yeah, no history here lads”), going back to the Romans, being fought over between the French and the English in that famous war (“100 Years Of Hurt”), and of course during World Wars I and II. Napoleon used Boulogne to amass the Grande Armée ahead of his planned invasion of the Nation of Shopkeepers, but had to abort those plans when he realized those shopkeepers only allow two kids in their shop at a time, to prevent shoplifting. Foiled again, Boney! This part of the world, northern France, saw a lot of action in those wars and its legacy is inescapable. There was a large battle here in 1940 that ended in a German victory, shortly before the evacuation of Dunkirk, but the Allies were back in 1944 to take the town in Operation Wellhit, which is a name I love, because it sounds like WellHard. But of course as with so many other kids from south-east England, Boulogne is synonymous with school trips to France, easy access from Dover and Folkestone. We would go over for the day on a coach, and a ferry, walk about town a bit, take a big group photo, look at some old buildings, then go to the Hypermarkets for an hour or so to buy some cheese or foreign chocolate before driving back to London. I will never forget buying a chocolate bar called “CRAP”. It was probably the greatest moment of my childhood, being about 12 and finding a chocolate bar called “CRAP”. I kept the wrapper pinned to my cork-board in my bedroom for years like a trophy. Other people won football tournaments, spelling competitions, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I found chocolate bars with funny names. My other favourite as you may remember is Big Nuts, from Belgium. 

We did do a longer school trip here though in around 1990, in the third year, spending several days in a beach suburb of Boulogne called Le Portel. I have many memories from the trip, although at the same time my memory is very foggy. We visited a World War II Blockhaus, a huge concrete fortification from which Hitler and co fired massive rockets to bomb the UK. We went down to Paris one day as well, walked about by the Seine, looked at the Eiffel Tower, giggled at the Pigalle as our coach passed by. It was the first time any of us had seen a cop with a real gun. We all stood behind him waiting to cross the road pointing at the holster on his belt, we had only ever seen cops with guns on American TV shows. I remember we even visited Sangatte, the site where they were building this new thing, ‘Le Tunnel Sous Le Manche‘, an actual tunnel going under the English Channel, which I had thought was a pipe dream (haha) but now it was becoming real, and that meant that of course French rats would crawl through and give us all rabies, so that’s all we talked about. We stayed at a hotel near the beach, the perfect place for groups of kids to misbehave. My friend got banned from all future school trips for doing a ‘moony’ in the hallway. Another friend got his bag stolen off his shoulder in the street by a local kid on a moped, those local kids loved their mopeds and their bag-theft. In general though it was just usual teenage fun and games, mostly staying up chatting too late at night, to the point where our teachers actually had to wait in our rooms until everyone was asleep. It must have been great fun being a teacher on one of those school trips with a bunch of 13-14 year olds, huh. I had a little tape recorder I would bring around and we’d tape ourselves chatting nonsense on the school bus and listen to it later. I remember the tape getting very mangled so everything was distorted, I think we tried to add that mangled noise in to the background of one of our songs a couple of years later when we were trying to be a band. I do remember buying a record on that trip though at a local record shop, a stupid looking French comedy song with a ridiculous cover of classic French beret and mariniere wearing onions-and-baguettes types, I think it was called ‘Vive La France’ , but of course it couldn’t play on my tape player because it was a vinyl record, so I had to wait until I got back to England to discover it was unlistenable shite. It probably put me off French music for years. Apart from that, the memories are a blur, but good memories anyway. I’ve never been back to Boulogne. 

Today is July 14, what we call Bastille Day (but the French don’t), the French national holiday. Right now the real Tour de France is on Stage 17 already, zooming around the Pyrenees from Muret to Saint-Lary Soulan Col De Portet, and should be in Paris in just a few days time. For this Virtual Tour, our next stop will be in the home of the newly crowned French football champions, Lille. A bientôt!

Virtual Tour De France #1: CALAIS

01 - Calais

Last Spring, barely two months into The Pandemic That Still Isn’t Anywhere Near Over, I was so anxious about not being able to travel back to England or anywhere that I developed an insatiable wanderlust. I literally wanted to go everywhere. At this point I wasn’t even going to downtown Davis, I was Staying At Home, Sheltering In Place, Locking Down. So I travelled all over the entire island of Great Britain, something I’ve always wanted to do, and drew it all in one sketchbook, and then wrote silly things about it on here like you do. It wasn’t a real journey of course, same as everything it was Virtual, all done by exploring Google Street View. 66 sketches, because 66 has some magical significance in Britain, or some parts of it anyway (I was hoping 21 might supersede it but oh well). I explored a lot more than I actually drew. You can see an album of the whole thing here. Anyway it was such a fun journey of discovery of my native island that I decided I needed to do another one. This second one was done last summer, much shorter, all around Dublin, home of my forebears and countless distant cousins. That one is here. “So where next?” I thought. I wanted to do a tour of the whole of Europe. Maybe it would be narrower, following only the places I visited on my 1998 round-Europe-on-the-trains trip. That’s a really good idea actually, I might as they say “put a pin in that one”. (Why do they say that? Do they want to burst their balloon?)  But no, I have always dreamed of doing a proper tour of France, or “Tour the France” as they say. Great idea, I thought, and I can finish it by the time the real Tour De France starts and then post the whole thing with stories of my Virtual journey, mixed in with real stories of my own experiences in the Real France, not just the Made Up France (like Emily in Paris). I have a bit of ‘histoire’ with France, although it’s hardly ‘Year In Provence’ stuff. Except no, I did actually spend a Year In Provence, so maybe it is? Maybe – definitely – I don’t really know what I am talking about most of the time, but who does? Peter Mayle? I’m also called Peter, I’m also Male, so maybe I have more in common with him than I thought. I’ll tell you something though that I’ve not thought about in years – I started drawing again while I lived in France, and part of that might have been that I enjoyed the sketched illustrations in the copy of A Year In Provence that I owned at the time that I wanted to draw more myself. So anyway, I plotted out a doable tour of France that would fit into one single sketchbook. I wasn’t going to use the same format as before – these would all be bigger, maybe more detailed drawings across two pages, same dimensions, so that they would all connect. Great idea, I think I will be done in about a year. Where to start? The Great Britain one started in London, ended in John O’Groats, but you can’t start a Tour de France in Paris. You have to end in Paris, cycling up the Champs-Élysées with a sketchbook and a baguette under my arm. For someone from Britain, there is only one place to start, and that’s Calais. So that’s where we begin our tour. And just like passport control and customs checks since the B-word happened, it’s taken us a very long wait to get here.

And of course, today is le 14 juillet, 14th of July, known to us as Bastille Day. No better day to start a tour de France than the French Fête Nationale.  

CALAIS, the first stage of the tour, actually used to be English. That is, it was ruled by England for a couple of centuries until 1558, before “Coming Home” to France (“England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away…” they sang). They called it the “jewel in the English crown” for some reason. Seriously the English monarchs loved it, mostly for its hypermarkets and duty-free ciggies. The area around Calais is called the ‘Pas de Calais’, which I assumed when I first learnt French was because it was the area that was ‘Not Calais’, like this bit’s Calais, this bit isn’t. I thought, surely the whole of France is Pas De Calais? Or the world? Or everything in existence? Those school day-trips to northern France with me were long, I can tell you. We never actually came to Calais on a school day trip, we did go to Boulogne though. I’ll talk about Boulogne next time. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually came to Calais, walked around, asked “où est la boulangerie?”, not once in my life, but I have passed through it so many times. When I used to come back and forth to Europe on the old Eurolines bus, I passed through Calais so many times on the way to somewhere else. That’s what Calais is, a wayfarer’s stopping off point. That bus would get off the ferry at Calais from Dover, the ferry I took so many times, early in the morning, late at night, middle of the afternoon, and the thing I remember most those first few times was the feeling that I was actually abroad. I had passed through the magical barrier from the usual normalcy of England, and now everything was in French, the signs were different fonts, the service station toilets were all different, and of course everyone spoke French, really fast. Not slow, like in Mr. Smith’s French class at school. There were water towers dotted around the Pas De Calais countryside, all unusual shapes and sizes. I will admit, I had no idea what they were for years. Its something you see in America all the time, but not something you come across too often in London. In northern France though they were exotic space-age sculptures saying “you are very, very far from home“, when in fact I was nearer home than if I went to my aunt’s in Norfolk. (though Norfolk always felt very, very far away when I was a kid, so not a great analogy). The thing that stood out in my memory of passing through Calais though was the unusually large clock tower, posing over the town and flexing its stocky neck muscles as it looks out towards England, 27 miles or so away. So that is what drew, the Hotel de Ville, a tall ‘tour’ for the first stop on the Tour de France. 

Once the Channel Tunnel started becoming the route of choice for coaches going over the English Channel, the days of me taking the ferry like in the 1990s were numbered. Now if I go to mainland Europe from London I fly, or take the Eurostar train. I will be honest, I will probably never visit Calais, jewel in English crown or not, it’s always in my mind been a place to go through to get somewhere better, even if the next place on this tour is Boulogne (which I always thought of as the less cool little brother to Calais, the Folkestone to its Dover). I miss the ferry though. It was a real transitional journey, seeing those mossy green White Cliffs get smaller and smaller, sitting in that big area with the bar and the comfy seats while your Eurolines bus driver recognized you from the bus and asked if you could carry in a couple of boxes of ciggies for him so he didn’t have to pay duty on them (actually happened; I told him “no I don’t think so mate”), going up on deck to feel the English Channel air on your face while someone nearby vomits either from seasickness or one too many G&Ts from the ferry bar, going back down to the vehicle deck when it was time to go and looking for where your bus was out of the seemingly hundreds down there, choking on carbon monoxide, yeah no I don’t miss the Dover-Calais ferry as much as I thought I did. Ok, so that is Calais – next stop Boulogne-sur-Mer…