Transforming Hermitage

The first weekend of January, S and I wrung out a final evening of holidays with an overnight stay at a hotel here in Lille. We’d been offered a 24-hour pass by Nanabee, aka Grandma, and we wanted to make the most of the time. We could’ve hopped a train to Paris, or even gone back to Amsterdam or Bruges, but we agreed that the most profitable use of our time was not traveling, nor was it touristing. We needed a good night’s sleep, and a bit of pampering on the side.

L’Hermitage Gantois was the answer. S chose it because GG, our local culture expert, had recommended it; I approved the suggestion because it had a pool. Yet neither one of us really knew what we were in for, because who does research on hotels? It was enough to know the price – on the very upper end of affordable – and the rating – five stars. It turns out that L’Hermitage Gantois is the sort of place that doesn’t exist in North America, a blending of (very) old and (very) new that’s baked so deeply in, it makes time feel as if it were racing in both directions at once.

Gantois started its life in the late 15th century – that’s about 500 years if you’re counting – as a hospice, which were the closest things Europe had to hospitals back then. Eventually, it expanded to include a chapel, then a monastery, and then got converted into an actual hospital for a couple of centuries before becoming a hotel in 1995. French history has gone through occasional phases of slash-and-burn, especially where religious institutions are concerned – and then there were all those pesky world wars – but somehow the hermitage escaped both figurative and literal scorched earth. And the key to its survival: adaptation.

Consider the front façade. On Rue de Paris, one sees several distinct buildings that show little signs of connectedness. One has the rounded red bricks and tiny carved wooden doors of yesteryear, but walk a few paces and you’re looking at an aggressively modern pre-rusted metal wall, carved with hundreds of tiny geometric shapes, as if the architect left holes for passersby to peek through. Voyeurs will get a treat: this building houses the spa, wherein blissed customers promenade in terrycloth robes and rubber flip-flops, meandering from the pool to the sauna or back. Outside of time.

As I said, the pool was a plus for me, and I headed straight there after check-in. Alas, it turned out not to be ideal for casual lengths. Casual something, maybe – all the occupants were paired off and snuggled together in shadowy corners, and this being France, they were all young and gorgeous. However, I didn’t find the pool’s vibe particularly sexy: the chrome and bronze tiling and the blue LED underlighting gave it a chilly sci-fi aesthetic, and every few minutes the drains made loud slurping noises. The sauna wasn’t much better; every time S felt a drop of hot water condense and drip onto her shoulders, she expected a xenomorph to follow. After thirty minutes, we abandoned the future and returned the past.

Like all hospitals, Gantois is a maze. Some corridors are low-ceilinged and askew, and full of squat wood doors with the names of saints hand-painted in gold upon the lintels. Other hallways soar, bright rafters curving overhead like the hull of an inverted ship. Hand-woven rugs cover cherry-red tiles. Every few meters there’s artwork, some evoking the building’s original period, but just as much is modern, or post-modern, or anything in between.

Our room is elegant, with a vintage wingback chair on one side and a transparent plastic chair on the other. The walls are blond wood-panelled, the bed is broad and comfy, and the desk has all the usual array of overpriced snacks – chips, jellied candies, nuts – and, oh yes, a box of complimentary crickets.

I can’t tell you how tempting it was to ignore L’Hermitage Gantois altogether, and write 1,000 words about this little box of crickets. I might’ve done exactly that, except I was stumped trying to decide what details would get priority. Would I start by describing the flavour, as advertised upon the box (pepper and sun-dried tomato)? Or the flavours of the other insect-based treats (smoky BBQ grasshoppers, garlic mealworms etc.) offered by this company? Or the name of the company itself? No – I would open with the slogan of this (proudly French) company: découvrez, croquez, partagez. “Discover, chew, share.” But then, isn’t the most amazing thing about our box of crunchy crickets actually the plastic window on the side – so that you can verify, yes, absolutely, this box contains crickets. To be eaten. By us.

We did not eat the crickets, since the one thing not printed on the box was their cost. Instead, we wandered through the time-displaced hotel, admiring the glass-covered courtyard/bar, which ingeniously connects all the separate buildings in a place where you can drink; the oratory/conference room, with its windowed wooden cabinet containing clockwork for a giant clock overlooking one of the many courtyard gardens; the subdued museum, with relics of both the medieval period and the 1920s hospital era, with tools and implements that out-medieval the medieval. After all the discombobulating chronological displacement, it came as no surprise to find that the oldest room in the complex – the original, 15th century hospice – was being set up for a PowerPoint presentation.

With a half millennium of pain and suffering under its belt, I fully expected Gantois to be full of ghosts. However, if it is haunted, the spectral residents have obviously worked out some arrangement with the staff, because they gave us no trouble. We slept soundly, and late – five-star hotels have extremely civilized check-out times – and left knowing we probably wouldn’t be able to afford another stay anytime soon. But so what? For a lovely evening, time stood still.

P.S. The name of the company that makes the tasty crickets? Jimini’s. It’s enough to make a writer quit fiction.

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