How can a slag heap be the most popular Tourist destination – Welcome to Lens!

France is a beautiful country (apart from Paris, but more about that one later)…Some of the most historic and beautiful places in France have short names – Lyon, Nice, Nimes, Tours and Lille all come to mind. So what image does Lens strike up to the uninitiated? Perhaps opulent, clear and reflective would be suitable based on its optical name – oh how wrong you would be.

In 1998 the town was chosen to host a number of games in the World Cup. Despite millions of francs spent on the town and the stadium it resembled a dump. A few years later I visited for an evening game between Lens and Bordeaux and I noticed how like Mansfield the town was. Now I have no disrespect for Mansfield – I once spent a lovely evening in Mansfield with a girl I had met at the Parole office but its not the place you would decide to use as a host venue for the world’s third biggest sporting tournament. In fact it appeared driving into the town that nothing had changed. The bars were still closed, the charity shops had multiplied and the locals still assumed that chamber pots needed to be emptied onto the street.

So we break from the norm at this point – “theballisround” becomes the “ballisoval” as the Rugby World Cup has commenced in France and being a newly appointed “hack” I have managed to acquire media accreditation which makes attending these tournaments so much easier – i.e free tickets, free food, free programmes and access to hear the monotonous tones of the England team. England’s first game is against that massive rugby power US of A in the pretty town of Lens. As the town is only 50 miles and 35 minutes south of Calais, the English contingent was always going to be large. Alighting from one of the frequent shuttles from Folkstone (Cheriton to the upper class), we jointed the modern equivalent of wacky races south on the A1 to Lens. Avoiding the temptation to stop off at “Eastenders” (All your beer and fags under one roof and jellied eels thrown in for free) we navigated via the two huge slag heaps to park close to the stadium within the hour. Now Lens is apparently on the up. The Louvre have decided to locate their “Extension” in the town from 2009 – basically any items that are deemed important enough to display in Paris will be displayed here – so expect to see some famous anal splatter art from artists that no one knows or cares about in the near future.

If you pick up any guide book (such as the excellent Purple Guides book to the RWC) they will tell you that Lens doesn’t actually have any sights for visitors – whilst not strictly true (I did see a nice fountain at one point), and that the major attractions are monuments to the war dead in the various huge cemeteries north of the city. So with that in mind we headed immediately for a bar opposite the stadium to watch the Australians demolish the Japanese.

An hour later we entered the stadium and headed straight for the bar. Now bear in mind that this is the Heneiken World Cup – so you would expect lots of bars serving beer…..Well you’d be wrong. In the stadium there were lots of bars alright – all service Amstel alcohol-free lager…..WHY???? There are no restrictions in England in terms of alcohol so why here? Was it the presence of so many English fans, or simply a ruse to bolster the sales of a product that nobody would normally been seen dead drinking.  I should just point out that my traveling companion for this trip was Mrs Doubtfire – aka Joel.  A man who can find a grumble at a moments notice even if he was surrounded by the mythical 72 virgins promised by you-know-who.  We are due to rendezvous with Ginger Pete who had planned a two week trip in a camper van with his girlfriend and a couple of mates.

Once I had sorted the relevant paperwork and had my pass in hand we joined Ginger Pete and his mates, careful to avoid CEO Geoff who had taken my tickets off me (Well – lets put it this way.  If you have 2 tickets that you could either give to a mate, or sell at face value to your CEO what would you do in terms of long term career progression).  I headed into the media area an hour before kick off to take advantage of the free food and a couple more beers before heading up into the stadium.

The other strange factor about this game was that somewhere the powers that be decided to kick off the England v Israel football match at Wembley at exactly the same time – thus depriving local bars in both Neasden and Lens the opportunity to almost double their takings. But as we live in today’s television dominated world I am not surprised by anything (even the Russian FA’s decision to kick off their match versus England at 11pm is no a surprise these days).

Lens as a football venue is not bad. Man Utd came and visited last year and there was an element of trouble, caused by fans trying to squeeze through one single gap behind the goal. It has four huge two tier stands, each of which holds around 8,000 fans. In fact the stadium has a capacity of over 40,000 – which is quite amazing since the town itself only has a population of 38,000! The game itself was uneventful, and by the 60 minute mark I had retreated into the media lounge to watch the England v Israel game.  England as World Cup champions still had been hyped up before the tournament and nothing but a convincing win would do for the media.  Instead it was a struggle from the moment the team had run out and caught a glimpse of the pure golden trophy they had owned for the past 4 years.  No team had ever retained the Webb Ellis Trophy and based on the way that players like Lewsey, Tindall and Corry struggled it was hard to see where the inspiration in the team was going to come from.  Paul Sackay was the only plus point in the game, a feature that was to repeat itself on a number of occasions in the next four weeks.

After the game we all met up and decided to head back to Bethune, a small town around 30 miles north of Lens for some food.  It turned out to be a great decision, despite the temperature falling, and the associated problems with having 7 people in the car meaning parking the car in a tight spot was a bit of a problem.  Anyway, a nice mean al fresco under our belt kept up our strength for the 3am Eurotunnel back to the UK.  We would all meet again in a few weeks in Paris when the English hopes would be so different.  But for now it was au revoir to Francais.

The Stadium – Stade Félix Bollaert
Route de Béthune, Lens

Capacity – 41,810 All Seater

There were a few raised eyebrows locally when the decision was made in the early 1990’s to expand the stadium to over 40,000, with a population of the town of Lens at just 37,000. However, such is the passion and interest locally of the team that the stadium is often full. It is a very British stadium, with four steep two teir stands that are close to the touchline. All stands offer unobstructed views of the action The stadium frequently hosts Rugby Union Internationals, and is one of the venues that will be used in the 2007 World Cup Finals and was used in the 1998 Football World Cup including the key games between Germany and Yugoslavia, England and Columbia and the last 16 game between France and Paraguay.

How to get to the Stade Félix Bollaert
If you are visiting the town centre, then the floodlights from the stadium are visible from most points, and nowhere in the town is more than a ten minute walk away. If you are driving to the stadium then leave A1/E17 at the A21 junction, then follow to the junction of Lens-Ouest, or the A211 at the Bollaert junction and simply follow the signs for the stadium.

How to get a ticket for the Stade Félix Bollaert
Tickets for most games go onsale around about 3 weeks before the games. Whilst the club continually averages over 35,000, it tends to be the games against the big three that sell out (Marseille, PSG and Bordeaux). Prices range from €12 in the Delacourt Niveau lower tier behind the goal to €60 in the main stand, the Presidentielles Lepagnot area. A good bet for neutrals is the Xerces Louis side stand where tickets will cost €28.

Tickets for matches can be purchased from the stadium in the Emotion Foot shop, by phone on 0825 862 862 or online at Tickets are also sold via a number of large Hypermarkets in North France including the Auchan chain in Calais and Boulogne.

Around the Stade Félix Bollaert
The Stadium is close enough to the town centre to have a number of bars and cafes almost on the doorstep. There are a number of good drinking establishments on Avenue Alfred Maes which runs south of the stadium. The area in front of the main station in Rue de Gard also has a few good local bars.

One thought on “How can a slag heap be the most popular Tourist destination – Welcome to Lens!

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