Belfry and building on main square of Lille
From its beautiful architecture and striking cultural exhibits, to its gastronomic centre, France’s fourth largest city – just eighty minutes on the train from London – has something for everyone. Deborah Mulhearn spends an enjoyable couple of days finding out more…
“Lille? Isn’t that where the largest slag heap in Europe is?” The dubious look from my partner sends me straight to Google. Yes, Lille is indeed near the vast coal belts of France’s north-eastern corner. But strictly speaking ‘le teril’ is between Loos and Lens, a good hour’s drive from Lille.
It turns out that there are hundreds of these indelible reminders of the now defunct mining industry stretched across the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, of which Lille is the capital. Trees and vegetation have reclaimed many of them, and they are now leisure and tourist attractions in their own right. Moreover, they are none other than Unesco world heritage sites. I feel exonerated, and book our weekend in Lille.
Eurostar travellers’ awareness of Lille may not extend beyond the bright, modern station where the train stops for five efficient minutes on the way to Brussels. But there are lots of reasons, notwithstanding the slag heaps, to spend a few days in this friendly and unpretentious city. Art lovers, culture vultures, architecture buffs, shopaholics (including chocoholics) and gastronomes will all find France’s fourth largest city a delight.
Tucked into a kink of the Belgian border on the River Neûle, Lille is in many ways a workaday northern industrial city, like a French Manchester or Leeds. Since the Eurostar opened in 1994, however, the place has attracted more visitors, and more again since 2004 when it was European Capital of Culture.
A smooth eighty minutes from St Pancras, the first delight is the trompe-l’oeil mural of European city scenes and Escher-like architecture that stretches up the cavernous walls from the metro station below. From here it’s a short walk to the centre, and once we have our bearings we head for the Grand’ Place, officially the Place du Général de Gaulle, who was born in Lille in 1890. In the middle is a column topped by the ‘Goddess’ statue, apparently intended for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but somehow still in Lille, where it acts as meeting place and, inadvertently, a huge civic sundial.
Lacking the haughty grandeur of Paris, but with its share of broad elegant streets fanning out from spacious squares, Lille is beautiful, jolly and unexpected in turns, and sometimes all three together. Turn one way and you see cool French Classicism and elegant Art Nouveau facades; turn another and you are faced with Flemish Baroque; look again and it’s geometric Art Deco. French mansard roofs rub shoulders with curved Dutch and ‘corbie’ or crow-stepped gables and Baroque pediments, the diversity of rooflines reflecting the city’s seesaw history through the centuries. Lille has been besieged, bombarded, invaded and annexed variously by Burgundy, Flanders, Spain and the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Belgium, before finally ceding to France.
The Old Bourse, or stock exchange, quickly becomes our favourite building. Built in 1653, it looks like a single structure but is actually twenty-four separate houses around an inner courtyard. It’s a sumptuous feast of Flemish Baroque. Fruit and flower-decorated columns and pilasters, caryatids and cornucopias, gargoyles, swags and scrolls cover the soft red brick and ochre stonework of its exterior and interior walls and vaulted arcade. The courtyard still resounds with the bustle of trade, but these days it’s second-hand booksellers and florists rather than Flemish merchants.
After the French Revolution, Lille became a textile centre, and this is the industry it’s most closely associated with. Those old-fashioned lisle stockings, made from strong cotton yarn with an extra twist, originated here (Lisle is an old spelling of Lille). Textiles brought renewed prosperity to the city and many of the elegant Parisian style buildings and houses emanate from this era, as do several churches with their generous ‘parvis’, the open squares in front that turn into street markets and performance spaces on various days of the week.
Lille’s Palais des Beaux Arts on the Place de La Republique is second only to the Louvre in the size of its collections. We’d need a week to do justice to this beautiful art gallery, but only have a weekend, so opt to wander the streets in a desultory way, window-shopping and bar hopping. We pass patisseries and chocolatiers with their mouth-watering window displays and confections. Even if you can resist the temptation to buy you can’t help but peek inside at the pristine pyramids of chocolates and multi-coloured macaroons lit up by glistening chandeliers.
Later we explore the dark and inviting bars and bistros along the Rue Royale, running north from the Grand’ Place, with their cave-like interiors. This edges the Flemish Old Town where the streets are narrower and more winding, and where colourful artisan and independent shops occupy the old weavers’ cottages with their big windows designed to maximise light for the looms.
Lille is renowned for its restaurants and it’s hard to find a table on a Friday or Saturday night without pre-booking. We finally arrive at Le Pot Beaujolais, a traditional meat specialist with dishes both familiar and strange. We order a bottle of Beaujolais, of course – not quite ‘nouveau’ for the time of year, but a good vintage, we are assured.
The small restaurant is disconcertingly quiet until we remember that the French eat late. Sure enough, around 8.30pm it starts to fill up and is soon crammed to its picturesque rafters with convivial groups and families. The noise level also rises to the rafters. We are feeling very French and very pleased with ourselves at navigating the menu and wine list. We finish with a digestif. We think the waitress is saying mountain liqueur and we like the sound of it. It turns out that it’s a clear mint drink that tastes like Kendal Mint Cake in a glass, so we are transported to the Alps after a fashion, anyway.
Next day there are many more buildings to explore – Lille’s cathedral, Notre Dame de la Treille, the ornate ‘new’ Chamber of Commerce, the neo-Baroque opera house and La Voix du Nord, an Art Deco newspaper building. After a whistle-stop tour we head to Lille Flandres station (which has the original stone facade from Paris’s Gare du Nord) and take the metro towards the Belgian border and Roubaix, a smaller city than Lille but with a similar textile heritage – it’s no coincidence that Lille is twinned with Leeds, and Roubaix with Bradford.
In the inter-war years the citizens of Roubaix were blessed with an Art Deco municipal swimming pool with a glorious sunburst window at either end. It’s now converted into an art gallery and this is what we’ve come to see. La Piscine, or the André Diligent Museum of Art and Industry to give it its full title, brilliantly incorporates the original polychromatic tiled pool and other architectural elements into the new gallery.
The statues and sculptures of human figures eerily line the edges of the pool, as if about to plunge into the reflecting water. Even the shower cubicles and two-tiered tiled changing rooms have become ingenious art spaces. There is also a textile archive and a restaurant with the original mahogany bar and Art Deco signage.
Back in Lille, the prettily illuminated tower we can see from our hotel confuses us because it’s clearly an important building, but it’s in the opposite direction to the Grand Place. It turns out to be the belfry of the Hotel de Ville – French equivalent of the town hall – built just south of the centre in 1932 after the original burned down in the First World War.
Cathedrals, palaces and citadels are symbols of royal power, but belfries signify civic pride and prosperity. For that reason Lille’s has been designated, along with fifty-five other belfries in northern France and Flanders, as world heritage sites. Lille’s is the most recent, and also the tallest municipal building in France. It’s an Art Deco folly, a curious mix of Manhattan skyscraper and medieval gothic, with whimsical gargoyles and stone effigies of the legendary founders of Lille.
From the top (over a hundred steps – be warned!) we scan the city and the whole conurbation that stretches to the Belgian border (including Roubaix) and the flatlands (peppered with those pesky slag heaps!) to the north and west. Directly below is the Porte de Paris, another Vauban creation whose roofline makes it look more like a tiny chateau than a city gate. To the southeast is the new Pierre Mauroy Stadium (where Wales beat Belgium in the Euro 2016 quarter finals, or so I’m reliably informed).
The spectre of the First World War is never far away in this part of Europe, and we gaze towards the distant battlefield sites. A hundred years on, the landscape may have changed but the names are as familiar as old scars. Somme, Loos, Arras. We descend in silence to the bright, clean streets of Lille.