Eurostar has brought Lille within 100 minutes of London. A French city reborn and buzzing with prosperity, it would be silly not to take advantage
Not too long ago, Lille was going down the pan. Trade and the textile industry, once the muscles of the northern French city, had withered. The place was pretty grim. You went there only for mussels and chips, the local bulk-filler, or because you couldn’t avoid it. Social problems were stark. “When I was young, girls like me didn’t go to the old town,” says a virtuous Lilloise I know.
Then the Eurostar arrived. From being deep in the dumps, Lille emerged as a transport hub of northern Europe. Being sharp-witted and industrious, the Lillois grabbed this good fortune and put it to work. The centre once again buzzes with prosperity. Great neo-classical and Flemish baroque façades – the ones apparently decorated with an icing nozzle – radiate new confidence. The no-go Old Lille now bristles with bistros, posh shops and vital boutiques like the Delhi Circus uni-cycle and juggling emporium on Place-des-Patiniers.
Art has broken out all over, to complement the ponderous Palais-des-Beaux-Arts. And the city knows how to throw great parties, both cultivated and popular. But, if Lille now has class, it’s rooted in the working class. The music for L’Internationale was written here, on a harmonium. A thick streak of realism runs right through the city. These are beer-drinking people with more sense than money. If they weren’t northern French, they could be northern English (except they dress better). And they’re only one hour and 40 minutes from London.
Vast and bustling, the Grand’Place announces a city of trading confidence. Fanciest of many extravagant façades is the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange, put up by city burghers to show they’d got money enough to show off with. Inside, there’s a lovely courtyard with cloisters under which lurk book-and flower-sellers and chaps playing chess.
Off the square to the north is Vieux Lille. Not too long ago, the old centre warren was, as we’ve seen, no place for good girls. Now the medieval meanders are full of them, patrolling fashion and décor stores and smoking animatedly on café terraces. (Smoking is no bar to being a good girl in France.) This is, in truth, a disarming district, at once scurrying, elegant and sturdy in the Flemish fashion.
Duty demands that you take in the Palais-des-Beaux-Arts on Place-de-la-République. The classical frontage leaves no doubt that uplift and self-improvement lie within. As they do. The medieval and Renaissance work is exceptional, though it may be Goya’s hideous crones in The Old Ones which stick in the mind.
If today is Sunday, then join the rest of the world just off-centre at Wazemmes market, a huge and lively stew of multi-ethnic commerce offering meat, bargain clothes, boxed DVD sets of the Koran, fruit, fish, cheese, Jack Russell terriers, books, bric-à-brac – and everything in between.
If it’s not Sunday, head back to the old centre. You might pretend you’re going to visit the Hospice Comtesse on Rue de la Monnaie (a fine old 15th-century pile full of painting and sculpture). Or, on Rue Princesse, the house where Charles-de-Gaulle was born. But no-one’s checking, so you may sheer off for the big-ticket shopping (Hermès, Vuitton) on Rue Grande-Chaussée and Place Bettignies. Or, better still, try the tiny Rue des Vieux-Murs where the Abbaye des Saveurs has several lifetime’s worth of French and Belgian beers.
Now you should hop on the Metro, Line 2 (direction ‘CH Dron’) and hop off at Gare Jean Lebas. You’ve moved from Lille to next-door Roubaix for La Piscine, a quite extraordinary gallery within what used to be the town swimming baths. They’ve kept the art deco style, tiled changing rooms and a strip of pool – and placed pieces by the likes of Ingres, Dufy and Claudel around them. Other art crops up in the unlikeliest places. The whole works brilliantly.
And, if you haven’t shopped to a standstill earlier, you might stay in the vicinity (Metro stop: Eurotéléport) and stock up at the McArthur-Glen factory shop complex. Lille made its brass with textiles, and the region remains mail-order HQ of France – so you can claim that a couple of hours spent here is honouring the local heritage.
If money is little object, then the Hermitage Gantois (224 Rue de Paris, 0033 320 853030, www.hotelhermitagegantois.com) is the best address in town - a 15th-century pile reviewed and corrected for contemporary comfort-seeking classes. Good restaurant, and a less formal bistro, too.
Mid-range, the Novotel Lille Centre (116 Rue de l’Hôpital-Militaire, 0033 320 574564, www.accorhotels.com) may be a chain, but it’s more welcoming than many family hotels. Also more modern, efficient and central. Tighter budgets might try the Hotel Brueghel (5 Parvis St Maurice, 0033 320 060669, www.hotel-brueghel.com). Rooms are small, but the spot has a disarming, old-fashioned air.
French Flemish food tends to the copious side of hearty. You can eat fancy too, but you can do that anywhere. Here, get stuck into carbonnade flamande (beef in beer), potjveleesch (jellied terrine of white meats), waterzoi fish or chicken stew – plus shipping quantities of chips. The Estaminet T’Rijsel (25 Rue de Gand, 0033 320 150159) is a good place to start … an ‘estaminet’ being a Flemish pub-with-food and Rijsel meaning ‘Lille’ in Flemish.
Aux Moules (34 Rue de Béthune, 0033 320 571246, www.auxmoules.com) is the brasserie for mussels and chips (moules-frites). Meanwhile, if you insist on pushing le bateau out, L’Huitrière (3 Rue Chats Bossus, 0033 320 554341, www.huitriere.fr) is the swishest fish spot, tucked in behind a swish fish shop. It’s been Michelin-starred since 1930.
Finally, if you can’t make it through the morning or afternoon without a hit of sweetness, head for Méert on Rue Esquermoise. It’s a Lille institution. Behind the vintage frontage lurk cakes, vanilla-filled waffles (the speciality) and Louis XVI tea rooms. The calories are almost visible but, once started, there’s no stopping.