Lille: Paris without the attitude

by Mike.Martin

If you want some French chic, culture, art and great food, you don't have to go to the capital - the answer lies an hour closer, in Lille

Lille is celebrating its new identity as a destination for culture vultures with a festival, Lille3000, which launched in March 2009 with a parade of giant robots through the main square and a massive fireworks display. However, the real fun is in the new spaces and exhibitions, which typify Lille’s flowering from an industrial town to a celebration of design, art and just plain enjoyment.
Arguably Lille’s greatest transformation is La Piscine, its Art Deco former swimming pool, which has been gloriously renovated and turned into a wonderful art gallery. To get there, you take the metro to Roubaix, a suburb that housed the textile industry that made Lille an industrial giant centuries ago. La Piscine was built to improve the hygiene of the local workers, and its wavy, ceramic designs and beautiful stained glass must have seemed unbelievably glamorous to the locals.
For Lille3000 it has an exhibition of dresses by Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (until 21 June 2009). Her creations are a bit like Alice In Wonderland meets Teletubbies. Heart-shaped designs, dresses with actual flowers circling them and with patterns of brick or sand may be mad, and are certainly unwearable, but are guaranteed to raise a smile.
The museum’s permanent collection is the real pull, though, with an exciting collection of Picasso ceramics, a Tamara de Lempicka painting, and excellent examples of Dufy pottery and Galle glasswork. There are also paintings of Lille and Roubaix through the centuries, some of which are sentimental but still a fascinating portrayal of the hard way of life. Upstairs, where the former pool’s changing rooms still stand, there is an excellent collection of the fabrics produced from centuries ago – some of the designs are amazingly contemporary.
La Piscine is the other must-see in Lille after the Palais des Beaux Arts.The Palais des Beaux-Arts has been called the best museum in France outside of Paris. If Lille is a mini-Paris, then the Palais is a mini-Louvre. Not so mini, though, as it has a vast collection of Flemish, Spanish and Impressionist art inside its mighty walls. For €6 you get to see paintings by Courbet, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Rubens, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Goya, Sisley, Odilon Redon and one of Monet’s famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament.
For Lille3000 the Palais is hosting Istanbul, Traversee, a look at how the population of the city is both eastern and western, modern and traditional. The photography section in the basement is probably the most interesting aspect, although Serkan Ozkaya’s 'Baker’s Apprentice' and a film called Road to Tate Modern are surprisingly funny. It’s well worth planning a day in the Palais: the morning for the Istanbul exhibition and the afternoon for the superb permanent collection. The museum also has a great cafe for lunch.
Another fine example of the transformation of Lille is the Hospice d’Havre in Tourcoing. Founded in 1260, it has been carefully restored, and now houses examples of design from all over Eastern Europe. There’s a terrific Molecule Moped from Slovenia, gorgeous glassware from the Czech Republic, mad inflatable lampshades from Poland and a flat-pack kitchen from Austria.
When all that art and design gets a bit too much, or you’re just plain footsore, Lille has the perfect answer - the Wazemmes market. It's open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 7am to 2pm (Gambetta Metro), but Sunday is really the time to go. It’s excellent for fresh fruit, fish, cheese and some wines, but almost everyone seems to come here for one essential purchase – flowers. It has a seemingly never-ending line of stalls selling almost every flower known to man, some at amazingly low prices, in a riot of colour. Just around the corner is a specialist beer shop, selling a mind-boggling array of flavoured beers. Some of the local brews are well worth trying if you’ve never had a blonde or fruit beer before.
Not every handsome old building in Lille is being transformed into an art space - some of them are being put to a more traditional use as a hotel, bar or restaurant. Lille’s cuisine is improving along with its glamour, and there are now several top-notch places to eat and drink at prices that are very reasonable compared to the UK. L'Hermitage Gantois has a very chic bar arranged in the old courtyard of what was a hospice, and the restaurant is top-notch. There are 67 rooms and it’s five-star.
To stay, the Hotel Alliance Couvent des Minimes is in the perfect spot, 10 minutes’ walk to the centre of Lille but tucked away just opposite the old canals. It too has a great bar and restaurant in the courtyard, and you can try some of the local beers. They have a list longer than most bars’ wine lists, and you can of course drink champagne or wine if you prefer. The corridors are lined with photographs of the old 17th-century convent being converted into a comfortable, 83-room modern hotel with a traditional twist. It’s a typical example of Lille, transforming itself into a modern city without losing touch with its Flemish past. If you find Paris just too hectic or rude, but love French culture, Lille might just be right for you.