Once a thriving textile and coal industries center, Lille, France’s northernmost major city, became one of its most underrated in the aftermath of Word War II. To many foreign travelers it still tends to be merely the first continental stop of the Eurostar after it emerges from the 38-kilometer (23.5-mile) long Channel Tunnel (or Chunnel) under the English Channel, or the halfway point on the Thalys (also a high-speed train) route between Paris and Brussels. Yet those who take the time to get off and linger a few days are immediately charmed by the elegant Flemish Renaissance architecture of le Vieux Lille (Old Lille), its three internationally renowned art museums, a vibrant business center and the Lillois’ easy-going friendliness.
The history of Lille is a millennium-long tale of convoluted alliances and conflicts that saw what is now the French part of Flanders go from the quasi-independent French fiefdom of the Counts of Flanders to a province of the Duchy of Burgundy (1369), before passing under the rule of Austria (1477), then Spain (1556) before finally reverting to France in 1688. Through it all, Lille managed to flourish as a regional capital of industry and trade. And develop a cultural heritage well worth a visit.
Surrounded by stately buildings that span four centuries of rich Flemish architecture, the 155-meter (510-foot) by 72-meter (245-foot) Grand’Place started out as a marketplace in the fourteenth century. Its oldest remaining building, la Vieille Bourse (the Old Stock Exchange) is a superb example of seventeenth century Flemish Renaissance style. It consists of 24 identical houses around a cloistered courtyard. To walk under the broad colonnade that runs around its perimeter is to experience a hub of city life where locals come to play chess or browse the stalls of secondhand booksellers and flower vendors.
Also on the northeastern side of the square, separating the Grand’Place from the Place du Théâtre, the Grande Garde, built in 1717 as an army barrack to house the French royal guard, was converted after the First World War into the 444 seats Théâtre du Nord. Next door, La Voix du Nord (The Voice of the North, a newspaper) building with its traditional Flemish step-gabled façade is a 1930’s evocation of the ancient a architecture. In the center of the Grand’Place, the Column of the Goddess commemorates the successful resistance of Lille to the Austrian siege of 1792. In case you are wondering, the bronze goddess at the top is clutching a linstock (used to light the fuses on cannons) in her right hand.
From the Grand’Place, a ten-minute walk north through the meandering street of the old town, now lined with stylish boutiques, leads to the last significant vestige of the works of the Flemish Counts, the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Countess Hospital Museum). Founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne of Flandres within a wing of her own palace, the hospital was run by a religious community of the Saint Augustine order. Although the original building was destroyed by fire in 1468, it was immediately rebuilt, then expanded over the following centuries as a convent and the only major hospital in Lille until the end of the eighteenth century.
Today, the ground floor of the convent contains a reconstitution of a Flemish home in the seventeenth centuries, including a kitchen with traditional Lille earthenware and Delft tiles. The refectory showcases carved furniture and fine tableware as well as exquisite paintings and art objects. The spiritual and hospital functions are highlighted in the chapel, dispensary and medicinal herb garden.
Le Palais des Beaux-Arts
One of the first art museums established in France in the early nineteenth century under instructions of Napoleon I to popularize art, le Palais des Beaux-Arts (Palace of Fine Arts) holds the second largest art collections in France after the Louvre. Opened in 1809, it received a treasure-trove of works confiscated from churches and royal palaces. It was originally housed in a disused church until its permanent Belle Epoque-style home was inaugurated in 1898. The museum contains a first-rate collection of fifteenth to twentieth century paintings, including works by Raphael, Donatello, Rembrandt, Goya, El Greco, Rubens, David, Delacroix, Manet, Corot, and Monet as well as an extensive collection of classical archeology and medieval statuary. The basement features a department of unusual eighteenth century scale models of fortified cities in Northern France and Belgium that were used by the military of the time, and a 700-square meter (7,500-square foot) space dedicated to staging temporary exhibits.
Greater Lille Art Treasures
Beyond the city limit, the greater Lille metropolitan area is now graced with three notable art museums, each individually a worthwhile reason to visit the city.
Musée d’Art Moderne, Villeneuve d’Ascq – With a permanent collection of over 7,000 works and 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet) of exhibit space, the Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut (Metropolitan Lille Museum of Modern Art, Contemporary Art and Outsider Art), mercifully shortened LAM, opened in 1983. It is the only museum in France and northern Europe to feature all the main components of twentieth and twenty-first century art.
La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, Roubaix. Once a spectacular Art Deco public baths facility inaugurated in 1932, the building has been brilliantly repurposed in 1985 into an art gallery that is home to the artistic and industrial heritage of the town. The Olympic-length central pool is lined with nineteenth and twentiest century sculptures and paintings, mainly by local artists, and the changing booths now hold an extensive collection of displays related to the textile industries.
Musée Louvre-Lens – Inaugurated in December 2012, the Louvre-Lens is a major example of the success of recent joint efforts between the French Ministry of Culture, the great national museums and the regional governments to decentralize cultural institutions. The building is a minimalist creation of glass and brushed aluminum that blends into the horizon. At its core the 120-meter (400-foot) long Galerie du Temps (Gallery of Time) leads visitors through 5,000 years of Ancient and European art history.
Although Lille is easily accessible for day trips from Paris, London, Brussels and other nearby European cities, I prefer to linger a day or two, especially now that I have had the good fortune to come across Villa 30. This 1930’s townhouse on a quiet street of the center of town, thoughtfully remodeled into an intimate bed-and-breakfast in 2010, is located within easy walking distance of all the city’s main attractions. The five comfortable rooms decorated in a smart contemporary style and attentive host Julien Desenclos make Villa 30 a welcoming home away from home. And the hearty breakfast served in the light-filled breakfast room with its stunning Art Deco stain glass bay window is a perfect start to any day.
Good to know
- Getting there – Lille is easily reached by train, with frequent TVG (high-speed train) direct connections throughout the day from Paris (1 hour), Brussels (35 minutes), London, (1:30 hour), Amsterdam (2:40 hours) and other main western European cities. There are two train stations, the new Lille-Europe that serves the EuroStar, Thalys and most TGV high-speed lines, and Lille Flandre, the original station that now serves a mix of local and high-speed trains. Both are in the center of town, less than a 10-minute walk from each other.
- Getting Around – To explore the old town and the city center, walking is the best option. To get around the greater metropolitan area, Lille has a comprehensive public transport network (Transpole) with two automatic metro lines (the world’s first automatic subway in the world when it went into service in 1983), two tramway lines and over 60 bus routes.
- Where to Stay – Villa 30, 24 Rue du Plat, 59000, Lille. lavilla30.fr. Contact: email Julien@lavilla30.fr. Tel +33 (0) 3 66 73 61 30.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, 32 Rue de la Monnaie, Lille. www.Hospice-Comtesse-Museum.com. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 A.M. to 12:30 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 3 28 36 84 00.
Palais des Beaux Arts, Place de la République, Lille. www.pba-lille.fr/en. Open Monday from 2:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday morning, all day Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact:: +33 (0) 3 20 06 78 00.
Lille Métropole Musée d’Art Moderne, d’Art Contemporain et d’Art Brut, (LAM), 1 Allée du Musée, Villeneuve-d’Ascq. www.-Lille-Metropolitan-Museum-of-modern-art.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 19 68 68.
La Piscine-Musée d’Art et d’Industrie André Diligent, 23 Rue de l’Espérance, Roubaix. www.La-Piscine-Art-and-Industry-Museum.com. Open Tuesday through Thursday from 11:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M., Friday from 11:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M., and Saturday from 1:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Monday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 60 23 60.
Musée Louvre-Lens, 99 Rue Paul Bert, Lens. http://www.louvre-lens/en/. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Closed Tuesday and some public holidays. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 21 18 62 62.
La Citadelle – For military architecture buffs, this massive star-shaped fortress located at the northwestern end of the Boulevard de la Liberté, was designed by renowned 17th-century French military architect Vauban after France captured Lille in 1667. It still functions as a French and NATO military base. Guided tours are available on Sundays in summer through the Tourism Information Center, Palais Rihour, 42 Place Rihour, Lille. http://en.lilletourism.com. Contact: Tel +33 (0) 3 20 21 94 21. This is the only way to see the inside of the Citadelle.