If you were to bring up the topic of cities in France, most would mention Paris. Nice. Marseille. Strasbourg. Very few would bring up the magnificent city of Lille, which lies adjacent to the Belgian border in the northernmost region of France.
Solely considering its geographic location, it’s odd how unappreciated Lille is. It’s the virtual epicenter between three world capitals: by train, Paris is one hour; London, two; and Brussels is only a short thirty minute ride away. If you broaden your criteria to include how much Lille as a city – instead of just a hub – has to offer, it very well may be the most trivialized city in France.
The Eurostar stops in Lille on its swift journey from Paris to London, but few choose to debark here. It’s infamous within France for being a grimy city forged by industry and coal, and has a reputation for being provincial, at best. (If you’ve ever seen Bienvenue Chez les Cht’is, you know the stereotype. If not, just know the English title for the film is Welcome to the Sticks and you can probably catch the gist.) However, the Ch’tis, or the residents of the Hauts-de-France (the province of which Lille is the capital), are also known for being the both the happiest and friendliest people in France – and they’ll tell you as much!
Despite being stereotyped as rustic by its countrymen, Lille is a nucleus of culture and arts. It boasts the second largest museum of fine arts in France (the Palais des Beaux-Arts) as well as many others, such as the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (formerly a hospice, as the name implies, founded by Countess Jeanne de Flandre in 1237 and functioning all the way until 1939), which hosts both art and artifacts dating through several centuries. A short distance from the city center in Roubaix is La Piscine, an art deco pool built in the late 1920s, now transformed into a gorgeous museum. If history, rather than art, strikes your fancy, the house where Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille now functions as a museum.
In 2004, Lille was named the European Capital of Culture. During the course of a year, the city was transformed by its residents and artists. It gave way to the futuristic-sounding Lille 3000, which seeks to further enrich and deepen the dynamism achieved by those who worked during 2004. In addition to art and culture, Lille 3000 seeks to develop sectors such as the economy and new technologies; the l’art de vivre (not the way of life. The art of living.), spirituality; the present city and the construction of the city of tomorrow; and more generally the issues of society and civilization.
Lille’s enterprising spirit can be seen manifested in its students. A short walk from the city center is the largest private university in France (the Université Catholique de Lille, known around town affectionately as La Catho). There are several other universities sprinkled throughout the city, such as the Université de Lille, (whose faculty included Louis Pasteur, as the Dean of Science) and the Université de Lille Nord, which is one of the five largest university federations in France.
For all of its new-wave innovations, the rugged past of Lille is still reflected in both its food and architecture.
Lille’s gastronomy is unique in France, and the city is quickly becoming a mecca for epicures. It’s famous for hearty dishes such as moules-frites (mussels and fries) and carbonade flamande (beef stewed in beer). Pâtisseries scattered through Vieux Lille, the oldest part of the city, serve the sweet teeth of Lille with offerings such as gaufres fourrées (delicate ovular waffles, found at Maison Méert ), or merveilleux (exquisite meringues which can be found at at Le Merveilleux de Fred).
The love of food doesn’t stop with restaurants and pastry shops. On weekends – especially on Sundays when most grocery stores are closed – many of Lille’s inhabitants can be found shopping for fresh produce, cheeses, meats, and more at one of the several fresh-air markets in the city. In the heart of Vieux Lille is the Marché du Concert, a small yet charming market which mainly sells traditionally French products (open on Wednesday, Friday, and Sundays from seven until two). If you’re seeking more variety, head to the Marché du Wazemmes, which is one of the largest markets in France. The selection found here is much larger – everything from fresh exotic fruits to cheap batteries – and much more international, with a heavy Arabic influence. (Open Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from seven until two, though the indoor portion of the market is open longer hours.)
Unsurprising for its northern location, Lille’s Flemish influence is evident in its architecture and notably features rust-colored bricks and jagged cobblestones. The Deûle River flows along its edges and into small quays that sneak through the periphery of the city, which remind visitors of the city’s etymological origins.
The word “Lille” comes from the French word “l’île,” meaning “island.” Much like Paris, the city allegedly grew up around a small island in the center of a river. Its origin story, however, is vastly more interesting.
According to legend, the Prince of Dijon, Salvaert was travelling north to England with his pregnant wife, Ermengaert. Unfortunately, the couple fell into a trap created a the fearsome giant called Phinaert. Phinaert proceeded to kill everyone but the princess. Despite the bloodbath (or perhaps because of it), Ermengaert managed to escape to a forest, give birth, and then pass the new baby off to a hermit before dying herself. The hermit fed the infant on deer milk and christened him Lydéric.
When he grew up, Lydéric learned of his true parentage, and their gristly demise. He bade his adoptive hermit father goodbye and set out to avenge his natural parents’ deaths. After a grueling duel, Lydéric managed to slay Phinaert, take the giant’s land, and thus founded the city of Lille.
Lille is thus a city born of grit, willing to stand down giants, stereotypes, and its own gritty past in order to achieve eminence in the modern world. It’s so much more than a mere stopping point – both for Eurostar commuters and travelling princes – and merits a visit for its own sake. From food to shopping to fine art, Lille has a lot to offer to those only willing to step off the train.
All photos are mine.