Lille, France, is trending
“Crowned as the World Capital of Design 2020 for its advances in urban development, the once-struggling industrial city of Lille is on its way to enjoying optimized public spaces thanks to a slew of sustainable design initiatives. It’s also quickly becoming a cosmopolitan oasis with new galleries, museums, restaurants, and boutiques.” — Travel and Leisure, “50 Best Places to Travel in 2020,” December 9, 2019
Travel and Leisure is one among many international travel publications that seem to have discovered Lille, France, over the last couple of years. One of the adjectives they use routinely to describe Lille is “underrated.” In many articles, Lille gets praised for being a “great day trip from Paris,” (only a 1 hour TGV ride away.)
One small problem: These articles depict the capital of les Hauts de France as an up-and-coming travel destination on its way to Instagram-worthiness. Oh, look: “A new bohemian chic Mama Shelter hotel!” Oh, look, “a new Italian spot from the owners of Big Mamma in Paris.” By choosing this angle, they may be missing an important fact (or two,) that make this city so much more endearing than lists of hip addresses will.
There’s more to Lille than meets the eye
There’s incredible history to start! European nations have fought over Lille’s strategic location for centuries. Known as the capital of French Flanders, the city once was, through alliances and wars, Flemish, Burgundian, Spanish, (almost) Austrian, and finally became French after a successful siege led by Louis XIV in the late 17th century. In fact, Lille was besieged so often, many have lost count. The Germans occupied the area during both world wars, with all the heartache and deprivations this implies. Allied bombings destroyed some of the city’s buildings in 1944. In a more recent past, Lille and other parts of the region survived the decline of the coal, mining and textile industries, that had once brought prosperity to the whole area. Today, after decades of high unemployment and a lasting economic recession, the city seems to have re-invented itself into a dynamic economic and cultural megalopolis now on everyone’s radar. It also welcomes one of the largest student populations in France. Through it all, Lille remains a city of contrasts, where the powerful have always lived next to extreme poverty. Les Lillois and Lilloises (les gens du nord, northerners,) and their renowned hospitality, are known for growing on visitors quickly, a reputation highlighted in the top-grossing comedy “Bienvenue chez Les Ch’Tis.” Is it because of its tumultuous history and multi-cultural roots that the city is so welcoming? Now is a good time to mention I had a personal reason to come to Lille during the Holidays in January 2019. I will tell the story at the end of this article, but first, let’s take a walk, shall we?
Walkability factor: high
The heart of Lille is compact, and you can walk everywhere. This is challenging walking, mind you, as the famed pavés du nord (cobblestones) can be treacherous. The pedestrianized streets of Le Vieux Lille (the old Lille,) le Jardin Vauban (dedicated to the Sun King’s master military architect, builder of the giant fortifications west of the city, la Citadelle), and the banks of the Deûle canal, are a stroller’s paradise. (Photos from Left to Right: Le Vieux Lille. Le Jardin Vauban. Les pavés du nord.)
You don’t like to walk? Pas de problème! Lille was the first city in France to get a fully automated metro service in the 1980s, and there are trams and buses.
Lille, La Grand’Place: The heart of town
Here, you realize you have left Paris behind. In fact, you could be in Holland, or in Brussels, Belgium. General Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille, and the square is also known as Place du Général de Gaulle (one of many places/rues/avenues named after “le Général” in France.) La Grand’Place has been the center of local life since the Middle Ages. Old half-timbered homes are long gone, banned in the late 1600s because of fire hazard. Today, the harmonious mix of Flemish and French architecture is hard to resist. I was lucky to visit at the tail-end of the Holiday season when a giant ferris wheel and Christmas decorations were still up. Lille is beautiful in the day time. Like most cities investing in their appearance, it takes your breath away when night falls.
Lille, la Vieille Bourse: Flemish architecture masterpiece
The old Stock Exchange building dates back to the 17th century, commissioned by wealthy local merchants who used to live and work on site. During the heyday of the textile industry, prices of wool, and later cotton and linen, were set here. The building stopped operating as the Stock Exchange in the 1920s. Today, it houses bouquinistes (used book sellers.) Statues of prominent scientists and inventors surround them under the arches.
So many squares, so little time…
There are monumental ones, like la place du Théâtre, anchored by the Opera house, modeled after Paris’s Opéra Garnier, and the magnificent Chamber of Commerce I was lucky to visit on a guided city walk. Many cities in northern France and Belgium are famous for their beffrois (belfries.) Lille has several. The one connected to the Chamber of Commerce plays a popular song, “Le P’tit Quinquin,” written in the 19th century in the local dialect, (le Ch’ti,) every hour on the hour. (Photos, from Left to Right: Opéra de Lille and Beffroi de la Chambre de Commerce, Chambre de Commerce at night, Chambre de Commerce interior.)
Other squares in le Vieux Lille are smaller, each with its own personality and ambiance. Lined with boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and beautiful façades, they pop up all over the old town, connecting streets as you stroll by (Top photos feature la place Louise de Bettignies. Bottom pic is la place des Oignons.)
Bon appétit: Generous Lillois fare
Yes, the weather can be as cold, grey and wet as you have heard in Lille. They say Paris is the most beautiful in the rain. I say Lille does not look that bad either sous la pluie, n’est-ce-pas?
The weather must be one of the reasons northern France favors comfort food. Beer lovers will be happy in Lille, especially if they visit the biggest and most inclusive party in town, la Grande Braderie, in September (moules-frites, anyone?) Well known local maisons include les Merveilleux de Fred and Paul, the ubiquitous boulangerie chain. Paul was founded nearby. The Paul boutique near la Grand’Place shows like a Belle Epoque museum. Let’s head to Méert, the iconic pastry shop and tea room where young Charles de Gaulle and the well-heeled bourgeoisie used to enjoy their goûter. The boutique on rue Esquermoise opened in the 1830s and used to supply the Belgian royal family. Delicious pastries are on display, yet patrons often select the thin gauffre, (waffle) with a sweet vanilla filling. I had mine with an elegant cappuccino, in lieu of lunch, because I could.
On a cold afternoon, after visiting the intriguing Notre-Dame de la Treille cathedral, I headed to popular Au Vieux de la Vieille, by place aux Oignons, and devoured two fluffy crêpes, generously sprinkled with a local star: la vergeoise, also called cassonade (unrefined sugar available in two versions, blonde and brune.) Coffee was served the traditional way with chicorée (chicory,) a specialty of the Nord-Pas de Calais region.
My favorite neighborhood for dinner was la rue de Gand, leading to an old gate, Porte de Gand, from the 17th century Spanish fortifications. Peaceful during the day, the street becomes lively at night. In the summer, it’s closed to traffic to enable locals (a young crowd) to bar- and restaurant- hop. During the Holidays, la rue de Gand sparkled, and I sampled a couple of delicious meals there before walking back to my hotel, all the way across le Vieux Lille. Local restaurants are called estaminets. They are to northern France what pubs are to Ireland. Often housed in humble buildings, les estaminets used to play an important social role in working class communities. Today, they are restaurants serving local specialties in a rustic decor.
One evening, I put on my big girl pants and ordered a hearty, oven-baked, Welsh Ch’ti made of rustic bread soaked in beer, chicken breast, mustard and odorous Maroilles cheese. I somehow managed to eat most of it, and some of the salad and French fries too. I suppose we, French Girls, can scarf down dinner when scarfing down is required.
Lille is still home
I hope to have convinced you by now Lille is a worthy destination and a little bit more than just a day trip from Paris. There are so many other special places I could have highlighted, some of the city’s most beautiful churches, or the treasures hidden in the République neighborhood: a unique Art Nouveau home, elegant buildings dating back to the Second Empire, or the incredible Musée des Beaux Arts. (Only the Louvre can rival the variety and scope of its collections in France.) This article is long enough.
One last thing: I mentioned earlier I had a personal reason to go to Lille last year. Lille is one of the five French cities my family’s lived in. We stayed there for 6 years, more than 40 years ago. I had never returned. During this visit, I was able to be a tourist. Lille and I have changed a lot, yet I think we’ve both aged well. 😉 I was also fortunate to go back to the happy days of my childhood in northern France. One morning, the Metro took me swiftly to Lambersart, the small town in the suburbs where we lived. I had so many happy memories there (just before the angst-filled teenage years rolled in.) I remembered walking to the public elementary school (L’Ecole Maintenon) every day with my brother and my mother, or playing with neighborhood kids on the big grassy area outside our building where I ran my first business, a pretend hotel-restaurant complete with hair salon (I was 10.) I remembered riding my bike with our friends (we called ourselves “Les Fous du Vélo,” Crazy about Bikes,) to the nearby park, les Charmettes. As I walked the quiet streets, lined with red brick façades, so typical of northern France, everything fell into place.
I had no map, and just a street address to go by. I was amazed at how easily I found my way around, on instinct alone, decades later, and only had to ask for directions a couple of times. Then friendly strangers, eager to help upon hearing my story, made it possible for me to retrace my steps and travel back in time.
Among all the trips I took in 2019, my visit to Lille stands out, so bright against the perpetually grey skies! Maybe that’s why I have waited so long to write this story. I wanted to do Lille justice.
(Photos, from Left to Right: Remembering les Fous du Vélo‘s cycling adventures at le Parc des Charmettes. Ecole Maintenon, my old elementary school. Our building, and the grassy area, now a wooded park, where so many fun games took places.)
Merci, Catherine et Stéphane, de votre accueil. On est toujours bien, à Lille.
More about Lille (videos)
Video 1: I filmed this footage the first morning, when the sun came out for a few hours. We are place du Théâtre, right off the main square, la Grand’Place. As mentioned above, this is where Lille’s Opera house and the beautiful Chamber of Commerce building (and its belfry) are located.
Video 2: I take you to a favorite local restaurant, Au Vieux de la Vieille. See photos of the goûter I enjoyed there in the article, above.