Lille was my 18 year-old self’s last stop on a month-long interrail trip around Europe. After a brief stay, I went to Calais, caught a ferry* to the UK, and started university. I have a memory of eating the best frites and mayo of my life, but also recall a city that felt down on its luck. Not much of a recommendation for a repeat visit, but the capital of the Hauts-de-France has undergone a remarkable transformation in the intervening years.
Emerging from post-industrial decline to become European Capital of Culture in 2004, the city never looked back and has turned its fortunes around to become one of France’s leading cultural destinations. It’s not that unusual to read that Lille is “underrated” or one of the country’s “best kept secrets”, but even in early March it seemed like plenty of people were in on the secret. Rightly so, Lille is a fabulous place.
One of the benefits of living in Brussels is that it only takes around 25 minutes on the TGV or Eurostar, making Lille a very convenient spot for a weekend away. That at least is the theory. The Friday evening train that should have had us in Lille in time for an aperitif and dinner was cancelled. We were forced to take Belgian local trains on a three hour odyssey that eventually got us to Lille at 10pm.
Luckily for us, Lille is also home to a large number of students, which meant that the pleasant bar at the end of our street was open and still serving food. In fact, the place was packed and gave off an energy that quickly rid us of the frustration of the journey. After a fun evening, the next day dawned bright and sunny. We headed off to explore the historic heart of a city that exudes warmth and friendliness.
Despite being one of France’s largest conurbations, Lille itself feels compact and the historic centre can be wandered around in a day. It definitely deserves more time though, because there are a multitude of good museums and galleries, as well a wealth of top notch cafes and restaurants to while away your time. We passed through the lovely Place de la République, home to the Palais des Beaux-Arts, en route to the Grand Place.
The Grand Place is the heart of Lille’s historic centre, and it is quite a history. The Franco-Flemish legend of the giants Lydéric and Phinaert claims that Lille was founded in 640 AD, the reality is a little less poetic. The first written mention of Lille comes in 1066 – the same year William the Conqueror was getting the better of things in Hastings – in a charter attributed to Baudoin V, Count of Flanders.
The Flanders link is the thing that leaps out in the Grand Place. Which, with its array of typical 17th century Flemish buildings, should be called the Grote Markt. If you didn’t know this was France, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for part of Belgium’s Dutch speaking region. Lille was part of Flanders for several centuries, up until 1667 when Louis XIV of France set his sights on the town. It has remained French ever since.
This dual history can be tasted in the food as well. You’ll find plenty of traditional French dishes here, but the true food of Lille is Flemish. Carbonade flamande, a delicious Flemish beef stew is probably the most famed, but there is also Chicons-Gratin, endives wrapped in ham and drizzled in cheese sauce, and Welsh, a Flemish version of Welsh rarebit cooked with beer, cheese and ham. Do not expect to lose weight in Lille.
The weather was so good that after a long Flemish lunch, we headed over to the Parc de la Citadelle for a stroll. Here, in the centre of the park, is one of the most impressive remnants of Louis XIV’s capture of Lille, a hulking star fort designed by his chief military architect, Vauban. It was built in under three years and used 60 million bricks. The Sun King wasn’t going to give Lille back willingly.
* Recalling this brought back a memory of the ferry journey. I met two American students and a French au pair on the boat and we chatted and drank all the way over the Channel. When we arrived in Dover it was too early for the first bus into the town. We went to the lounge to wait. Here we discovered a completely naked man asleep on the floor. He’d clearly been there for a while, but no one seemed to have noticed him.