48 Hours In: Lille

This chic French destination boasts fine art and a taste for Flemish food and drink, says Mick Webb
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The Independent Online

WHY GO NOW?

This compact, attractive and eccentric city, where French cool meets Flemish flamboyance, is worth a visit at any time of the year, but especially in autumn when walking the cobbled streets can be interspersed with pauses for coffee in the colourful squares. Or, if you wait a couple of months, the Christmas market (21 November-24 December) joins the host of boutiques and beguiling local shops to provide an irresistible retail experience: Place Rihour (1) in the city centre is filled with stalls selling arts, crafts and local foods, while the neighbouring Grand' Place (2) provides entertainment in the form of a big wheel and an ice-rink.

TOUCH DOWN

Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) races from London Waterloo to Lille Europe station (3) in 100 minutes; from November, the train will start at St Pancras station; the new High Speed One line will reduce the journey time to Lille by 20 minutes and with it, presumably, the French jibes about British engineering incompetence. Fares start at £55 return. By car, you can reach Lille from Calais in just over an hour if you take the A16 motorway to Dunkirk followed by the A26, which has the advantage of not being a toll-road. Lille's airport at Lesquin, just south of the city, is linked by air with Leeds/Bradford by BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com). The bus into the city centre takes about 15 minutes.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

The heart of the city is formed, unusually, by three interlinked squares, the largest of which is named after the city's most famous son, General de Gaulle, but is known to all as the Grand' Place (2). In and around this square and neighbouring Place du Theatre (4) and Place Rihour (1) you'll find many of Lille's most striking historic buildings, reminders of its past as a wealthy centre of the Flemish wool trade. The Palais Rihour in Place Rihour (1) houses the tourist office, which apart from the usual services provides guided walks and a one-hour minibus tour of the main sights. It opens 9.30am-6.30pm from Monday to Saturday, 10am-noon and 2-5pm on Sundays (00 33 3 59 57 94 00; www.lilletourism.com).

Radiating out from the main squares are pedestrianised streets fringed by shops and restaurants, while the tastefully restored old town, Vieux Lille, extends northwards along cobbled streets to the Canal de la Moyenne Deule.

When your feet fail you or if rain intervenes, take the city's metro – the first entirely automated, driverless underground system in the world. A single journey costs €1.25 (£0.90), while a day pass – also valid on the city buses and trams – is €3.50 (£2.50).

CHECK-IN

The Couvent des Minimes Alliance (5), set in a former convent near La Citadelle at 17 Quai du Wault (00 33 3 20 304 608; www.alliance-lille.com) is a tasteful combination of old and new, with its 17th-century exterior concealing a glassed-in inner courtyard. Doubles start at €205 (£140), excluding breakfast.

Among the many two-star offerings, the Hôtel Brueghel (6) at 5 Parvis St-Maurice (00 33 3 20 06 06 69; www.hotel-brueghel.com), filled with antiques, is an attractive choice. It lies within the pedestrianised zone, well placed for sights and stations. Doubles start at €83 (£56), excluding breakfast.

To fall directly from train into bed, then the Hotel Lille Europe (7) is close to the Eurostar station at Avenue Le Corbusier (00 33 3 28 36 76 76; www.hotel-lille-europe.com); rooms in this clean but characterless block cost €86 (£59) per double, excluding breakfast. For a bargain bed try the youth hostel (8) at 12 rue Malpart with beds at €19 (£13.50) per night including breakfast (00 33 3 20 57 08 94; www.hihostels.com).

TAKE A HKE

Start at the tourist office in Place Rihour (1) and admire the glass pyramid that tops the metro station before taking the rue du Palais Rihour between elegant 17thcentury town houses to the Grand'Place (2). Facing you is the most beautiful building in Lille, La Vieille Bourse. Intricately and colourfully decorated, the former commercial exchange, built in 1653, is actually made up of 24 small houses interlinked around a central courtyard where, on Saturday afternoons (1pm-7pm), there's the bonus of a second-hand book market. Behind La Vieille Bourse in la Place du Théâtre (4) is the neo-classical Opera House and the equally imposing Chambre de Commerce. Wander through the old town along rue de la Monnaie, and pause at the Hospice Comtesse (9), a hospital founded in 1237 by the Countess of Flanders Jeanne de Constantinople (00 33 3 28 36 84 00; www.musenor.com). It has an impressive collection of northern French, Dutch and Flemish art and porcelain plus a regional museum. It opens 10am-12.30pm and 2-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday, with no lunch break at weekend, admission €3 (£2.20).

Continue north to 9 rue Princesse (10) – the birthplace and family home of Charles de Gaulle (00 33 3 20 31 96 03; www.maison-natale-de-gaulle.com). The house is now a museum devoted to the charismatic leader; a star exhibit is the car, riddled with bullet holes, in which he narrowly escaped assassination. It opens 10am-1pm and 2-6pm from Wednesday to Sunday, admission €5 (£3.50).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Le Flam's (11) at 8 rue du Pas (00 33 3 20 54 18 38), near Grand'Place, dispenses the tasty and filling Alsatian speciality: the flammekueche. Bacon strips, onion and crème fraîche on a thin crust, cooked quickly at a very high temperature.

Alternatively, Pain Quotidien, 35 bis Place Rihour (1) has a fine range of tartines, (a slice of bread topped with cheese, ham, etc) as well as quiches (00 33 3 20 42 88 70; www.painquotidien.com).

WINDOW SHOPPING

A tourist attraction in its own right is Le Furet du Nord in Grand'Place (2). Spread over eight floors, it is one of Europe's largest bookshops. The pedestrian streets around here – rue de Béthune, rue des Tanneurs, etc – host popular clothing chain stores, while upmarket fashion boutiques are to be found in and around rue de la Grande Chausse and Rue de la Monnaie. Another speciality of Lille is antiques, for which you should look in rue d'Angleterre in the old town. For tasty chocolates, try Chocolat Passion (12) at 67 rue Nationale (00 33 3 20 54 74 42; www.chocolatpassion.com) or Guillaume Vincent (13) at 12 rue du Curé Saint Etienne. In the same street there's Philippe Olivier's noted cheese shop, where the Maroilles – whose taste is much better than its smell – is one of the local cheeses on offer.

AN APERITIF

In the country of wine, this is the region of beer – and where better to try it than at Lille's first microbrewery, Les Trois Brasseurs (14) at 22 Place de la Gare. The beers are similar to the excellent brews of neighbouring Belgium, and are similarly powerful. L'Ambrée (6.2 percent) is a particularly tasty amber-coloured drink.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The most typical places to eat are Lille's "estaminets" (pub-restaurants) and two classics of the kind are to be found in rue de Gand (15). T'Rijsel at number 25 (00 33 320 15 01 59) and Chez la Vieille (00 33 3 28 36 40 06) at number 60. Try Lille's classic dishes such as Potje'vleesch (a terrine of chicken, veal and rabbit) and Waterzoi (a creamy stew of freshwater fish). Book in advance, especially for weekend evenings.

For a special occasion, the place to dine and be seen is L'Huitrière (16) at 3 rue des Chats Bossus (00 33 3 20 55 43 41; www.huitriere.com). Behind the beautiful mosaic façade is a fish-stop and one of France's best fish restaurants.

SUNDAY MORNING:

GO TO CHURCH

The first stone of the city's cathedral, Notre-Dame de la Treille (17) (00 33 3 20 55 28 72) was laid in 1854 but its striking, modern façade was completed only a few days before the end of 1999.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Wrap up warm and snack your way around the many stalls and cafes at the Marché de Wazemmes (18) in the south of the city. The large flea market is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays and – the most colourful and busiest day – Sundays.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The Palais des Beaux-Arts (19) is second only to the Louvre for the quality of its collection. It fills Place de la Republique (00 33 3 20 06 78 00; www.lilletourism. com). On the first floor are works by Flemish and Dutch masters, including Van Dyck and Rubens. The basement houses (temporarily) some stunning works by El Greco and Goya. It opens 10am to 6pm Wednesday to Sunday and 2-6pm on Mondays, admission €5 (£3.50); free on the first Sunday of the month.

TAKE A RIDE

At République tram stop (20), hop on the number 14B, direction " Lomme A France" and enjoy the ride down Boulevard de la Liberté to the Jardin Vauban (21).

A WALK IN THE PARK

During the 19th century, industrialisation transformed the fortunes of Lille – but as the city developed, green areas were at a premium. In 1865, the "gardener of Paris", Barillet-Deschamps, was commissioned to create an elegant open space. The result was the Jardin Vauban (21). This careful construction of lawns, rock and water deftly excludes the city. In the south-west of the park, look out for the former goathouse that is now a puppet theatre. A monument to Charles de Gaulle is at the north-east corner of the park.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Recently renovated and restored to its former glory, the Porte de Paris (22) is a piece of golden-age Parisian architecture situated in the middle of a large roundabout in the centre of Lille. The 32m-high structure was built between 1685-92 by Louis XIV to commemorate his capture of Lille for the French. A short way east, see the imposing Hôtel de Ville (23), the 1920s town hall built in the Flemish tradition with a spectacular 100m-high belfry.

Additional research by Rosie Scammell

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