The Cultural Tourist: Lille: it's the gem on our doorstep

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The Independent Travel

To prejudiced Parisians, Lille will always remain a dreary, rainy city somewhere near the Belgian border. Brits know better. With the coming of the Eurostar, and the resurgence of France's northern capital in the past two decades, a brand-new, 1,000-year-old continental city has materialised on Britain's doorstep.

To prejudiced Parisians, Lille will always remain a dreary, rainy city somewhere near the Belgian border. Brits know better. With the coming of the Eurostar, and the resurgence of France's northern capital in the past two decades, a brand-new, 1,000-year-old continental city has materialised on Britain's doorstep.

There has never been a better time to visit Lille (an hour by road from the Channel Tunnel; 100 minutes from Waterloo by train). The city is, with Genoa, Europe's "cultural capital" for 2004. The theme of the thousands of artistic, theatrical and musical offerings, in Lille and surrounding towns, until December is "Metamorphosis": a salute to the city's resurrection from heavy industrial disaster in the 1980s.

The theme could just as well be "Back to the Future". The centrepiece is an ambitious exhibition of Rubens paintings, drawings and tapestries, which reasserts the city's pre-French origins as one of the great commercial city-states of Flanders. (Lille did not become definitively French until 1713.)

The exhibition at the Palais des Beaux Arts until 14 June (00 333 20 06 78 00; www.exporubens.com, admission €8 (£5)) is the largest collection of Rubens works since 1977. It has been damned with faint praise by some critics in both France and Britain - too ambitious, unwieldy, too few acknowledged Rubens masterpieces. Maybe, but the nine vast tapestries are worth the trip alone.

Other highlights of the second of three seasons of Lille 2004, which runs to September, are two Shakespeare plays at the Théâtre du Nord in Tourcoing (19 Rue des Champs, Tourcoing; 00 333 20 140 24 24). Othello, directed in English by Declan Donnellan of the Cheek by Jowl company, runs all this week. Antony and Cleopatra, in French, directed by the theatre's resident American, director, Stuart Seide, runs from 25 March to 16 April.

Until 14 June look out for an exhibition of the works of the 18th century painter Antoine Watteau at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Boulevard Watteau, Valenciennes (30 miles south-east of Lille; 00 333 27 22 57 20). Watteau is a local hero: he was born in Valenciennes in 1684.

There are hundreds of other shows, many free, until the end of the year. ( www.lille2004.com). The quiet, but not too quiet, star of the show is Lille itself, its Flemish architcture rerstored and rescued from decades of neglect.

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