The day-trip of the jackal
Thanks to Eurostar, the nearest French city to Britain has reinvented itself, writes Malcolm Smith; Lille
Wednesday 02 October 1996
Lille's other famous-son-made-good is no other than that swashbuckling hero, D'Artagnan, him of Three Musketeers fame. Once a Governor of the Lillois - as the one million residents of this Flemish French city call themselves - he must have fallen out of favour. There is no Musketeers Museum and the otherwise helpful staff at Lille's tourist information office, located in the former chapel of the remains of the 15th century Paris Rihour, became unusually vague when I mentioned him. Neither does he get even a line in any of the copious tourist literature or in any of the city's walking trail guides.
My only clue - a shop in the Rue Grande Chaussee - close by the building called the New Stock Exchange, actually the city's Chamber of Commerce built earlier this century in flamboyant Flemish style. Asking around, I tracked down the swordsman turned Governor's house. It has been converted into rather inauspicious flats, hidden from view, out the back of La Botte.
Following one of the tourist trails on foot, to see as much of the old part of the city as possible in an evening, the main disappointment turned out to be the 19th century Gothic-style Notre Dame de la Treille Cathedral. Apparently still unfinished, it's not worth the flog. The dark grey stone pillars and preponderance of hideous gargoyles must qualify it as the ugliest building in town.
But otherwise Lille isn't a city looking back. With its Eurostar connections (two hours from London Waterloo, an hour from Ashford and little more than half an hour from Brussels) and its TGVs to the east and south, it has become Europe's Clapham Junction. Lille has even bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games. The modern, commercial area, mostly gathered around the Lille-Europe station, is dominated by the oddly shaped Credit Lyonnais tower (nicknamed `the old boot' locally) and the Grand Palais, a concrete, steel and glass monstrosity which competes in ugliness with the Notre Dame Cathedral.
The old city, with its candy pink, lemon yellow and sage green Flemish architecture is, thankfully, just a short taxi ride away, or a much cheaper Metro ride. On a warm autumnal evening, the street cafes are packed with the young Lillois. A quarter of Lille's inhabitants are apparently aged under 20. And almost all of them seem to tuck into platefuls of the local delicacy, moules frites (mussels and chips), cheaper than most meals at around 70 francs (about pounds 9) including a starter and dessert.
Lille has plenty to offer. It has succeeded in enticing me back for a longer stay than just an evening. But the Lillois need to get their attractions' opening times sorted out. The Charles de Gaulle Museum in the Rue Princesse is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and public holidays. The Gunners' Museum, displaying objects and documents from the City's gunners' battalion, is only open on the last Saturday of the month for three hours. The Remembrance Museum, in nearby Villeneuve-d'Ascq, takes the biscuit. It is "open every Sunday and public holiday from Palm Sunday to the last Sunday of June; then from the second Sunday of September to 11 November" and then just for three hours in the afternoon! Sort out this kind of impediment out, and Paris might just start worrying about the city-breakers who get no further than Lille.
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