Travel

Neighbourhood guide to Lille

It’s just a short hop across the Channel, but Lille remains undeservedly underrated. Full of Franco-Flemish flair, it’s a city full of first-class culture and creativityMonday, April 8, 2019

By Connor McGovern
Book market, Vieille Bourse

If you don’t think fairytales exist, Lille would say otherwise. Once upon a time, it pumped away as the heart of the region’s textile industry before slipping into decline. However, the city’s seen a staggering transformation in recent decades, driven by huge retail giants and an influx of Europe’s design elite. These days the city’s been busy embracing its new identity: a thriving regional capital full of cutting-edge concept stores and chic boutiques, a lively arts scene and a lauded cuisine. In fact, the greater Lille region even saw off Sydney to be named the World Design Capital for 2020. How’s that for a Cinderella story?

Vieux-Lille
‘Meet me at the Furet’ reads a text from my guide, Sélic. I scour the city’s bustling square, Grand Place, for some sort of monument, but it turns out the Furet is no statue as I expected, but supposedly Europe’s largest bookshop. “Bravo,” he says with a smile. “This is where all the real Lillois meet.”

If I’m starting to feel like a local already, it might be because Vieux-Lille doesn’t feel entirely French. “You can really see the foreign influences in this part of town,” says Sélic. “It’s here you’ll find most of the city’s neo-Flemish architecture.”

I stand back, tucking into hot frites from Friterie Meunier, and look around. There’s the Chambre de Commerce with its poster-boy bell tower; grand townhouses, and the elegant Vieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) painted red, black and gold. The whole scene — frites and all — is more of a postcard from Belgium than France. It’s no surprise, since Lille passed between the Flemish, the Burgundians and the Spanish Habsburgs before finally becoming part of France in 1713.

Even now, Lille keeps transforming. The Vieille Bourse’s inner courtyard houses a weekend book and art market, and tango dancing in the evenings. A wing of the Chambre de Commerce is a co-working space where people tap laptops beneath grand chandeliers. It’s a similar story at Basilic Café, where owner Laureen Marquer has turned the mezzanine into a gallery space. “Young artists use public walls like ours because they don’t have anywhere to exhibit,” she tells me.

Initiatives like these affirm the innovative spirit of modern Lille. Shops are similarly entrepreneurial: there are made-in-Lille bow ties at Le Colonel Moutarde; La Supérette, a trendy local collective of clothes and gifts; Scandi-inspired knick-knacks at Momentum; and fragrances at Ombres Portées, a favourite of France’s first lady, Brigitte Macron.

Yet even with this new wave of creators, Vieux-Lille — literally ‘Old Lille’ — still lives up to its name. Dating back to 1761, Méert is a salon de thé where punters order the house gaufres: dainty blond wafers, sandwiched with vanilla-flecked cream. Even local boy Charles de Gaulle used to come for a fix.

“It was pretty good advertising,” laughs Chrystel Petit, who works here, nodding to the bust of de Gaulle in the window. “The recipe has never changed, and they’re still handmade here,” she adds. While much of Vieux-Lille is all about switching things up, it seems some traditions aren’t worth changing.

Lille-Centre
If Vieux-Lille is the demure sibling, then Lille-Centre is the family extrovert. Most cross-Channel visitors arrive here by train to be greeted by modern malls, new cycle paths and twinkling glass offices that cluster around the Euralille complex and Lille Europe station. The quasi-American cityscape is a clear sign of Lille’s transformation from industrial leftovers to modern powerhouse.

“This is our mini New York,” jokes Sélic. “They’re always adding to this part of town. When the Eurostar arrived, it really helped transform the city; suddenly we were connected to three of Europe’s most important capitals, and investment poured in.”

But Lille-Centre is more than steel and glass. Standing nearby in red-bricked contrast is the former Gare St-Sauveur freight station, now an enormous exhibition space.

“We have events in and around the station here,” says Alexandre Tatay over lunch at Le Bistrot de St So. He’s part of Lille3000, an organisation that sprang up after the city’s spell as Capital of Culture in 2004, to keep it on Europe’s cultural calendar.

“We work with galleries and artists all over the world for inspiration for our events,” he adds. “We’re busy organising Eldorado for 2019, a celebration of Mexican culture. There’ll be a parade, events and we’ll install huge, colourful sculptures made in Mexico all across Lille.”

Lille3000 does a fine job of keeping the art scene young, but Lille-Centre also does old-school highbrow. The Palais de Beaux-Arts is home to the most important collection of fine art and sculpture outside Paris, its walls decked with masterpieces from the likes of Monet and Goya. But the newly restored plans-reliefs are one of the biggest draws here: the highly detailed scale models of northern France’s fortified cities are some of the most important in the country.

From there it’s a short walk to the 340ft-tall art deco Beffroi de Lille, soaring up from the City Hall. At the summit, patchwork views spread to the horizon: parkland and high-rises that spill into Belgium; below, the pretty arch of the Porte de Paris; the silver sprawl of the modern quarter; and red-brick factories that recall Lille’s fabric-weaving heyday.

Wazemmes
Two market traders have been shouting over one another for a while; which of them has the ripest avocados is still to be decided. But people aren’t paying a huge amount of attention to their mounds of fruit — instead they’re bartering with the woman selling second-hand saris, or fussing over a Pomeranian shivering beside its owner’s high heels.

Welcome to the Marché de Wazemmes. What started out as a covered food market has generously spilled out into the square. From what I can see, it’s the place to be on a Sunday morning, and a one-stop shop for pretty much anything. Locals catch up over stalls of fat tomatoes, natter next to trestle tables of toy cars and eat steaming pastilla pastries cooked right in front of them. Carnations or cat food, brassware or basketball jerseys — you name it, Wazemmes sells it.

“I much prefer being out here than in the kitchen,” one seller tells me as she fries beignets. I watch the spongey batter sizzle and spit as it hits the oil. “I just love the atmosphere here on a Sunday morning.”

Although every social strand of the city has piled into Wazemmes this morning, it’s long been Lille’s working-class neighbourhood. Many of the residents have been here for decades, but the more recent additions have been drawn in by its slightly bohemian, gritty vibe. There are Algerian bakeries and shops that sell nothing but incense; students hang out in airy, plant-filled cafes by day and flood the gaudy pubs and bars along the rue Solférino by night.

The area’s grassroots heritage comes from its red-brick mills and breweries, and while many have closed their doors for good, one in particular has been given a new lease of life. Just off the marketplace is the Maison Folie Wazemmes: an old factory pepped up with an undulating, Gehry-style facelift that hosts everything from accordion and reggae festivals to La Louche d’Or, an international soup celebration. The latter is less a broth bonanza, more a full-day festival of art, music, dance and food to celebrate the one dish ‘common to all continents’. If there’s anything that embodies the spirit of Wazemmes, this is it.

Maison Folie Wazemmes. Image: Alamy

When in Lille

Estaminets
The estaminet is to Lille what the cafe is to Paris. These traditional little restaurants serve regional food with good beer on tap. Try a classic carbonnade flamande stew, or a welsh — a cheese-heavy cousin of Welsh rarebit.

Beer
Forget France’s wine obsession, Lille is a city of beer guzzlers. You could spend a dishonourable amount of time trying all the varieties, but La Capsule is an excellent introduction to what’s on offer, with everything from smoked Porters to sour cherry cask ales.

Parc de la Citadelle
Shake off the hangover in the city’s largest green space, which is threaded with winding woodland trails set around the old citadel. There’s a zoo and plenty of adventure playgrounds for kids.

Roubaix
Hop on the metro to this historic town for street art trails, hip design stores and the newly reopened Musée de la Piscine, a collection of art and sculpture in a former public bath.

Braderie de Lille
Lille hosts the Braderie, Europe’s largest flea market, every September. Bargain hunters can rummage through streets flooded with vendors, touting wares such as antique furniture and second-hand clothes.

More info
Eurostar travels direct to Lille from London St Pancras in just 1h 20 mins, from £29 one-way.
Doubles at Clarance Hotel start at €200 (£177), while at L’Hermitage Gantois doubles start at €120 (£106), both room only. Both hotels have a city tax of €3.30 (£2.89) per adult, per night.

@connorjmcgovern

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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