I’d been toying with the idea of a weekend in Lille for what must be a decade but had somehow never got around to it. When the train which took us to Amsterdam last year stopped there, less than 90 minutes after we’d left St Pancras, it seemed ridiculous not to go so off we set last Thursday, leaving Bath at 10.13 and arriving in Lille at 15.25 their time.
By the 1990s Lille was an industrial town in decline but the mayor pressed hard for a Eurostar stop which breathed new life into the city. We’d found ourselves a hotel in the old town which is all beautifully restored buildings, upmarket shops and restaurants. Some of the houses reminded me of Amsterdam or Brussels but then Lille is very much a Flanders town; think beer and waffles rather than wine and olives. There were a few arresting art nouveau fixes for me, too.
Friday morning was taken up with a visit to La Piscine in Roubaix, a 20-minute metro ride from Lille where the local authorities have turned their art deco swimming pool into a gallery. Neither of us were particularly keen on the paintings but there were some pleasing ceramics. The first floor offered some very fine textile exhibits plus a few fashion pieces including a lovely, simple, full-length dress by Jean Paul Gaultier, subtly patterned but for the designer’s name which marred it ever so slightly for me once I’d spotted it.
No visit to Lille is complete without popping into Méert, beautiful both outside and in with its stained glass and tiling. The window displays of cake and chocolates would induce even the most puritanical tourist to step inside and neither of us is of the self-denying persuasion in that department. We went for Friday afternoon tea with cake for me and a gaufre for H which looked a bit sad when it arrived but proved quite tasty.
On Saturday morning we took ourselves off to the Palais des Beaux Arts where, rather like La Piscine, we were more taken with the ceramics than the paintings including a seventeenth-century two-handled mug, touchingly designed for the ‘tremblant’, presumably too shaky to hold it one-handed. We spied a few gilets jaunes through the window and a long line of parked gendarme vans. We’d seen no sign of a march but learned later that there’d been trouble, with the CRS wading in and one street filled with tear gas.
Our own Saturday afternoon’s outing was much more peaceable taking us to, for me, the best museum we visited in Lille: the Hospice Comtesse originally established in 1236 by Joan, Countess of Flanders. Rebuilt in the seventeenth century, the hospice now houses local artefacts offering a glimpse of Lille’s history. It’s a beautiful building whose entrance takes you into a kitchen entirely covered in blue and white tiles depicting a multitude of scenes and creatures including what appeared to be a sea unicorn. One for the brexiteers, I couldn’t help thinking.
We left Lille Europe station promptly at 12.35, arriving home in time for tea. Oddly, we’d heard very few British voices while in Lille. It’s such a delightful town and so easy to get there, I’m amazed it’s not overwhelmed with weekenders like us.
And the book? Not much time for reading on such a short break but I enjoyed what I read of Elizabeth Day’s swipe at the British class system, The Party. It’s about the friendship between two men who met at public school, one a scholarship boy, the other a privileged member of the upper classes. An incident at the eponymous fortieth birthday party results in a police investigation during which long kept secrets are spilled. Perfect holiday reading: well written, intelligent and absorbing yet unchallenging.
I don’t usually post pictures of wallpaper but this, from the corridor outside our hotel room, could not be missed. Yes, those are monkeys