“Quand un étranger vient dans ch’Nord, il brait deux fois, quand il arrive et quand il repart.” – Ch’ti Proverb
Before I embarked on my study abroad in Lille, France, I was told the above proverb. Translated into English, it means: “When a stranger visits the North of France, he cries two times: when he arrives, and when he leaves.”
When compared to the glamour of Paris and the beaches of Nice, the wine of Bordeaux and the history of Avignon, Lille doesn’t seem like much, and it rarely hits any “must-do” itinerary lists. However, it is certainly not a city to avoid – Lille is a cultural hub, a city of nearly a million, and a gateway not only to historic World War I sites (think Arras and Vimy Ridge), but also to Belgium. Here’s why you should consider Lille for your next trip to France or Europe.
1) The Gastronomy
Just a 23 minute drive from the Belgian border, a lot of Lille’s gastronomy blends the cooking styles of the Flemish with that of the French. This means there’s no shortage of waffles and frites, but mussels, chicory, and cooking in beer also reflect that Flemish-French heritage. The pungent maroille cheese, which stinks up the streets of Vieux Lille, has become an emblem of the French north and tends to create polarizing opinions in those who try it – I loved it, but others not so much.
This blend of cultures in the food scene also takes typical French dishes like fondue and gives them a twist. We went to an amazing fondue restaurant that incorporated maroille cheese and brown ale into the fondue, and it was so good but so rich and filling that I thought my arteries might burst. (The restaurant is called Le Broc, in case you ever wanted to try Le Fondue Ch’ti for yourself!)
2) The Culture
Lille is often called the most international city in France, which is largely due to its geographical position as a gateway to London, Brussels, and Paris, and also due to its high student population. Due to that student population, there are a lot of young people in the city which creates for vibrant nightlife. But the actual culture of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, of which Lille is the capital, is completely unlike the rest of France. The Ch’ti dialect is nothing like the French that was taught to me in 11 years of French classes. There is a French film that captures this difference, “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”, and is about a man from Marseilles who has to take a job in Lille. The following clip shows the Lillois teaching the southerner about Ch’ti idioms and phrases. There aren’t subtitles, but the gist of it is when the waiter finally comes to take their order, the southerner orders entirely with Ch’ti phrases, and the server, who is not Ch’ti, doesn’t understand a thing he is saying. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiyA2z5u5kY The Ch’ti people combine the leisure-driven lifestyle of Paris with the welcoming attitudes of Belgium, and are among the most friendly French I have ever met (the term “friendly French” being a stereotypical oxymoron in most cases). Their hospitality, eagerness to help despite language barriers, and good-naturedness added to my enjoyment of my study abroad experience.
There’s a strong market culture in Lille, particularly the weekly Wazemmes market and the annual La Braderie, which is the largest street market in Europe and occurs at the beginning of September.
Lille is full of festivals; we stumbled across the Gay Pride Parade day, which is fairly standard in Europe, and also a roller skating festival which just involved a huge crowd of people roller skating in the streets.
Lastly, there’s a strong and unique musical culture in Lille. On my first weekend, there was a festival in the Wazemmes neighbourhood dedicated to accordions. This consisted of every genre of music you can imagine with an accordion twist!
Speaking of the musical culture, one of my favourite days in Lille was the Fête de la Musique, which occurs on the official first day of summer (June 21st) and has musicians occupying the streets of the centre-ville. The musicians aren’t allowed to solicit for spare change, but they can sell copies of their music. You couldn’t go down a single walkway without running into another band or artist with their drum kit and guitars set up on the cobblestone pathways. It was a magical evening that paid tribute not only to French music but to international music as well, and its grandiose size put all the street festivals in Edmonton to shame.
3) The Art
The Palais des Beaux Arts is the largest French museum outside of Paris, and was one of the first museums built in France under the instructions of Napoleon I. In fact, after the Louvre it is the second-largest art collection in France! It includes works by Raphael, Donatello, Rubens, Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, and many more, as well as a collection of “plans-relief”, which are to scale military models of various cities.
One of my favourite museums in the world is located in Roubaix, which is a town in the Lille metropolitan area that is easily accessible via the Métro, and is called “La Piscine.” It is a fine and modern art museum inside an old converted swimming pool, and they have retained the original fixtures of the pool, including the showers and the pool itself. The museum is bright, and the light reflects through the windows onto the pool’s waters. Even if you’re not into art, it is a beautifully designed building and it’s fascinating to see the remnants of what swimming pools used to be like!
There’s also the Lille Métropole musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain, et d’art brut. This collection is dedicated entirely to modern art, which may not be everyone’s tastes, but it is also an example of brutalist architecture, and features a sculpture garden outside. Often they have live art performances within the exhibits, which are always puzzling and make no sense, but hey, that’s what modern art is for, right?
Lille as a city has a high appreciation for art, and even inside city hall there is a huge mural, done by Icelandic painter Erro no less! Though perhaps I found this more fascinating as an Iceland fetishist than others would…
4) The Parks
Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban designed Lille’s Citadel as part of a series of fortresses in the 1600s. It has been dubbed the Queen of Citadels due to its size, its preservation, and the architectural quality. Now not used so much as a military fort than a park, I often went for runs between the fortified walls, appreciating the greenery and the canals that make up its interior. The Lille zoo is also located in the Citadel park.
There is also a beautiful park in Roubaix, the Barbieux Park, which is enormous and full of lakes. We even came across horses grazing on one of the lake’s islands. Park culture in France contributes to their pursuit of leisure, and though it took this Canadian a while to get used to, it’s often better to spend your Sunday lounging in a park with food and wine rather than trying to get a bunch of shopping and errands done.
There are also three botanical gardens in Lille – the Jardin botanique Nicolas Boulay is operated by medicine students at the university, the Jardin des Plantes de Lille, and the Jardin botanique de la Faculté de Pharmacie.
5) The Architecture
Like the gastronomy, architecture in Lille has both French and Flemish influences. The presence of brick is definitely a Belgian trait, as is the rows of houses with narrow gardens in the back. The Grand Place, which is the city’s grand square that leads off into Vieux Lille, shows evidence of this influence, especially in the terraced-triangular roofs of La Voix du Nord. One of the prettiest buildings in the square, the “Vielle Bourse,” even has a flea market on its main floor.
Other notable buildings are the Lille Chamber of Commerce, Église du Sacré Coeur, and the Lille Cathedral, Notre Dame de la Treille, which combines modernist architecture with old world cathedral influences.
Another notable site is near the Grand Place; there is a building that appears to have decorative black dots near the windows – they’re not actually decorative, they’re Austrian cannonballs that remain from World War I!
I recently watched the French film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes a few years ago, “Blue is the Warmest Colour,” and about fifteen minutes into the movie I realized that it took place and was filmed in Lille. I started to cry at how much I missed those streets, those buildings, and those people. Maybe it was the length of time I spent there that made me really grow to love and appreciate this often-overlooked city, but I believe it deserves more attention than it gets (despite its inclement weather!). Have you ever been to Lille? What was your experience of the city? Or are you planning a trip to France and are wondering if Lille is a destination you should hit up? Let me know in the comments below!