Industry, but plenty else too
www.en.lilletourisme.com. The common perception of Lille as a grim, grey industrial city besieged by smokestacks and slag heaps is only half true. A prosperous trading centre since the 14thC, and part-time residence of the Burgundian dukes (Philip the Good built the Palais de Rihour which houses the tourist office), Vieux Lille has plenty to show for its affluent past, and one of the richest art museums outside Paris.
Lille was the birthplace of Général de Gaulle, so it is no suprise that the central square has been renamed for him, though it’s often still referred to as Grand’ Place. It is home to the 17thC Ancienne Bourse, a splendid Flemish baroque extravaganza which now hosts a tame flea and flower market in its arcaded courtyard. Grandly appointed it may be, but it does not equal the riotously ornate turn-of-the-century Opéra and Nouvelle Bourse, place du Théâtre, the latter reeling under a ridiculous belfry.
To the north, the cobbled streets of Vieux Lille have a distinctly Flemish air. There are plenty of Frenchified hôtels-particuliers too, a 19thC cathedral, and the historic Hospice Comtesse, rue de la Monnaie, founded by Jeanne de Flandre in 1237. Rebuilt after a fire in the 15thC, the Salle des Malades has the coats-of-arms of its various bene-factors painted on the ceiling and niches where sick beds once lined the long room. A museum in the old nuns’s quarters displays antique furniture, paintings, china, and some beautiful tiles in the kitchens (closed Tues).
Charles de Gaulle was born in a quiet street a further ten-minute walk north of here. The house has been turned into a small museum, see www.en.lilletourisme.com plastered with photographs and news cuttings around the black Citroen which carried the president through an assassination attempt in 1962. To the west is Vauban’s massive Citadelle – 60 million bricks in a multi-pointed star still occupied by the French army (guided tours on Sun), and bordered by the Bois de Boulogne where 700 trees have been planted in memory of Second World War deportees.
South of place Rihour, rue Neuve and rue de Béthune constitute Lille’s main shopping district, and lead towards place de la République and the Palais des Beaux-Arts (www.en.lilletourisme.com). Flemish painters from the 15th-17thC are particularly well-represented (Bouts, Rubens, van Dyck); Rodin and the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Sisley) come courtesy of the Masson legacy; and treasures of the ground floor antiquities section include sculpture, ceramics and tapestries. For modern art, venture out to the eastern suburb of Villeneuve-d’Ascq and the Musée Metropole d’Art Moderne (www.en.lilletourisme.com) where jaunty Calder mobiles decorate the lawn. The permanent collection includes works by Braque, Modigliani and Picasso, and there are interesting temporary exhibitions.