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Lille: Good neighbours
Chocolate, beer and witloof – Lille and Brussels have more in common than meets the eye
If only Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s vice had been chocolate... He could have left his suite in the Hotel Carlton, sauntered across Lille’s Grand Place and found complete satisfaction among the dark, milky and fruit-filled temptations on offer at Meert’s 250-year-old chocolaterie. Instead, DSK’s fleshier cravings left his career in tatters and draped an aura of scandal over the Carlton, a domed haven of Belle Epoque luxury overlooking Lille’s iconic Chamber of Commerce belfry and the crimson-and-gold facade of the 17th-century Vieux Bourse. For many French tourists, taking a snapshot in front of the Carlton is now firmly on the Lille must-do list, alongside riding the driverless metro, browsing in France’s biggest bookshop and quaffing a glass or two of the hand-crafted local beers.
The past 25 years have seen Lille transformed from a grimy, post-industrial backwater into a vibrant cultural metropolis, complete with top-class opera and orchestra, innovative art galleries, startling modern architecture and a flowering of young fashion designers. And it’s just over half an hour from Brussels by Eurostar, or an 80-minute drive.
Behind’s Meert’s ornate shop-front, there’s a patisserie, tea room and restaurant as well as the wonderful old chocolate shop. The marble-and-glass confection forms the southern tip of a triangle of venerable gastronomic treasure houses in the heart of the Vieux Lille neighbourhood just west of the Grand Place. Around the corner is the fromagerie of Philippe Olivier, whose family has traded in cheese since 1907. His Vieux Boulogne was once officially declared the world’s smelliest cheese and the little shop, with its focus on local products, is an olfactory delight.
Nearby, L’Huîtrière, dating back to 1882, is a fishmongers, restaurant and Lille institution where shoals of fresh seafood glisten beneath colourful maritime mosaics. Behind the store is an elegant restaurant renowned for creations like langoustine ravioli with preserved lemon and coriander consommé. Its chefs are said to be preparing a comeback after something of a shock: the Michelin guide this year withdrew the restaurant’s star status after more than 80 years.
Vieux Lille is the city’s most atmospheric district. On summer days the cobbled streets winding among the old Flemish houses are thronged with shoppers rambling through chic boutiques like MG or Le Dressing de Charlize; ogling the stunning technicolour patisseries at Patrick Hermand (his new Bombay cake features roasted mango compote with Tahitian vanilla and coconut cream); or checking what’s hip in trendy galleries like Melting Art or L’Espace du Dedans. There’s an edgier new fashion scene developing along the Rue du Faubourg des Postes, in the upcoming Lille Sud area.
If L’Huîtrière’s €110 set menu is beyond your weekend budget, chose from the traditional Flemish bars known as estaminets serving hearty old-fashioned northern French cooking – try Chez la Vieille on Rue de Gand or L’Gaïette out towards the Wazemmes neighbourhood. Lille cuisine is not exactly exotic for visitors coming from Brussels – expect to find local takes on Belgian favourites like carbonade and waterzooi, plus lots of beer and frites. You can find some oddities however, like endive-flavoured ice-cream or the ever popular le Welsh – yes, it’s rarebit and considered a speciality here. Lille, of course, shares more than its cuisine with Belgium. The city was historically part of Flanders and lived as part of the Spanish and Austrian low lands until becoming part of France in 1713. Although much of the architecture is Flemish, and Dutch dialects are still spoken by a few, the city is now most definitely French. General de Gaulle was born there in 1890 and his house in Rue Princesse is now a museum.
Lille’s best-known museum is the Palais des Beaux-arts, said to be the second largest in France and packed with Old Masters including works by Veronese, Rubens, Monet and the like. Inspired by Brueghel, the museum is holding a major exhibition of contemporary art this year taking the Tower of Babel as its theme and featuring the likes of Jan Fabre, Anselm Kiefer and Yang Yongliang. A bunch of new cultural venues have sprung up in recent years. The Maison Folie holds exhibitions and concerts in a converted linen factory in Wazemmes, a multicultural district best known for its huge Sunday food market. The old Saint-Saveur goods train terminal is holding a fun show about sport and art through the summer; the Tri Postal, next to the huge Euralille shopping centre, was once used for sorting mail and now hosts art shows, gigs and club nights.
From October to January, the whole city is set to be transformed by the Fantastic2012 festival devoted to art inspired by the supernatural. It threatens to fill the streets with phantasmagorical creatures, spin flying saucers over the city and invite dishevelled giants to greet visitors at the Eurostar station. Eurostar trains leave twice an hour and take 35 minutes from Brussels Midi
It takes about 80 minutes to drive along the A8 (E429). Parking in the city is difficult and expensive but there is free parking around the Porte d’Arras, Calmette and Porte des Postes metro stops