Lille is hosting a city-wide festival of contemporary art until July and celebrations are in full swing.
Getting there is just a 90-minute ferry hop across the Channel to Calais followed by a 45-minute dash by car, or in less than two hours as a foot passenger by Eurostar to this gorgeous Flemish town, one of Europe’s hottest destinations for culture vultures.
Famous for its medieval cobbled streets, Ch’ti beer and high class shops, Lille was thrown into the limelight in 2004 when it was made European City of Culture. Since then, the city has been making an exhibition of itself every two years under the Lille 3000 banner.
This year, the exhibitionism starts outdoors in Rue Faidherbe, the town’s main drag that stretches out from Lille Flandres station into the main square, Place du General de Gaulle, (named after the French president who was born here) in the old town.
The road is lined by 12 giant black ‘babies’ that alternately have horns, tails and bat-like wings. These bizarre creatures were created by a Russian collective of three architects and a photographer to explore the dark side of the childhood universe.
Indoor exhibitions are no less intriguing and comprise various art from - some too conceptual for words - that hope to depict a Europe 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
For instance Le Fresnoy, in Tourcoing, a suburb of Lille, a trendy social club and ice rink re-opened in 1997 as the National Studio of Contemporary Arts. Its huge expanse now houses two cinemas, the Renoir and the Cocteau, after the French cinematic legends, and is packed with screens showing arty videos and films.
Located, quite aptly I thought, in this gritty, urban, once very run-down town in Greater Lille, Le Fresnoy is now a recognised centre of excellence for photographers, composers and film makers. Veaceslav Druta is one of them.
I watched his film, Sauts, where a small boy and a piglet do somersaults and star jumps without ever landing. “It symbolises the situation in my country, Moldovia. The country is young but seems to be always suspended, never going anywhere and not grounded,” said Druta.
Reading my mind, Druta continued: “And the pig was not harmed in any way during the making of this film.”
Meanwhile, at the Hospice d'Havré - maison Folie (crazy house) also in Tourcoing, there is a collection of more tangible, yet truly bizarre artworks, gifted to the exhibition from various Eastern European countries.
From Slovenia is a Molecul trios-roues (three wheeler), from Slovakia some flying slippers, a nifty set of inflatable lampshades from Poland, a range of symbolic glassware from the Czech Republic and - for me the piece de la resistance - from Austria, a wooden cupboard that opens up into a kitchen and three stools with hairdo’s (yes really) where the “vanity of the sitter meets with the vanity of the stool itself”.
If all this feels like art gone off the rails, then a former railway station, St Sauveur, will put you back on track, almost. It has been transformed into a space that mixes ‘popular and elitist ideas’ of Eastern Europe.
The former railway warehouse is now a restaurant and cinema and the office buildings have been turned into Hotel Europa. The hotel rooms are decorated in various Eastern bloc styles from Slovenia, East Berlin (with a wall decorated with hand guns) and Poland.
View it as an art installation or hire it out for an hour or so. You can even use the bed (no-one asks what goes on between the sheets) and eat the Eastern European nibbles.
Truly traditional art is available to view at the flamboyant Palais de Beaux Arts, which is only second to the Louvre in size. It holds the most impressive collection of Flemish masterworks outside Paris, including pieces by Bouts, Rubens, van Dyck and van Goyen.
For Lille 3000, the art gallery is hosting an exhibition called Istanbul Traversee. This exhibition takes a look at how the population and lifestyle of the city of Istanbul amalgamates eastern and western, modern and traditional culture. As you enter, a huge screen shows a dreamy, peaceful film of a woman in a pod flying to Istanbul.
It was produced by Hussein Chabyan who is also artistic director of Puma sportswear. Several installations talk of the struggles of the people, but I particularly liked the comedic films like the Road to Tate Modern where a man crossing some far off hills on a donkey meets another and asks for directions to the Tate Modern.
To ensure your next visit goes swimmingly well. be sure to visit La Piscine, just a short metro ride to Roubaix, a suburb where Lille’s defunct textile industry once flourished. This art deco former public swimming pool was created by Albert Baert, a local architect, in 1932 and was remodelled into an art gallery by Jean-Paul Philippon in 2000. He was the same man who transformed the Musee d’Orsay from a train station into Paris’ best museum.
It provided a civic service for the local workers to improve their hygiene, in exquisite surroundings of wavy lines, ceramic designs and stunning stained glass windows that throw awesome lights patterns onto the pool water. During Lille 3000 there is also a fashion exhibition of dresses by Agatha Ruiz de la Prada (until June 21). With bird cages complete with stuffed birds for belts and heart shaped frocks her creations, though unwearable, show a large imagination and sense of humour to match.
Apart from the statues that line both sides of the pool, the museum has a fabulous permanent collection of Picasso ceramics, a Tamara de Lempicka painting, and excellent examples of Dufy pottery and Galle glasswork.
No trip to Lille would be complete without experiencing some of the local flavour and the best place for to do this is at the highly colourful Wazemmes market just a short hop from Lille centre on the metro to Gambetta. It is open all day on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 7am to 2pm and takes place by St Pierre-St-Paul church.
Antique sellers congregate to one side and stalls galore snake around the church selling anything from jewelelry and clothes to bric-a-brac. A covered food hall is perfect for picking up some Flemish gaufres (waffles), a slab of Bergues, the local cheese, and a bottle or three of some of the region’s excellent beers that at 5 per cent abv are enough to make every day feel like a festival.
The festival lasts from now to the 12th July.
Where to stay:
L’Hermitage Gantois ★★★★★
This handsome five star hotel is housed in converted hospital and comes complete with a chapel, fine dining restaurant and chic bar. Doubles start at £113.00
Hotel Alliance ★★★★✩
The four star Alliance hotel is housed in a coverted convent and still has its high vaulted ceilings, long corridors and walls lined with images of the various stages of its transformation from convent to hotel. Doubles start at £132.00