Curtain up for a Lille of what you fancy...

We cross the Channel to find a French city big on flamboyance


The Grand’Place and the column of the Goddess - Dees  - rising majestically from the square’s central fountain

The Grand’Place and the column of the Goddess - Dees - rising majestically from the square’s central fountain

Garish pink and silver curtains drew open, drums rolled and out came the dancing girls. A moment later Phillipe, the compere asked the audience (in French) 'anyone here from Pas de Calais?' Hands went up accompanied by cheers. 'Étrangers bienvenus' – welcome strangers – he chuckled.

Strangers? We were enjoying a dinner/cabaret spectacle at Le Prestige Palace, av du People Belge, (think mini Moulin Rouge) in Lille, located in the Nord Pas de Calais region of Northern France bordering Belgium.

It's a hop and a skip from Pas De Calais and just a 40-minute dash from Calais by car, yet for the Lilloise, anywhere outside their city limits is a different country.

Yes, Lille is typically French with its churches and boulangeries, but as the capital of French Flanders it is decidedly Flemish. The local Ch'ti dialect is typically doused with lots of "sh" sounds and guttural rolling of R's; for those of us with a smattering of school French to draw on, it is a nightmare.

Only 20 years ago the city was a run-down industrial wilderness. Then a group of companies, including Auchan and Le Redout, funded a city-wide face-lift to uncover a quaint, cobbled, medieval landscape with a distinct Flemish flavour that permeates everything from the white beers that taste like the Belgian Hoegaarden, the rustic, hop-decorated estaminets (Flemish style wooden-floored restaurants serving hearty Flemish food) where you can drink them, to the beautiful Flemish renaissance architecture and elegant gabled buildings that hem its winding roads.

The Grand'Place (aka Place du General de Gaulle because he was born in the area in 1890) is where everyone meets, especially around the fountain where the statue of the Goddess - Deese - rises majestically to commemorate the Austrian siege of Lille in 1792. This is also where the 17th century Flemish Renaissance Vielle Bourse is located.

This is a quadrangle of 24 ornately decorated houses surrounding an interior rectangular courtyard where trading could take place. Note the cute chubby cherubs, saucy female forms, garlands and in particular the Fleur de Lys (emblem of Lille) being held by two Lions that were a symbol of the Netherlands who owned Lille at the time.

Secondhand book and flower sellers gather daily plying their trade beneath the cloisters while groups of chess players meet (if you fancy a game, just take a seat) for daily tournaments. During heady summer evenings, the space is used by a group of lively tango dancers.

The flamboyant Sun King Louis XVI left his mark on the square too. The Grand Gard, which was once used as military barracks, is today the Théâtre du Nord - you'll see his sun symbol sandwiched between the coats of arms of France and Lille on its pediment. Take a moment to admire the Opera House on nearby Place du Théâtre. On the façade is Apollo surrounded by his muses and to the left is a depiction of Amédée Cordonnier allegory of Music and on the right Tragedy by Hector Lemaire.

Lille - France's third largest city after Paris and Lyon - is famous for its designer shopping. Hermès, Louis Vuiton and Lacoste have taken root in rue de la Grande Chaussée and smaller boutiques by individual designers pop up in all nooks and crannies but especially in Lille's oldest street, rue de la Monnaie so named after the royal mint.

The Printemps (think Debenhams) is on rue Nationale and Rue de la Clef is great for browsing through tiny shops selling old records and French comics while Euralille shopping mall, (soulless but good for rainy days) by the Eurostar terminal houses around 150 shops.

There's also a rustic market in Wazemmes on Sunday morning where you can rub shoulders with the locals as they buy groceries for lunch. Eating out in Lille is a joy. Michelin starred A l'Huîtrière, on Rue des Chats Bossus is a favourite.

At its front is a fish shop that thinks it's an art gallery - Breton art-deco
in style with splendid mosaics of fishermen at work.

The restaurant at the rear offers s wide selection of fish dishes. If it's tea-time, Meert patisserie, on rue Esquermoise, (one of many that pans out from Grand' Place) is a welcome breather. Its gorgeous filigree interior leads the way into a coffee shop.

The menu offers all sorts of cakes and savoury snacks but they are most famous for waffles (gauffres). These are filled with sumptuously sweet Madagascar vanilla and were so loved by Charles de Gaulle that he would buy a box or two of them to present as gifts to visiting dignitaries. At 25 euros for a box of 13 waffles, they don't come cheap.

You can find out more about Charles de Gaulle at the Musée Natale du Général de Gaulle museum at 9 rue de Princesse. This was his former childhood home and as well as the insights into what made him tick, you'll see the room where he was born, his cot and even the robe in which he was baptised. Just around the corner is the St Etiene church where baby de Gaulle got to wear it.

If you like art don't miss the famous Palais des Beaux-Arts at Place de la République. Considered second only to the Louvre in Paris, this magnificent building has a prestigious collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics displayed over 22,000 m².

Allow at least two hours to enjoy works by Raphael, Donatello (in particular, the Feast of Herod sculpture), Van Dyck, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rubens, Rodin, Delacroix and the impossibly romantic The Kiss by Carolus-Duan.

If you have time for a detour go to the next town of Roubaix, home to the now defunct textile industry and birthplace of mail order company La Redout, to visit La Piscine.

This is a former art deco swimming pool that has been reinvented as a museum. Two huge stained-glass windows on either side reflect in the pool's water to recreate the rays of the sun.

More than 300,000 textile relics are stored here and come out in rotation. Other displays include works of art and sculptures including ceramics by Picasso.

La Piscine also hosts temporary exhibitions and currently there is one about the Bloomsbury Set - remember Virginia Woolf and her debauched gang of artists and writers?

Perhaps more compelling is the factory stores at L'Usine. More than 200 brands are on sale at 70 per cent off retail prices. Think of it as a giant Primark where if you are patient you can uncover some amazing clothes for fluppence.

Probably the best buys are at the Delsey luggage store, at Valery Bijoux for heavily discounted jewellery and watches by designers Guess, Diesel and Dolce & Gabbana - and also at homeware shops such as Genevieve Lethu whose fabulously decorative pieces can jazz up any household.

I didn't spot any garish curtains though, but one thing is for sure, this vibrant metropolis certainly knows how to put on a show.

Sharron Livingston is editor of www.thetravelmagazine.net and www.Lille-guide.co.uk

    Last updated: 4:22pm, July 19 2010