We had decided on short notice to go to Lille, because nothing else was up and we got a special offer on the Eurostar that we couldn’t refuse. Neither of us was expecting much. We hadn’t heard anything about Lille except that the Eurostar goes there and that it’s in Northern France. Not having made the effort to do any research, off the top of our heads we were expecting the town to be even smaller than the actual size of 225,000 residents, maybe half that size. However, as soon as you arrive at the central train station, you realise, this is a big and very rich city that doesn’t give a hoot about what if you’ve expected it to be smaller or whatever.
The whole metropolitan area of Lille is more than 1,000,000, making it France’s fourth biggest agglomeration after Paris, Lyon, and Marsaille, and that’s how this city feels. This rose of French Flanders, right next to the Belgian border, is the capital of the Hauts-de-France region and of the Nord department, and its earliest origins of Gallic settlement go back to 2,000 BC. According to legend the town was founded in 640 AD, the first mention of the town dates from 1066 AD. It’s name comes from ‘the island’ or ‘l’ille’.
From around 1150 the textile trade prospered in Lille and started to gradually make the town bigger, richer, and more powerful. Around 1450 its ruler, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, easily dwarfed the power of the King of France and made Lille a centre of finance, commerce, and administration.
And then.. blablabla.. 20 years ago, Lille had hit rock bottom with nothing to show but a defunct textile industry and lots of derelict buildings that were left to rot right in the centre of town. It’s incredible how they managed to do a complete turnaround in such a short time. They became a top university town, attracted many new industries, trades, and shops, got themselves linked to the Eurostar network, and renovated their beautiful old town, which boasts the most amazing Flemish architecture the world has ever seen and is consistently built in the same style, with just a few classicistic and neo-Flemish buildings here and there.
The art scene is vibrant and we thoroughly enjoyed the small galleries and our visit to the Lam (Lille Museum of Modern Art) and its Magnificent Modigliani exhibition, which included many of Modigliani’s best works and was beautifully and wisely curated.
Maybe the best part about Lille was the hearty Flemish cuisine. We stuck with four meals a day, including early and late dinner, because we just didn’t want to miss out on all the deliciousness that surrounded us.
In our book, it would be a sin not to visit Lille, if your city is connected to it via the Eurostar network. If you shop around a bit, you can find amazing deals for the train tickets (we paid £45 each for our returns from London, and our hotel was very good value too, much cheaper than Paris), and it’s so convenient, too. We will definitely come back, maybe combine it with our next visit to Paris. Their Christmas market is said to be among the best this planet has to offer.