Lille wonder: a whistle-stop tour of a Franco-Belgian jewel
Lille may not be the obvious city for a short break, despite the fact it’s highly convenient to reach via Eurostar. On the train, I flick through the current issue of Metropolitan, the Eurostar magazine, which skips past Lille to focus on the more obvious tourist locations of Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. However, when you alight here this city feels as if it’s transforming.
Get past the sight of Primark that greets you from the station and there’s a medieval heart, with curving, pedestrianised streets. There’s a Franco-Belgium feel, from the place names to a love of mussels and the craft-brewery scene. Lille houses France’s biggest university; there are 67,000 students floating around in term-time.
If the shops are closed on Sundays (this is France after all), the vast market at Wazemmes makes up for it. In the central hall you can find melons stamped with wax seals, pig heads and outsized globe artichokes. There’s clothing, more food and even, by Rue Parvis de Croix, some very good flea markets. It’s heaving with people, speaking a kaleidoscope of languages.
Restaurants are largely good value, too. In Lille, you don’t go to La Ducasse expecting Michelin-starred finesse from Alain; instead, this is a resolutely French brasserie with rillettes and rabbit, coming in at €15 for a main course (but with better wine than you’d expect for that price). After lunch, head into the Palais des Beaux-Arts, stuffed with neoclassical heavyweights (although there’s room for a Picasso or two), courtesy of the city’s prosperous industrial past.
Mines and mills brought workers to Lille in the 19th century, and the lines of flat-fronted brick terraces built to house them are still here. By the 1960s, Lille’s wealth had dwindled, but in recent years there’s been a determined renaissance. Today, the city’s brightest cultural jewel is La Piscine, a museum of decorative art. Located one stop from the centre by tram, in Roubaix, it was built by a socialist mayor and opened in 1932 as an enlightened art-deco temple to hygiene. One wing had bathrooms for workers whose housing didn’t include such niceties; a canteen allowed factory workers and their bosses to mix; there was a garden and – above all – the swimming pool, crowned either end by a stained-glass sunburst.
After falling into disrepair, in 2000 it became a museum of decorative art, but it still showcases the original vision. The swimming pool has been narrowed to a reflecting pool, surrounded by grandiose sculptures. Elsewhere, art ranges from kitsch Victorian paintings of kittens to 1960s ceramics. Upstairs, overlooking the pool, what were once the changing rooms now house textiles.
Nearby, La Manufacture museum tells the fascinating stories of the men and women who worked for Lille’s textile industry from medieval times to now, while La Villa Cavrois, a sleek modernist house built in 1932 for a local industrialist, is the perfect modernist gem with parquet and built-in kitchens to drool over.
Into Lille’s growing verve now comes Mama Shelter, France’s home-grown groovy lifestyle hotel chain. You can see it from the station (which itself is designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas). Built on stilts, with a pitched roof, it echoes Vieux Lille’s medieval heart, but with a great deal more humour.
Mama Shelter is the brainchild of Serge Trigano. In the 1950s his father created the Club Med brand, tempting generations of French families into beach resorts across the world, where they paid for drinks with beads. His son has almost as daunting a challenge, wooing millennials away from their Airbnb fixation. Partly, he’s doing it on cost – rooms are designed to be priced around the €69 mark – but also by turning his hotels into temples of urban fun and nostalgia: there are retro games in the lobby on free play and other witty touches throughout – look closely at the carpet in the lobby and you’ll see it’s a pattern of mussels. The 112 rooms are designed to be simple. There’s no room service, laundry or minibar, but the beds and the linens are seriously comfortable.
Downstairs, the restaurant leads from the bar. It may be autumn, but we order rosé out on the terrace and nobody blanches as we drink it near the fire pit. As far as the menu goes, it’s comfort food all the way: mussels with thin and crunchy frites, casseroles and crème brûlée. Cocktails, which hover around the €13 mark, mix classic European negronis, with locally inspired ones. Definitely recommended is Le Dunkerque. It contains Picon, an orange-based bitters usually used to accompany beer in this part of France. A giant TV screen shows a loop of cool/kitsch clips from vintage films; a DJ booth is in one corner – the general message is clear, Mama Shelter want their hotels to feel distinctive.
Children get their own menu and in a daring departure from the French norm, colouring books. On Sunday, the restaurant is given over to brunch; a very non-French all-you-can-eat affair (€35 for adults, €18 for children 6-11, under-6s free).
The Lille hotel is the sixth Mama Shelter in France, (there are also branches in Rio, Los Angelesand it has just crossed the Channel opening in east London later this month – a room will start at £89 a night). For now it’s more of a novelty to head for Lille especially as next year this cultural hub will become France’s first World Design Capital, all the more reason to celebrate it – and it’s just 90 minutes from London.
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