Legend says that Lille was founded in the year 640 and for the next thousand years control of the city included the Dutch, the French, the Vikings, the Spanish, and the Flemish before Louis XIV, the Sun King, took the city back in 1667 and it has remained in France ever since despite periods of occupation by the Austrians and the Germans. Much of the Flemish influence remains today in the baroque architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries in the section of town called “Old Lille”. Since friends had suggested that we stroll along the cobblestones of Place Louise de Bettignies (featured photo above) and rue de la Monnaie, that’s where we began our first day of exploration.
It was there at 32 rue de la Monnaie that we saw the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse, the museum of a medieval hospital founded in 1237 by Countess Jeanne de Flandre in a wing of her mansion. Medicinal plants were grown in the courtyard and now on display in the surrounding 17th century buildings are tapestries and porcelain from that period used in the hospital and convent.
Just down the street (via a short passageway) is the Cathedral Notre-Dame de la Treille built in 1854. Next was a much older religious building, Eglise St. Maurice, founded in the 14th century and built in a style called “Hallekerque” meaning barn-like that allows for large side windows to let in the light.
In 1453 the Duke of Burgundy had a mansion built that is now known as the Palais Rihour named for the owner of the land on which it was built. The city’s tourist office occupies the ground floor and above that are art display galleries.
The aptly named Grand Place is the wide open main square surrounded by restaurants and cafés in Renaissance buildings. One street over from there is another “grand place” but since that name was already taken this one is known as Place du Théâtre that I found even more impressive than its neighbor. We could stand in the center and look in any direction to see the beautiful architecture of the Opera, the belfry of the Chamber of Commerce, the Old Stock Exchange and the ornate row houses of the Rang du Beauregard that still have cannonballs embedded in their walls from the Austrian invasion of 1792. Even the Apple Store is in a graceful domed building in keeping with its historic surroundings.
When several travel websites say that a museum is second only to the Louvre in size and quality you know that it is a must-see. The Palais des Beaux Arts does indeed look like a palace but it was actually built in 1892 to house the city’s extensive collection of works by the Old Masters including Rubens, Van Dyke, Goya, and Delacroix. Two of our favorite artists are represented as well: impressionist paintings by Monet and sculptures by Rodin.
Soon after Louis XIV took Lille back for France in 1667 he had his military engineer Vauban (whom we knew from other forts around the country including Belfort) construct a huge fortification that’s still in use today. Although we couldn’t go inside the Citadel we could at least walk beside the walls, through the park that leads to the graceful Napoleon Bridge, the only covered foot bridge in France. The original was built of wood in 1812 but nature and wars took their toll so this reconstruction from 1922 was built from stone and steel.
Crossing the bridge put us into the childhood neighborhood of President Charles De Gaulle. His grandparents’ home, where he was born in 1890, is a national monument and a museum with lots of family items including the General’s cradle.
We rode the Metro (1.70 € per person, each way) for 25 minutes north to the town of Roubaix to visit a swimming pool, La Piscine, that was built in 1932 and later converted to an art museum. We especially wanted to admire the art deco style of the building and to have lunch in their dining room that has maintained the elegant look from that era.
Since we were in Lille for a few days, we took a day trip on the train to nearby Arras that has 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites plus the highest density of historic monuments in France. That’s next time on the blog.