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Lille - the great French surprise

13 of September '23

The article is from A&B issue 7-8|23

I went to Lille for business purposes, having never before had the idea in my mind to visit the city. And this was precisely the first condition of complete surprise: who in Poland has any associations with Lille in his mind? At most, he might confuse it with Lyon. Since the flights from Krakow (there is a direct connection!) imposed specific dates, not overlapping with the event I was to attend on business, I decided to take the opportunity to explore the city. We have already had in this series, in addition to Polish cities, one American city (floating on aircraft carriers), one German (Berlin), one Italian (Milan) - so it's time for France.

architektura najlepiej sprzedaje klimat Lille; kamienice są jak estetyczne bomby witaminowe

Architecture best sells the climate of Lille; the townhouses are like aesthetic vitamin bombs

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

Lille-capitalof the Nord region, one of the main cities of Flanders, a historic land today shared by France, Belgium and the Netherlands, called by some the Netherlands. Until recently an industrial city, a major metallurgical and mining center. The old industry has passed away, and new ideas for the city have taken its place. Flying here, I read as much as I could about Lille. I was pleased to discover quickly and simply: there is a great art museum in Lille, and I love art museums. Judging by the Paris ones I had already visited, headed by the brilliant Pompidou Center and the Orsay Museum, it was to be expected.

 świat witryn w Lille… ja nie mam pytań

The world of showcases in Lille...I have no questions

photo by Matthew Zmyślony

But beyond that, to be honest, I expected a city of the type of our Katowice of twenty years ago, surrounded by old, disused mines, dilapidated buildings of former steel mills. Post-industrial and perhaps the poor condition of a not very nice city. Add to this the image of the French provinces, something like the comedy "Even Farther North", and we have the explanation "why none of my friends are planning a tourist trip to Lille?". Meanwhile, in Lille... it's completely different from what I imagined. Lille is beautiful.

The old town is phenomenal, the architecture - great, the historicity - maturing. Crowds of French women and Frenchmen in pub gardens - this is the way to live.

bogactwo miasta - trwające nieprzerwanie od setek lat - oddają budynki i przestrzeń publiczna

The richness of the city - continuing uninterrupted for hundreds of years - is reflected in the buildings and public space

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

What a city! I walked around it for several days, shaking my head more and more in disbelief. How could I have been so ignorant? Vieux Lille, or the old town, is a sprawling but still compact space of good taste, aesthetic impressions, great street dynamics. People are smiling, positive, polite. Plenty of them smoke old-fashioned cigarettes in the gardens, both men and women. You can feel that the lifestyle has not changed here for a long time. People have been hanging out in the old pubs here for generations, it's great. Different from London pubs, which are often kind of crawling. And different from Madrid's tapas bars, used almost 24/7. Here the pubs have specializations, some are open in the morning, others at noon, when those close - in the afternoon and evening another opens. And people flow from one to another, following these specialties. I get the feeling that the whole life of the city is going on in them, as if Flanders lajfstajl is all about moving from one to the next. Coffee with a croissant, then a stroll, a sandwich with melted cheddar, a break, a pot of fresh moules from Dunkirk for lunch, a move to a pâtisserie for a pastry, a coffee, a change of pub, now a beer in abrasserie, a cigarette, gossip, a stroll, dinner at a restaurant, crème brûlée for dessert, topped off with wine, before heading off to bed maybe to the brasserie again for a while.

mimo że sztuka obecna jest tu na każdym kroku, to monumentalna siedziba lokalnego muzeum sztuki

although art is present here at every turn, the monumental headquarters of the local art museum - - Palais des Beaux-Arts - - does not foreshadow what awaits us inside; and we are in for a frontal collision with art of the highest order - author: Xavier Veilhan

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

The streets of Lille are bustling with activity, with 1,200 eateries in a city of 240,000 residents. The size and lavishness of the townhouses say something important about the city's past. For Lille was the main city of historic Flanders, and the medieval county of Flanders was one of the richest regions in the world.

centrum życia towarzyskiego to wyspecjalizowane w piwie brasserie; knajpy mają tu inną dynamikę, nawyk siedzenia w nich jest jak oddychanie

The center of social life is the brasseries specialized in beer; the pubs here have a different dynamic, the habit of sitting in them is like breathing

photo by Matthew Zmyślony

On the territory of the Duchy of Burgundy, of which Flanders was a part, lay Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, economically the most powerful cities in former times, the most advanced in development, developing extremely profitable economic fields, led by the weaving and clothing industries. Not far from Lille lies Arras, we know the tapestries of Wawel; some picture of this space is beginning to emerge from this story.

kadry z komiksu „Révolution”, który stworzyli Florent Grouazel i Younn Locard

frames from the comic strip "Révolution," created by Florent Grouazel and Younn Locard

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

Today's Flanders is illegible to us, because it is cut by the borders of three countries, and not only by borders: the language confusion here is also terrible. French-speaking Flanders from Lille and Walloons from Belgium's Wallonia live side by side (not to be confused with Wales, which is not so easy, because in English andFrench the names are spelled similarly), you can also hear Flemish, a variant of Dutch spoken in the northern part of Flanders, which is now part of the Netherlands and northern Belgium. In addition, during a key period in the development of the area (i.e., the late 14th and early 15th centuries), the so-called Burgundian Netherlands was part of the aforementioned Duchy of Burgundy, a very unusual center of wealth of the time. An amazing mix, isn't it?

ulice Lille: szyldy, meble, dekoracje - trudno wyobrazić sobie przyjemniejsze spacerowanie

The streets of Lille: signs, furniture, decorations - it's hard to imagine a more pleasant stroll

photo by Matthew Zmyślony

Today , by the way, those modern borders are fictitious, conventional, everything is in the Schengen zone, Brussels is the capital of Europe, and the former, historic Flanders has one of the densest networks of highways in the world. Everything is easily accessible by transportation, with nearly 2 million people living within a half-hour drive. In fact, Lille is simply the center of a city the size of Warsaw, whose actual districts include the cities of Roubaix, Mouscron, the border town of Menen and Belgium's Kortrijk. Only now is it dawning on me what it means that this has been one of the most urbanized regions in the world since the Middle Ages.
From Lille, you can take the TGV train to central Paris in just over an hour. Trains also run directly from here to London and Brussels, for example, so in practice a little Lille is the navel of the world.

„La Plage de Berck” namalował Ludovic Napoléon Lepic

"La Plage de Berck" was painted by Ludovic Napoléon Lepic

photo: Mateusz Zmyślony

The city's cultural offerings are adequate to this surprising information to the layman. I go to the art museum - this was my first choice. The building is huge, the first impression is not stunning: such an ordinary, probably too big, old-fashioned museum. But when I enter the sculpture gallery, I change my mind. This is the realm of three-dimensional geniuses, the sculptures here are downright intimidating, thrilling with the imagination of the creators, realism, dynamism, emotion. For the sculpture alone it is worth coming to Lille, and after all, this is not the end of discovering this city, it is just the beginning.

dla miłośnika miast prezent prosto z niebios: całe piętro urbanistyki w skali 1:600

For the lover of cities, a gift straight from the heavens: a whole floor of urban planning on a scale of 1:600 - mock-ups of fifteen surrounding cities, along with their surroundings, were created between 1691 and 1826

photo: Mateusz Zmyślony

There are whole floors of art here, in addition to sculpture a floor of capital painting, quite a lot of antiquities, ceramics, and, well, a floor with mock-ups of cities from all over Nord-Pas-de-Calais (the name of the region from the French perspective). The mock-ups are huge, works of art showing the most important cities of the region from the 18th or 19th century, along with all their three-dimensionally shown surroundings. Phenomenal.

It wasn't until I had walked 15 kilometers before I realized that the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Lille is the largest French museum outside of Paris. It was invented by Napoleon Bonaparte as part of his broader concept of popularizing and promoting art. As an anti-clerical-minded person, I must have liked the way the entire museum was organized.

Napoleon Bonaparte - założyciel muzeum tu widziany od tyłu - musiałem pokazać Wam ten płaszcz

Napoleon Bonaparte - the founder of the museum here seen from behind - I had to show you this mantle - in general, these drapes carved in stone left me genuinely amazed, design: Henri Lemaire

photo: Mateusz Zmyślony

Well, for the original location of the museum Napoleon had the church building confiscated, the collections also cost nothing, as the emperor simply made them confiscated church property. Rach, snip and the museum was ready, at no cost. "Hmm, I guess this is what revolutions are made for," I thought, nodding appreciatively. "It would be nice to confiscate all the church tenements and monasteries in Krakow like this," he added. - I was unable to stop myself from this reflection, since in Krakow the Church still owns about 70 percent of the real estate in the historic center, does not allow residents into many monastic parks and gardens, and occupies the city, as it were - which seems to me neither sensible nor fair. Some kind of revolution and a new art museum in the city of Krakow would be useful, preferably organized along the lines of the Lille solution... Only where is this Napoleon?

Even without this remarkable museum, I would still convince everyone to Lille with enthusiasm. Great old town, townhouses magnificent, different from our part of the world, you can feel a different civilization here. Its heart is the building of the former stock exchange, under whose arcades a charming flea market with posters, vinyl records, contemporary art and tables where chess players sit sunk in the middle. A brilliant place, de facto built of twenty-four identical townhouses (1652-1653). Somewhere here I catch myself enthralled by the colors of the Flanders townhouses - black, yellow, green, blue, some very different from anything I've seen before.

dawna giełda to jedno z najbardziej klimatycznych miejsc w Lille

The former stock exchange is one of the most atmospheric places in Lille

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

Wandering through the beautiful streets of Lille, I absorbed more news about the city. An interesting discovery is... the Polishness of Lille. During and after the Industrial Revolution, a lot of people were drawn to the rich region and modern industry from an overpopulated and independence-deprived Poland. Today, it is said that one in six residents of Lille has some Polish roots. I myself also had distant family in Lille, probably some of my relatives still live here today, but before that I couldn't put it all together.

In 2004, Lille was the European Capital of Culture, numerous traces of which can still be seen today. Headed, I think, by the "Tulips of Shangri La," a new icon of the city designed by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Some are growing in the super-modern Euralille district, next to the train station.

Euralille i tulipany Yayoi Kusamy, które już stały się symbolem miasta

Euralille and Yayoi Kusama's tulips, which have already become a symbol of the city

photo by Matthew Zmyślony

A strange tower dominates the city. I can't classify it at first glance. It's incredibly tall, it has a clock, it's not a church tower, it's not a water tower, it's not a high-rise office building. It is the Beffroi de Lille - beffroi is a local specialty. The Flanders or northern French equivalent of a city hall tower, a bell tower, also used to look out for fires, but really a demonstration of the city's wealth.

Lille'sBeffroi is the tallest of all those in existence, at 104 meters high.

Lille is also a scientific and academic powerhouse, ranking fourth in the country for university cities by number of universities. This partly explains the city's climate and pub grub. Students spending most of their lives in pubs, locals plus tourists teleported via high-speed rail from Paris, Brussels and London - it makes for quite a thrill and energy.

In short: Lille delighted me. I will definitely come back here, and summing up the last months of my urban exploration, I am establishing a new subjective list of the three most interesting, non-obvious cities in Europe for personal discovery and exploration as part of citybreak tourism: Lublin, Bydgoszcz, Lille! If you are looking for a good idea for the weekend, these three will definitely meet your expectations. Anyway, the best thing to say about the latter city are the pictures: today the text gives way to more photographs than usual.

te fasady! kolory i detale razem robią oszałamiające - przynajmniej mnie - wrażenie

Those facades! colors and details together make a stunning - at least to me - impression

photo by Mateusz Zmyślony

Mateusz Zmyślony

(Text written without AI support)

Photographs taken and shared courtesy of the Author.

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