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Is it French or is it Flemish? It is hard for the visitor to decide when visiting Lille, which has been officially part of France for 350 years but still at its core retains the ambience of the medieval wool towns of Flanders. The historic core of Vieux Lille is filled with grand architecture and cobble-stoned streets and squares, with a 'Grand Place' reminiscent of both Brussels and Amsterdam.
This confusion of cultures does not detract from this bright and beautiful city, set in the north of France, which was capital of Flanders during the Middle Ages. With the advent of the Eurostar fast train service from London, Lille, a major stop on the route to Paris, has been revived as a weekend break destination. It also has plenty to offer longer-term tourists who arrive at its international airport as well.
Vigorous shopping takes place along its commercial thoroughfares, and some attractive sights beckon visitors, like the neo-Gothic Notre Damme de la Treille Cathedral, and the Hospice Comtesse, a former hospital housing a museum of Flemish art, furniture and ceramics. Old Lille is pleasant to stroll through, with its cobbled streets and mixture of shops, restaurants and cathedrals. Those whose taste runs to art will also find a feast here, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts and at the Musée d'Art Moderne.
Many visitors, though, are in Lille mainly for the beer. The best Belgian beers are on tap and served up in most of the popular bars, to wash down the delicious local cuisine, which focuses on seafood and rich sauces. If your main aim is to eat, drink and make merry in a historic environment, Lille is the place to be.
The best thing about Lille is that its local populace is not only welcoming, but adept at enjoying life. This can be witnessed by visiting any of the many bars and bistros (known as ) in this fun city, which belies its reputation as the grim northerly cousin of pretty Paris.
A striking and ornate 19th-century building which houses Lille's renowned museum of fine arts, Palais des Beaux-Arts is a masterpiece in itself. The building contains a treasure trove for art lovers, a cultural attraction second only to the Louvre in Paris. The gallery features works by Goya, Donatello, Raphael and Rubens, to name just a few of the masters represented. There are also a number of works by French artists, including three major items: by David; by Courbet; and by Puvis de Chavannes. Although the museum contains mainly paintings, there are also some collections of ceramics, relief maps and a large section of Italian and French drawings. The museum aims to be inter-disciplinary and therefore includes literature, theatre, music, dance and cinema in its exhibitions and organises events to celebrate all these art forms. Many visitors complain that although the museum is astounding and well worth a visit it is a little hard to find; a good tourist map is very useful in Lille.
Something different that appeals particularly to the mechanically minded is Lille's museum devoted to windmills. Situated on the highway to Roubaix, the Musée des Moulins boasts two preserved pivoting windmills, which visitors can watch in operation grinding corn, as well as a museum detailing the history of windmill technology. Visitors can tour the full facility, or just one or two of the sites for reduced admission if pressed for time. It is quite a fascinating place. One of the museum's aims is to preserve not only the windmills but also the industrial French heritage that they represent: the hard work, toil, endeavour and achievements of the people who made and operated them. They want to ensure that future generations can see and understand windmills, once such vital technology, and once such a common sight all over France. So far, they have restored about 45 windmills (and watermills) and are continuing with their labour of love.
A modern architectural attraction, Lille's cathedral (dedicated to the Virgin Mary) is an imposing structure, begun as a basilica in 1854 in 13th-century Gothic style. Building continued slowly, interrupted by wars and financial constraints, but finally in 1999 the lofty building was declared complete after the perfection of the unique main façade, designed by local architect Pierre-Louis Carlier in collaboration with Peter Rice, who engineered the Sydney Opera House. The central marble section supported by steel wires is an impressive sight, particularly viewed from inside or at night, when it is revealed as resembling a pink translucent veil. From the outside it appears opaque but the marble is thin enough to let in a beautiful, gentle pink glow. The church takes its name from the famous 12th-century statue of the Virgin Mary which was revered for centuries in Lille. This statue has a dramatic history and is associated with several miraculous events; it is a special part of Lille's heritage and cultural memory.
In the heart of Lille's old town stands one of the few remaining Flanders buildings, founded as a hospital in 1237 by the Countess of Flanders, Jeanne de Constantinople. It remained in service as a hospital until 1939, and today has been turned into an art museum. Works are displayed in the old hospital ward and dormitories, with their barrel-vaulted ceilings, and other halls where the community of Augustine nuns once lived and worked, providing a haven for the sick. Visitors can see the old kitchens, laundry, pharmacy, refectory and Prioresses' apartment, as well as the old chapel. The collections on display include paintings, tapestries, sculptures and porcelain from the region. The museum furnishings are mostly from the 17th century. Although some of the art in the collection is wonderful, the true fascination of the place is in imagining how life in the hospice used to be. Outside there is a delightful medicinal garden. There is a free guidebook and a great audio guide which is very informative and enriches the experience by providing history and context. The toilet is a little hard to find: it is located off the kitchen.
Lille has a temperate oceanic climate. Annual rainfall is above average and summers tend to be mild, while winters can be quite cold. Summer temperatures average around 74°F (23°C). Winter temperatures can drop to 32°F (0°C) in January and the wind, which is common in winter, can make the days feel very cold. Most rain falls in autumn and spring. There is no bad time to visit Lille, although the peak tourist season tends to be spring (March to June) and autumn (September to December). Although winter tends to be a bit chilly for some visitors, the Christmas markets of Lille, held in November and December, are a very popular attraction and compensate for the cold. Summer is also a very popular season in which to visit Lille.
Most of the centre of Lille is pedestrianised and well signposted. The historic centre of the city is a delight to walk through so using any other form of transport would be futile. The city does have a good public transport system should it be required, with two metro lines, two tramlines and multiple buses covering most of the city. Taxis are widely available from the airport and the Lille Europe train station, which is centrally located near the main square. Renting a bike is also a good option in summer. The city lends itself to cycling and it is an easy and cheap way to get around. Overall, Lille has a more than adequate transport network and getting around is easy. However, if you do want to rent a car it is not difficult to do so.
A tour of Lille will reveal a charming mix of French and Flemish features, and a historic core that is filled with impressive architecture, squares and cobblestone streets. There are lots of things to see and do in Lille, which is a friendly city and is becoming increasingly popular as a French destination.
Many of the most popular attractions in Lille can be found in the historical town centre, Vieux Lille. The Grande Place, Lille's main square, is a good place to start a tour of the city. The Grande Place is a typical European town square which would not seem out of place in Brussels and boasts some glorious architecture, including the 17th-century Vieille Bourse. The Vieille Bourse is the old Stock Exchange building and it has a bustling little collectors market in its inner courtyard where visitors can rummage for things like posters, books and comics. Also in the heart of Vieux Lille is the wonderful Hospice Comtesse Museum. Founded as a hospital in 1237, today it exhibits art and artefacts from the region and from the hospital's long history.
Lille has some great museums and a unique one to visit is the Musee des Moulins, which is devoted to windmills. The Palais des Beaux-Arts, which features works by masters like Raphael, Rubens, Donatello and Goya, to name but a few, is definitely worth a visit, and the Musee d'Art Moderne is one of Lille's most popular tourist attractions. Other attractions in Lille include the magnificent Notre-Dame de la Treille Cathedral which is an unexpected mixture of Gothic and contemporary architecture. Lille also has a nice little zoo, or Parc de Zoologique, which visitors can enter free of charge to see various animals including rhino, zebra, red pandas and monkeys.
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