In case there’s someone who hasn’t heard, I changed my plans for March recently. I had intended to go to Sicily because I’ve heard and read so much about Lent and Easter there, about the people, about the food and the geography. Then a good friend who has family ties to Sicily and who has been there sent me a couple of emails urging me to be cautious. I’m so glad she did. Sicily and Malta are only 30 miles apart, and my experience in Malta convinced me (after I’d made new plans) that this wasn’t something this little old lady should be doing by herself.
So instead I’m going to Brittany in western France and to England. They are places that I had wanted more time for so they were “waiting in the wings” when I had a large opening in my schedule. Tomorrow I’m going to collect a rental car and drive west but today I’m not in western France at all.
I’m in the city of Lille, on the eastern border of France and Belgium. George and I stopped here for an afternoon in 2002 and I’ve wanted to return since. I had intended to come here while I was in Antwerp but bad weather and a nasty cold intervened. I only had an afternoon again today but in a compact old city a visitor can see a lot in a few hours.
Lille is said to be about 4000 years old. Like Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp and other important cities of the “low countries” it was caught up in wars between the French, English, Spanish and Hanover for many decades beginning in the mid-1600s. Like those cities as well, Lille has a large central square surrounded by decorative 17th century tall buildings. While Antwerp made its fortune from the water, Lille’s came from the surrounding countryside: coal mines and wool.
A visitor to central Lille steps back in time, not just to the time of the construction of the great buildings found there still, but to reminders of the the early to mid-20th century in old theatres, newspaper offices and stores.
A walk in the opposite direction from my hotel, to what was once the edge of the city where the gate to the road to Paris once stood in the mighty city wall, introduced me to another era. As in many of the cities I’ve visited, I found a wealth of late 19th century buildings with over-the-top flourishes. There’s a 500 foot tall “belfry.” There’s a mile long boulevard (with a park through half its length) lined with homes only the French could create with such grandeur. In the biggest surprise of the day for me, I discovered the enormous purpose-built art museum, ordered up after Emperor Napoleon gave Lilly a large share of the art he’d “collected” from churches after the French Revolution and from countries he’d invaded. The place truly looks like a palace but was built in the late 1800s.
So here’s a 60-second tour of Lille. I wish it could be more.
P.S. There are very few places to eat on Sunday evenings in French cities and towns. The clerk at my hotel recommended I go to the 5-star hotel in the next block where I had a great roast chicken and mashed potatoes dinner in the pub. The Hermitage Gantois was a hospice (hospital) from 1462 until it was closed in 1995. Since that time it’s been transformed into a beautiful hotel and spa. You can see it here.