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3000 reasons to visit Lille

PUBLISHED: 18:29 29 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:36 25 August 2010

A CULTURAL TOUR DE FORCE:The beautiful Le Grand Place and Vieille Bourse.

A CULTURAL TOUR DE FORCE:The beautiful Le Grand Place and Vieille Bourse.

THERE has never been a better time to visit Lille. It is a city in the exciting position of entering a new dawn, embracing a new identity.

THERE has never been a better time to visit Lille.

It is a city in the exciting position of entering a new dawn, embracing a new identity. Rather like Newcastle and Liverpool, Lille was a highly industrial city, but since the demise of industry, it has emerged out of the rubble as a cultural tour de force.

Since being crowned European Capital of Culture in 2004, the city's governors pledged to hold a biennial celebration of all things arty, namely Lille 3000. The festival focuses on a region or country from around the world and delivers a year-long programme of events dedicated to that place. This year's festival, Europe XXL, centres on the changes in Eastern Europe over the last century.

Our whistle-stop tour began in style with a visit to the renovated St Sauveur railway station in Avenue du Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Lille 3000 artists have left the station's tracks and original features unchanged, and used the space to house a series of rooms, designed to replicate kitsch 1960s Polish and German interiors. There is a lounge, a bedroom, a separate DVD and kids room and the best part is that anybody can hire out these rooms for free - and simply enjoy the space for a few hours.

This interactive, barrier-breaking exhibition sums up the aim of the artists steering Lille 300 - their art has come from the streets and remains staunchly unpretentious. It is art for everyone. We moved from the ridiculous to the sublime for dinner at the beautiful Hermitage Gantois hotel in the rue de Paris. This 'four star luxury' hotel - France's highest rating - is set in a listed 15th century hospice and is overwhelming. After a three course meal of salmon, sea bass and an eye-poppingly good passion fruit desert - plus gallons of champagne - we retired to our four star hotel to nurse

our bellies.

L'Alliance Couvent des Minimes on the Quai Wault is a beautiful 83-room, 17th century converted convent in the heart of the old town. Like many buildings in Lille, it is built around a central courtyard, which served as a spacious bar and restaurant at L'Alliance.

From there we were taken to Le Fresnoy art school and gallery in rue du Fresnoy in neighbouring Tourcoing. Another converted space, this time from a 1930s ice-rink. The Videos Europa show presented videos from 40 artists from across Eastern Europe, of which my favourite had to be real footage of a boy gleefully jumping up and down on a trampoline, with an equally gleeful pig.

Next on the art agenda was a visit to the Hospice d'Havre in the rue de Tournai in Tourcoing. This former monastery was founded in 1260 for the poor and is the region's only intact convent. The chapel houses a magnificent Baroque altarpiece dating from 1650 and the rest of the convent is now an exhibition space.

A little out of town, in the sleepy village Bondues, the artistic retreat of Septentrion nestles in the grounds of the Vert Bois castle. We had a very pleasant lunch at its ExSeption restaurant and half the group went for the French classic, snails, but I was not feeling as intrepid.

A magical building well worth a visit is La Piscine museum of art and industry in Roubaix, again on the outskirts of town. The factory workers would come here for their weekly bath and the curator has kept the pool almost as it would have been.

To my delight, in a hidden corner of the exhibition, was a large cabinet filled entirely with Picasso pottery, which was quite breathtaking.

With huge sun-shaped stained glass windows at either end of the pool, the room is a peaceful treasure amidst a very industrial part of town.

In another room was an exhibition of bizarre dresses set, in what I can only describe as Teletubbies land, by innovative fashion designer Agatha Ruiz de la Prada. This whacky collection left the whole group open-mouthed with amazement. Of course we had to squeeze in one more show before we sat down to dinner so we marched to the Exhibition Les Frontieres Invisables at the Tri postal in Avenue Willy Brandt in the centre of Lille. The show was highly political and focused on the restructuring of the continent following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I will admit to you that I didn't stay for the duration of the show and wandered off to explore the town itself, which was bustling and vibrant. The main square, Le Grand Place, is Lille's architectural ace, with beautiful 17th century town houses surrounding the large square. Bathed in golden evening sunlight, the Grand Place is quite enchanting. After dinner back at the convent, we raced to the town centre to catch the start of the parade to officially start Lille 3000 - a year-long celebration. Thousands of people lined the streets, and those lucky enough to live on the main thoroughfare watched down from their balconies in their hundreds. With fire jetting from above the old station, and acrobats suspended in a cage dangling over the rooftops, the parade began. To a terrifying drum roll and choir reminiscent of The War of the Worlds, two 50ft high men, filled with a golden light, started walking down the street.

Having lost the group at the start of the parade, I was left to watch on my own and believe me when I tell you, when those giants get close they are intimidating to say the least. The parade was incredible, finished off in spectacular style with a stunning fireworks display.

If you have time, I advise a visit to the Wazemmes market - the biggest in the whole of France. The range of mouth-wateringly fresh food, antiques and bric-a-brac will have you rummaging in your purse for hours.

To finish off the trip, we went for one last exhibition and lunch at the imposing Musee des Beaux Arts in the Place de la Liberté. The exhibition was once again heavily influenced by Eastern Europe and Istanbul in particular. Like the other shows, there was a lot of video art, which I found very thought-provoking.

- For more information call the Lille tourism office on 0891 56 2004 or visit www.lilletourism.com or www.lille-guide.co.uk.

HOW TO GET THERE?

You can sail to from Dover to Calais in style with P&O as they have their own franchise of the top quality restaurant Langan's Brasserie.

Routes start from £30 each way for a car and up to nine passengers, for any duration of stay.

Day trip tickets start from just £25 return for a car and passengers.

For more information or bookings visit www.poferries.com or call 08716 646464.

elizabeth.thornton@archant.co.uk

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