Big value for Lille effort;Travel;France

5th February 1999 at 00:00
It's the largest city in northern France, yet Bernard Adams still found it easy to tour on foot

Ninety years after Herr Baedeker wrote: "Handsome streets and squares, and The Musee de Beaux Arts in itself repays a visit to Lille", those words in his red-covered pocket guide are still a good summary of the attractions of this city in northern France.

Of course, a few more attractions have been added since then. It's now extremely easy to get there: two hours from London by Eurostar. And the train comes in close to the city's old centre, Vieux Lille, which has been pedestrianised, so it's easy to move around. Lille takes its name from L'Isle (the island) and it has prospered since the last century as the capital of French Flanders.

It's in the middle of a fertile agricultural plain and it has successfully developed its own industries - "Lisle" thread, for example, originates in Lille.

The coming of the TGV railway has made it even more dynamic and it is now by far the largest city in northern France.

The Musee de Beaux Arts is undoubtedly the greatest attraction, but there is a lot more art and architecture to see. Recently restored is the Musee de l'Hospice Comtesse, which, as well as being stuffed with notable Flemish, Dutch and Northern French paintings recording the history of Lille, still touchingly reminds the visitor of its original functions - more recently a hospital, but from 1237 a home for paupers.

A charming building right in the centre of the town is the Vieille Bourse. Built in the 1650s in Flemish Renaissance style, it is really 24 narrow houses backing on to a gallery around a courtyard. The only commerce going on now in the old stock exchange is in the flower market and bookshops.

Close to the Bourse is a fairly flamboyant opera house and by metro or about 10 minutes' walk away is the Musee de Beaux Arts.

The Beaux Arts is huge. It is part of the Napoleonic Fifteen - one of the regional museums created by Emperor's Decree in 1801. It was allocated 41 paintings from Paris to get it started, and the museum confiscated numerous Rubens and Van Dyck altar pieces from local churches. Formidable curators built up the collection still further with old master drawings and some outstanding paintings from David, Courbet and Delacroix.

The museum has had a massive refurbishment - through joint funding from the state, the city, the region and the departement. This remodelling was partly inspired by the need to house an extraordinary treasure - the plans-en-relief of French towns fortified by the military architect Vauban. Previously kept in Paris, the models are of breathtaking size - some of them are 10-15 metres wide and quite extraordinarily detailed.

School parties might find it difficult to tear pupils away from these and propel them upstairs to the huge masterpieces on the first floor. Rubens and his pupils dominate, but there are many delights.

You can visit the house where General de Gaulle was born in 1890, or go over the remarkable Vauban citadel which is set in Lille's very own Bois de Boulogne. Lille feels like a city on the move, a greenish Euro-city.

And Brussels is only just down the road.

Accommodation and tourist information: Lille Tourist Office, Place Rihour, Palais Rihour, B.P. 205, 59002 Lille Cedex. Tel: 0320 21 94 21. Fax: 0320 21 94 20.Travel: Eurostar, tel: 0990 186 186; Eurostar group travel, tel: 0870 6000 777

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