We arrived in Lille with our list of things to see and do while there. Here it is, collected from one of the many internet sites that make these suggestion in return for you reading their alluring hotel booking ads that plague these sites.
- Lille Cathedral
- Citadel of Lille
- Palais des Beaux Arts
- Jardin Botanique
- Jardin Botanique Nicholas Boulay
- Lille’s Historic District (Eg. Place Louise de Bettignies, Rue de La Monnaire)
- La Vielle Bourse
- Grand Place
- Parc Zoologique
- LAM (Museum of Modern Art)
Unfortunately life isn’t as simple as a map, a new city to explore and a sunny day. Due to circumstances beyond the scope of this article, we were staying at a Camper Park at St Amand les Eaux, 44 kilometres from Lille. We decided to catch the train to Lille only to discover that the train tracks along this route had been dug up and we had to catch the ‘all stations’ bus (every small village along the way!). Surviving the interminable bus journey was fine and we alighted at our destination, Gare de Lille Flandres. After using the station’s toilet facilities, we stood in front of the main doors of the ‘Gare’ and surveyed Rue de Fairdherbe stretching down to the Place de Theatre, ready to look for coffee.
After a brief discussion of destination, we turned around to head down the steps when we were disrupted by sudden loud noises behind us. We looked around and all the doors of the station had been opened and people were streaming out, screaming and yelling. For a moment we stood still, startled by this sudden change to the day, wondering what was going on. Someone yelled at us that there had been gunshots inside the station and so we needed no more encouragement to move. The more athletic of our companions, the two women, began running off down the street while their arthritic male partners stumbled along behind them. My only thoughts were…
- This is amazing, I have been caught up in a terrorist incident!
- Terrorists are always easily annoyed by potential victims escaping so they are probably exiting the station door themselves at this very moment, about to spray the fleeing crowd with their stolen automatic weapons!
- I wonder what it will feel like to get a bullet in the back!
It wasn’t long before we were able to stagger around a corner where we were shielded by a building and the fleeing crowd was able to stumble to a halt, look around in confusion at each other as we collectively realised that we had heard no sounds of gun fire and there were no prone bodies scattered behind on us on the plaza before Gare de Lille Flandres. We found our fleet-footed wives who were already discussing what had happened with an elderly lady who was suggesting that what folk had heard were not in fact gunshots, but fire-crackers, let off by ignorant youths looking for excitement in crowded public spaces. Given that there were no police sirens and no follow up loud bangs, the crowd breathed a collective sigh of relief and headed about their business. We looked around and noticed we had ran to the right place; we were standing next to a church where, if things had continued to deteriorate, we could have gained sanctuary. No self-respecting terrorist would have stalked victims in St Maurice’s Church.
It was definitely time for strong coffee and sugar laden pastries! We wandered down Rue de Fairdherbe to the plaza in front of the Opera de Lille and found a much needed café in one corner of the Palais des Bourse with a great view of the Theatre opposite us. I got out my list of places to see in Lille and noted that neither our Sanctuary Church, St Maurice, nor the Opera de Lille with its fabulous sculptures flanking the entrance were listed. The other sculptures that didn’t make the list were lining our earlier escape route leading to this beautiful plaza. They were probably too modern and too colourful to make the internet list.
Even after we had finished our restorative coffee, we did not realise we were sitting in the Number 7 site on our visit list, La Vielle Bourse, the old stock exchange. However it’s a huge building and once we had headed off round the corner to the Grand Place (#8 site!) or Place de General De Gaulle, we realised what a beautiful area we had stumbled upon in our search for coffee. Lille’s favourite son is Charles De Gaulle, the leader of the French resistance against NAZI Germany from the start of WW2 and the chairman of the provisional French Government from 1944-46. He was also a highly significant President of France until his resignation in 1969. For those interested in all things De Gaulle, his birthplace is on Rue Princese and is now a Museum to his memory.
La Vielle Bourse is built around a large internal courtyard and its ornate Flemish architecture is a delight to view. The architect was originally a decorative furniture designer. The whole Grand Place is surrounded by beautiful buildings showing how much this city is very much at one with its neighbours in Belgium and Holland. In the centre of the Plaza is a tall column, Colonne de La Deesse (Column of the Goddess), erected in 1842, the fiftieth anniversary of the ‘Siege of Lille’ (1792) which was an event during the French Revolutionary Wars. Lille had withstood a nine-day attack by an Austrian army and considerable damage was done to the city, particularly to the Church of St Etienne that stood in this square; it was never rebuilt. The statue on the top of the column was called the ‘Goddess’ by the citizens; her tiara is in the shape of a walled city.
There was no shortage of directions to head from this beautiful square but we decided we would head for the number 2 and number 9 sites on our list, the Citadel of Lille and the Zoo. It was a good walk out of the old quarter of Lille to the Citadelle as can be seen from the map of our city walk below. The history of Lille and Flanders tells us that citadel was built by Louis XIV’s military architect Vauban (we came across him at other northern French cities) after the Sun King invaded the city and took it from the Spanish. For an Australian visitor, getting a handle on how a Northern French city could be controlled by the Spanish in 1667 is quite difficult. If you notice the bright orange section on the map on the right, it indicates the extent of Spanish territories that cover parts of northern France, Belgium and Holland in 1650. This area in the 16th century was part of the territory controlled by the Duke of Burgandy. When he died, his daughter Margaret married the holy Roman Emperor Maximillian (See Bruges blog for part of this complex story!), thus allowing this Hapsburg monarch to become Count of Flanders. Through an early 16th century marriage to a Spanish Heiress, the Hapsburg family controlled Spain and so the Spanish throne controlled this area of Northern France and the lowlands until the expansion of France under Louis XIV.
Above images show the layout of the citadel and the grandiose gate that Louis XIV had built to impress the locals who he had recently incorporated into his French kingdom.
The citadel is still used by the French army so it can’t be visited by the general public. The parklands around it are very attractive and are used by Lille citizens to walk, jog or ride the bikes free from car exhausts. Given that we were losing time in our day, we resisted the urge to go and visit the zoo that is in the grounds outside these fortifications.
We were touring a number of towns and cities on the west coast of France in May/June of 2019, 75 years since the invading allied forces came a shore on the beaches of Normany on the 6th June 1944. We toured Lille on the 8th June but you wouldn’t have picked that this was a city on the border of Belgium that was amongst the first to be invaded by German armies in both world wars of the twentieth century. Occupied for around four years from 13th October 1914 by foreign forces, and again from May 31, 1940, was the fate of this city. The psychological trauma for the citizens and the destruction of the infrastructure of their town must have been an overwhelming burden to carry and overcome. The vestiges of this trauma can be seen in the memorials around the city. I would just like to mention here two memorials we encountered near the Lille Citadel.
The first monument that particularly caught my eye we spottedclose to the entrance of Lille Zoo. This was an appropriate spot for a memorial to carrier pigeons, not soldiers. In this age of mobile phones, we forget that telephones were in their infancy and walkie-talkies hadn’t been invented in 1914. Carrier pigeons were the simplest and most effective methods of getting messages from the front line back to headquarters. Pigeon keepers were directed in German occupied territories to destroy their pets; those who didn’t were shot. This memorial shows ‘Peace’ releasing a flock of birds and crushing the ‘snake’ of war below. 20,000 carrier pigeons died as part of the allied war effort in France from 1914-18.
We passed a second memorial not that far from the pigeon memorial. On it were presented five figures, four standing defiantly and one fallen forward after being shot. Its title is “Lille a ses fusilles”’; translating into English is not simple but basically means, Lille has its ‘executed’ or ‘those shot by rifle.” It tells the story of five members of the Lille Resistance who were executed by firing squad in September 1915. They were all ordinary citizens of Lille who chose to support the allies after the invasion of their town. The figure who has fallen forward in the memorial is a young student Léon Trulin. Two hundred citizens were shot after some of them assisted a British Pilot who had crashed in Lille. The story of this memorial continued on into the second world war when the German army invaded again. Unsurprisingly the memorial was found to be offensive by the Germans and it was smashed to pieces. Also unsurprisingly it was restored using the sculptor’s, Félix Desruelles, original designs after the war. It was a very moving memorial.
After we had finished with the citadel, I was asked what the next stop was. Given that the number one site according to our internet list was the Lille Cathedral, I informed the fellow travellers that we should head towards this landmark before stopping for a well-earned lunch. Checking later on, I discovered that other internet sites didn’t include the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille on their ‘top things to see list’ in Lille. Looking at the cathedral from the outside you would be forgiven for being a little disappointed if you were looking for a church similar to other ‘Notre Dames’ in major French cities. This may be because it is comparatively modern, having been started in 1854 and it wasn’t really finished until 1999. However once I went inside, I discovered it was a beautiful cathedral as the example photos shared here illustrate.
Our tour of the Cathedral was also enhanced by the fact that a ‘student organ player’ was practising his repertoire while we wandered around the aisles. His playing and the music that shook the Cathedral itself were mesmerizing.
There is the usual back story as to why this cathedral is relatively youthful. The simple reason is that, like the missing Church of St Etienne from Grand Place, the Collegiate Church of St Peter that once stood on this site was badly damaged in the Siege of Lille by the Austrian army in 1792 and not long afterwards, was demolished by the revolutionary government.
Like other cathedrals we visited on our trip, we noted as we moved to the south side of the Basilica, a free-standing bell tower. There appears to be the usual awkward reason for this lonely tower to be separate from the church. Whilst towers were planned for the basilica, they were a long way off construction when bells were donated to the church. The brick tower was constructed quickly to hold them. It is still serving the purpose in 2019 which is lucky as there no bell towers in the current cathedral’s design.
By the time we finished at the Lille Cathedral it had started to rain which was even more reason to stop for lunch and get out of the miserable weather.
After lunch, we were headed back to the Railway Station to catch our slow bus back to our camping site for the evening. We decided we would check out one last site on the way, as we had noticed the large war memorial on the front of Palais Rihour down the street from the Grand Place. This building looked like an old church or palace that had been badly damaged by life. On the front was a two story memorial to soldiers of both World Wars, to the left hand side was an ivy clad stone archway from some ancient missing building and the back of the building showed the patchwork repairs of many centuries.
If the Rihour Palace was a human being, she would be too old, too damaged, too many memories and so little left of her original self that I am surprised that she wasn’t demolished like the churches of Lille damaged in the revolutionary wars. If this building had a consciousness, she would be demanding government assistance to travel to Switzerland for a short stint in an euthanasia clinic.
The Palais Rihour contains the remants of one of the oldest buildings in Lille. It was built from 1453 onwards for Philippe Le Bon, Duke of Burgundy who needed a palace in this northern town of his Burgundian Kingdom. Continuing the humanity symbol, her childhood was fraught with issues that would undermine the rest of her life…she was built on marshy ground with poor stone. The rest of her difficult life can be summarised as follows…
- 1664…Became Town Hall, purchased from King of Spain for 60,000 florins
- 1700…Fire after a night dance…rebuilt.
- 1754…Fire ravaged left wing
- 1826…Belfry added but demolished in 1856
- 1846… ‘destroyed’ and rebuilt by 1857, only conclave tower, the Guards Hall and ducal chapel preserved.
- 1916…Fire…town hall archives destroyed
- 1929…War memorial added to the front of the building, perhaps hiding the scars of previous centuries.
The image above left is the back of Palais Rihour in 2019. The image on the right is a postcard image of Palais Rihour from the late 19th century before the last fire.
Puzzled by this curious building with the Lille Tourist Bureau in the ground floor, we headed back to our bus stop opposite Gare de Flandres after a very interesting day in this fascinating city. As usual, I realised we hadn’t done the city justice given that there was so much we hadn’t seen. Alas, the list of places we have visited with the asterisk noting, “To be visited again to spend more time”, is expanding.
APPENDIX 1: Curious images from Lille