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Lille: European City of Culture

Lille: European City of Culture

Planning a visit to Paris? If so, consider a one hour high-speed train ride from Paris north to Lille, spending two nights in one of the two cities designated as European Cities of Culture for the year (Genoa was also so-named). We visited Lille in the Spring and have only splendid things to report, from accommodations, cultural events to dining.

What to See

Exhibits are changing frequently in the city. Outstanding artists from all over the world are given venues in which to present their work, with runs that range from a month to longer. We visited a deconsecrated church (that exhibit concluded in late March) and were deeply affected by the work of a Japanese artist, Chiharu Shiota. In the darkened church, she had created an installation of hospital beds within a suspended woven spidery web of string. We purchased advance tickets (at Bon Marche in Paris) to the Palais des Beaux Arts, (closed on Tuesday), Place de la Republique for the “Rubens (1577-1640)” exhibition, a superb presentation of this great master’s renowned tapestries, painting and drawings. It runs until June 14th. But the museum itself is well worth the visit for its great collection, second only to the Louvre in France. And you will discover artists or performers, whether from Spain, China, the Netherlands or Africa—on the streets, in the churches and in museums. The 17th and 18th century center city is charming and “new” Lille is dynamic in illumination and architecture.

Just half an hour from center Lille by auto, taxi, subway or streetcar is La Piscine, the Roubaix Museum of Art and Industry, 24, rue de L’Esperance. Fabulous! This museum was created in a building that housed an Art Deco swimming pool, and the architects were sculptural in making the space as interesting as the exhibited objects themselves.

Tuesday to Thursday 11AM to 6PM, Friday 11AM until 8PM, Saturday and Sunday 1PM to 6PM.

In Villeneuve d’Asq, half an hour south of Lille, you will discover a Museum of Modern Art (closed Tuesday, 10AM to 6PM other days) that will astonish with the quality of its collection of fine twentieth century painting and sculpture (the latter on the lawns and amidst the trees).

Your best bet for touring Lille is to stop off at the Office of Tourisme de Lille, Palais Rihour-Place Rihour. Or check on-line in advance of your visit at www.lilletourism.com. There, you can pick up guide books, a listing of the latest exhibitions and performances, or arrange to take a bus tour of the center city. We loved wandering through the spacious squares and narrow streets. Stop for coffee and pastry, breakfast or lunch at Meert, 27 rue Esquermoise. Its been there since 1761 and is charming. The products, from coffee to croissants or pastries are delicious!

Where to Stay

We highly recommend L’Hermitage Gantois, 224, rue de Paris. Hospice Gantois was built in 1462. For more than 500 years, it served poor elderly, providing medical assistance. Named a historic monument in 1923, it closed as a hospice in 1995 and reopened as a deluxe hotel in September 2003. It is a ten to twelve minute walk to the center of the city and if you’ve driven up from Paris, there is easy parking right around the corner from the hotel. Its 67 rooms and suites, restaurants and bar have been designed to retain the historic character and deconsecrated chapels serve as meeting rooms and for receptions. Rooms have top ultra-modern comforts and are beautifully decorated in a contemporary style that respects the retained original details. Prices range from 190 and 240 euros for doubles and 330 euros for suites (ask for a promotional rate and mention this article). Buffet breakfast or continental breakfast in the room are 18 euros per person. After a long day of touring, we dined in the hotel restaurant and enjoyed an outstanding meal, easily the equivalent of a one-star Michelin cuisine and service. Chef Sebastian Blanchet shows imagination in his combination of ingredients: whether in calamari stuffed with beef tail, half a quail on a galette of potatoes, among the appetizers; a main course of gigolette of rabbit lacquered with soy sauce, accompanied by a millefeuille of fig and prune with celery. Three fish preparations were offered as well: sole, swordfish or sandre (a river fish). Desserts were mouth-watering and covered the waterfront from chocolate to clafoutis to tarte tatin or fruit and sorbets. Menus were 29 euros or 36 euros, for appetizer, main course and dessert, a bargain in terms of price/quality. Tel: 33-3-20-85-30-30; Fax: 33-3-30-42-31-31; or contact@hotelhermitagegantois.com

Less expensive and centrally located is the Grand Hotel Bellevue Best Western, 5, rue Jean Roisin Tel: (33-3)-20-57-45-64 Fax: (33-3)-20-40-07-93. www.grandhotelbellevue.com

Lille Centre Opera, 2, boulevard Carnot, 2 Boulevard Carnot, Tel:(33-3)-20-14-71-47 Fax: (33-3) 20-14-71-48. www.mercure.com

Where to Dine

We covered one night’s dining above. For an incredible dinner at a restaurant which recently earned its first Michelin star (and in our opinion, it won’t be long till it gains a second), make a reservation for L’Esplanade, 84, façade de L’Esplanade, Tel: (33-3) 20-06-58-58 Fax: (33-3) 20-39-52-09. Chef Christian Scherpereel trained with the late Bernard Loiseau, at the Bristol and at Tour d’Argent.

Not only is the menu superb, but there is a fabulous wine list, with wines at all prices. And wines by the glass available as well. The Burgundian sommelier/maitre d’, charming and knowledgeable, guided our selections. We drank a ’99 St. Joseph, Le Lombard and moved on to a 1990 Gigondas (Jaboulet), smooth and rich. We dined on the following, one fabulous, mouth-watering course after another. An amuse bouche of fresh anchovy; goat cheese ravioli, mackerel filet with pistachio and pistachio/olive oil; royale foie gras in a foamy emulsion of lentils; langoustine ravioli in a brown sauce spiced with cumin; raie (skate) with lemon butter, capers and salad of little radishes, tiny baby shrimp—melted in the mouth and deserved three stars; the beef from Normandy with snow peas, black olives and a potato soufflé was equally sensational. There was a grand selection of cheeses followed by dessert: “Around the apple”-a four layer dessert accompanied by delicious apple cider: the layers from bottom up were speculos, diced apple with walnuts, poached apple and apple ice cream. Yum, yum, yum, yum. Yes—4 yums! As was the chocolate moelleux with pistachio ice cream.

If you are in Lille, don’t miss the L’Esplanade experience!

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