Lille: the Old Town – a gentle walk around the mediaeval city
This post on Lille is part of a series on the Great War sites of France and Belgium.
With several universities based in and around the city, Lille is a young and vibrant place. However, it also has a strong sense of self and local character. The locals are some of the friendliest you’ll find in France, and I say that as a big fan of France in general.
At the heart of French Flanders, Lille has been a centre of commerce and political power since the Middle Ages. The fine old town shows this history of prosperity and many historically significant buildings survive. As it was captured by the Germans in October 1914 and occupied continuously until it was liberated in October 1918, it was spared heavy shelling.
Say hello to my Lille friend…
In June 2018, I arrived in Lille, tired and a bit sweaty, after a lengthy delay in my train journey. A storm had brought lines down along the east coast and reduced our train to a slow crawl towards London, so I missed my Eurostar connection by minutes. The staff were very helpful and rebooked me without charge – something I did not take for granted, given that I was travelling on the cheapest ticket.
Nevertheless, my plan for a relaxed evening walk around Lille turned into a late evening drag of the suitcase over the cobbles! I was determined to make the most of the single full day that I had before meeting my friend to take our tour of the Great War battlefields.
Consequently, I overdid it and was pretty wrecked after covering a few kilometres on my tired joints, over uneven surfaces and only a few weeks after surgery. But with all of that, I could still appreciate what a beautiful city of character Lille is.
Lille has two Main Squares – the Grand Place and the Place du Theatre. The latter contains the very Flemish belfry (a common feature of merchant towns across Flanders, usually on the cloth halls in the centre). It is also home to the gorgeous theatre and one facade of the Bourse. The Grand Place has more shops, the Art Deco facade of the Voix du Nord newspaper building, and a very handy collection of cafes with outdoor seating to soak up the laid-back atmosphere.
Navigating them can be frustrating first thing in the morning – I was struggling to get a view of the Grand Place that wasn’t blocked by large delivery vans, and avoiding being run over by same. But on a lovely sunny June morning, it’s a very pleasant place to hang out. Bear in mind that people have been hanging out here since the eleventh century when the city was founded around this square. I recommend buying a pastry and freshly squeezed orange juice and parking yourself on the edge of the fountain to watch the world go by.
Colonne de la Déesse
In fact, the fountain itself is a Lille institution. At the centre stands the Colonne de la Déesse (Goddess Column), a memorial column. It commemorates the 1792 siege of Lille during the French Revolution when the Austrian army failed to take the city despite superior numbers. They did, however, destroy one of the main churches, which used to stand here. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the siege, the city began to erect the monument in 1842. It was completed in 1845 and the allegorical depiction of Lille as a woman quickly acquired the local nickname of “the Goddess”.
Much of the centre is cobbled and the squares are the places where this is most likely to be an obstacle. It is not incredibly uneven and the many cyclists of Lille seem to cope without juddering around everywhere. Nevertheless, it is something to bear in mind when considering wheelchair use, or how fatiguing it can be to walk around. There are lowered pavements and marked crossings, but many of these are also across cobbled streets. I definitely overestimated my stamina on this terrain.
The beautiful Bourse building is typical of Flemish architecture. Flemish cities were mostly mercantile and the civic architecture tended to revolve around the guilds and businesses of the merchant class. The Bourse was the stock exchange, constructed in 1652-1653. It is a classic Flemish Renaissance building.
Since 1921, a newer building houses the commercial activity in Lille. However, the Vieille Bourse has a new lease of life as the city’s must-see market. On a weekday with afternoon-only opening, it wasn’t at its liveliest. I made a special return trip after a fair amount of trailing, and I wasn’t sure it was worth it. Nevertheless, plenty of other travellers rave about it, so perhaps it was a slow day.
That said, there are some caveats for disabled travellers. The sheltered areas around the collonade are where you’ll find the stalls. This makes sense in Northern Europe – you don’t want your used bookstall open to the elements. However, that means that everything is crammed into the small-ish areas available, and there are an awful lot of things for sale. Consequently, moving around can be a challenge, with little room to manoeuvre between tables.
Accessibility at the Bourse
There are ramps on each of the four sides so the space is partly accessible, but if you need wheelchair access you will be lucky to find a route through to browse the merchandise. There are single, shallow steps up that provide the more ambulant among us with an alternative route. However, the surface away from the smoothly paved central courtyard is somewhat uneven.
I am absolutely not saying it’s not worth a visit. Any time it is in full swing on a gorgeous day, I suspect that the shopping will be fun and the architecture will be beautiful. I know that there is usually a good selection of food, but no food was on offer when I visited. But do bear in mind that it may be a challenging visit, so I would think twice about returning if it took extra effort.
À La Cloche d’Or
Definitely worth seeing, though, is a nearby shop. Just around the corner on Rue des Manneliers (number 10) you will find a stunning art nouveau building, À La Cloche d’Or. It is a jewellery boutique, which explains the large ad for Omega watches that adorns the facade. As long as you look up for the “Omega” sign, you can’t miss it!
Pâtisserie Méert: a Lille classic
Need a break after the first stage of wanderings? Well, right along from the Grand Place, on Rue Esquermoise, you can get a Lille culinary classic: a Meert waffle. These are delicate, wafery sandwiches with flavourful cream in the middle. Maison Meert was established in 1677. Thankfully, they cooked the waffles more recently. The classic version is vanilla, but there is chocolate, strawberry and other flavours if you fancy branching out. There is a waffle-only shop on the right, but do check out the mouth-watering patisserie window next door. It’s a perfect, if not cheap, place to pick up picnic supplies.
Around Lille’s Old Town
Of course, one of the pleasures of such a compact centre is the wandering. Along the way, you will find characterful spots that reward a relaxed perusal. I found several places to sit, which is welcome after all those cobbles. Below are some highlights. I made a Google Maps list of places that are worth a look, and you can find that by clicking here.
Once I gave up on my swollen feet, I decided to pause to reflect on an exciting day. Determining that I could use the air-conditioning, I still didn’t want to miss out on the atmosphere. So I found myself at the not-terribly-local-sounding Notting Hill Coffee. I was able to park myself in a window seat.
Looking across Place du Théâtre. I realised that it’s not only students who call Lille home in numbers; Lille is also home to a considerable number of very cute dogs. I could get used to this…
Look out for a forthcoming post on the Hospice de la Comtesse, a remarkable mediaeval hospital in the Old Town.
Please pin to Pinterest to keep track when you’re travel planning. See below for the map of Old Town Lille!
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