Lille has eight ‘police’ districts. If you ask someone your way, not many passers-by will be able to help you. Only the plaques showing the street names can tell you. Lille is divided up into districts and as you pass through these on your way to the town center or Vieux Lille (the old part of the town), you will discover many interesting places that will enliven your stay.
In the north-west, the Bois Blancs woods – which lie on the bank of one of the River Deûle’s tributaries – surround the river port and provide a large area of green spaces. It is a residential district with a low population, and is an ideal place for walking or fishing along the 3.5 km-long banks of the canal, which runs from the nearby Bois de Boulogne. It’s also a great place to go for a swim in the Max Dormoy swimming pool or to see one of the numerous shows at the Grand Bleu.
The Faubourg de Béthune adjoins Wazemmes, (a name which is synonymous with the Sunday morning market and northern friendliness) and the Vauban-Esquermes headland to the south-west. It is one of the most recent areas to have adopted a town- planning scheme, along with Lille-Sud which stretches out to the east. It is a fairly quiet, densely-populated residential area and, as far as tourism goes, offers nothing of particular interest.
Continuing your tour of Lille in an anti-clockwise direction, you will come to Moulins. This area contains remnants from Lille’s working class past even though the disused industrial estates are gradually disappearing. Some of the old buildings are being rejuvenated. The Prato Theatre is blooming and almost right behind its stage lie the wonderful Jardin des Plantes.
Further to the east lie the residential districts of Fives and Saint-Maur Pellevoisin. These approach the town centre, opposite the Euralille monument and the Parc Matisse, and form a circle inside the town-centre by joining the Champ de Mars and the Citadelle via La Madeleine.
Between the Citadelle and the town centre lies the other headland of the Vauban-Esquermes district, where many students have taken up residence. The Jardin Vauban is one of the places in Lille where you can find an old-fashioned concert hall – just like the nearby Palais Rameau which is used as an exhibition hall nowadays.
It’s only a stone’s throw from Vauban to the Centre, along the 2.2km-long Rue Solférino. This main road runs along the south side of the Centre. Along the way, you will see the Carré des Halles, a paradise for those who enjoy nightlife, the Sébastopol Theatre and the nearby house of Colliot the architect (in the Rue Fleurus). Coming back to the centre means coming into the heart of the town via the Place de la République which is dominated by the Palais des Beaux-Arts. The pedestrian precinct is a hive of commercial activity with galleries, cinemas, restaurants and bars ‘ plenty to attract the general public. It also entails coming back to the Grand’Place, Lille’s popular meeeting place, after having passed in front of the Palais RihourVieille Bourse (Old Stock Exchange) and the Rang du Beauregard, opposite the Opéra and the Nouvelle Bourse – headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce. Before going on to Vieux Lille, the Porte de Paris and the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) opposite should be noted. The town hall is famous for its Belfry. Also of note is the smart Lille technological project: Euralille. Very few towns can pride themselves on such an exploit, which boldly propels Lille into the XXIst century.
Vieux-Lille – a district packed full of history, has changed with the times and become more modern. These changes have not altered the character of the district, but instead highlight memories of the past which make the district beautiful. Examples of these are Rue de la Monnaie with its Hospice Comtesse, (where it’s always a pleasure to stroll around), the Place de Brettignies, where the façade of the Maison Gilles de Boë competes with the recesses and gargoyles of the neighbouring buildings, small streets with mysterious names e.g. the Rue des Trois Molettes, which leads to the square in front of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Treille and streets with charming names e.g. the Rue Princesse, where you can see the house in which General Charles De Gaulle was born. Vieux-Lille is also the place to find antique shops, art galleries and elegant boutiques. The latter are set up in tastefully renovated old houses and can be explored from the cellar right up to the attic. The same goes for the bars, Flemish taverns and small intimate restaurants – all proudly displaying authentic decor.
Lille and its districts have a style of their own – somewhere between Flemish mannerism and baroque – that’s just waiting to be discovered. Since the XVIIth century Lille has been enlarged three times, thus giving the town its present day look, which is that of a fairly new town.
History of Lille
One day, the young Lydéric sees his family slaughtered by the evil Phinéart. He is then raised by a hermit who lets a deer give him her milk and gives him an axe as a toy. Years pass… and Lydéric, a true hero, can chop down a tree with a single blow of his axe! At last, the time for revenge comes – he challenges Phinéart to a duel and kills him. This happened on June 15th 640. King Dagobert rewards Lydéric by granting him Phinéart’s possessions and naming him administrator of Flanders.
That is the legend of Lydéric and Phinéart, the founders of Lille – two great figures who now feature heavily in the city’s festivities! The legend is part of Lille’s folklore and the two heroes are depicted on the base of the Beffroi de Lille in the Hôtel de Ville.
Lille first appears in the history books in 1066. Its name is derived from the Latin word insula, meaning ‘island’. At that time, the city rose up from the marshlands, crossed by many tributaries of the Deûle – a peaceful river diverted into canals, which exists to this day. A Castrum, the Comtesse island and a forum, which is now the Grand Place lie in the swamp.
Being a city of trade and commerce and a center for weaving, (like Bruges and Ypres), the majority of Lille’s fortune came from its famous market, organised by one of its benefactors, Jeanne de Constantinople – better known as the ‘Countess of Flanders’, who also gave it the Hospice Comtesse.
Many battles were fought over its possession as it was always wanted by various kings of France. In 1214, Philippe Auguste defeated the Count of Flanders and the German emperor Otto IV at Bouvines. In the church of Bouvines, twenty one stained glass windows recount the battle.
As a result of the alliance of Dijon and Brussels, it remained part of the lands of Bourgogne for over a century: it became the administrative and financial capital of Phille le Bon, Duke of Burgundy and the most powerful king of France. The last duke of Burgundy, Charles le Téméraire, died in 1477. His daughter Marie wed Maximilien of Austria, and Lille was part of the dowry given to the Habsburgs.
Under Charles Quint and Phillipe IV, Lille became part of the Spanish Netherlands. This golden age for the city is symbolised in the splendid, Baroque Vieille Bourse.
On August 28th 1667 Louis XIV conquered the city. The treaties of Aix-la-Chapelle permanently confirmed the binding of Lille to France. Vauban’s masterpiece, the Citadelle is a sign of this conquest.
After being occupied for a short period (three years) by the Dutch during the wars of Spanish succession (1708-1713), Lille was drawn into the excesses of the French Revolution. The citizens heroically faced the Austrian invaders and were undefeated. The Convention declared that Lille “deserves much from the country” and the Déesse on the Grand Place is testament to this.
Two of the most beautiful towns in the Lille area were also paid for with blood: Saint-Etienne and the Collégiale Saint Pierre.
The nineteenth century was calmer, and saw Lille become an industrial capital. The city grew, tripling in area and doubling in population by absorbing neighboring towns. In 1846, the first railway between Paris and Lille was built, Louis Pasteur became the first Dean of the Science Faculty from 1854 to 1857 and industrialisation continued to take hold, particularly in textiles. At the end of the century the “Internationale” was composed by the local Pierre Degeyter in 1888 and Charles de Gaule was born here in 1890!
Armies of weary souls haunted the plains of Flanders after the terrible battles of the two World Wars. The decline of the textile industry in the fifties threatened the economy of the city, which decided to focus on services (administration, banking, universities). In 1966 the Communauté Urbaine (CUDL) combined today’s 180.000 inhabitants with those of the 26 nearby towns, creating the fourth largest city in France! Lille then returned to its traditional role as a business center and chose to open itself to Europe in 1993: thanks to the TGV, it is only an hour away from Paris. In 1994 a new business quarter ‘ Euralille – was opened and the north European TGV lines came into effect. After a successful conversion to the technologies of the next millenium a new page in history remains to be written.
Lille still lives up to its friendly reputation ‘ it is one of the few cities where no one can feel lonely for very long, thanks to the legendary northern welcome.