Our destination is Lille, a French and Flemish city on the border of Belgium. Only one-hour and eight minutes from Paris Gard du Nord station, we took the 8:40AM train and arrived at Lille Station at 9:48AM.
The Mercure Hotel Grand Place was an easy five-minute walk from the station, ideally located in close proximity to many of the main attractions. We were given a junior suite, one of the larger rooms in the hotel. One of our pet peeves of late is the lack of plugs in hotel rooms for the various electronics one is required to travel with these days, and we were happy the suite had a plug on each side of the bed, plus a reading lamp and a sconce. An N’Epresso machine was a nifty amenity, a welcome caffeine treat first thing in the morning. The clever setting for the breakfast buffet was a real-life kitchen with a four-burner stove with Le Creuset pots filled with simmering breakfast dishes, a dishwasher and a refrigerator filled with dairy products. The space made us feel so much at home, we were tempted to wear our pajamas and slippers. The staff patiently marked our maps and gave specific directions to the sites we wanted to visit.
Strolling through the old quarter of the city, we were struck by the various styles of architecture, quite a contrast from uniformity of the Haussmann style buildings from the late 19th century dominating Paris. We later learned the Spaniards, the French and the Flemish ruled Lille, hence the fiery colors of brick with mustard trim, ornate Baroque style and the austerity of the Dutch influence.
Le musée de l'Hospice Comtesse is a formidable edifice and one of the most relevant sites in the old quarter. Countess Jeanne de Flandre started the hospice in 1237 as a place for the poor to be spiritually and medically treated; the present day buildings date from 15th, 17th and 18th centuries. Remarkably, the hospice operated up until 1939, and in 1962 it was converted into a museum where travelers can visit the monastery, the chapel with a ceiling decorated with coats of arms from significant donors, the medicinal gardens, and the former hospital ward. The tapestries, wood sculptures and white porcelain tiles, each individually painted with figures in blue, sustain the strong Flemish period details.
Meert, the oldest pastry shop in Lille from 1761, is a sheer delight for the senses. The present day Meert encompasses a pastry shop, tea salon and restaurant, ice cream parlor and retail shop offering chocolates and confections. Although we enjoyed our lunch in the lavishly decorated Louis XVI style tearoom, we were much more excited by our scrumptious desserts, lemon meringue tart and a heavenly chocolate concoction of chocolate mousse with hazelnut and almond praline. In case that wasn’t enough, we went overboard and bought a box of their famous gaufres (dry waffles) filled with vanilla cream.
After our decadent lunch and pastry feast, we headed to the General DeGaulle Museum. The former general and president of France was born in 1890 in the bourgeois home of his grandparents. Bought by the friends of DeGaulle in 1967 to preserve his memory, the museum features artifacts and objects from DeGaulle’s formative years, plus a multimedia program that reflects on his historic accomplishments.
The Palais Beaux–Art Museum has a vast collection of paintings, sculptures, and drawings spanning from the second century to the 20th century, including works from the Impressionism, Symbolism, medieval, and Renaissance periods. Flemish, Spanish, French, Roman, and Belgian artists are represented; Rubens, Monet, Courbet, Manet, Donatello, Delacroix, El Greco and Picasso are a sampling of the artists in the museum.
We had an outstanding dinner at La Royale, a cozy bistro within walking distance from our hotel. A starter of house-made country pate with crusty peasant bread was more than ample for two people, followed by a succulent, slow roasted beef served with organic yellow, orange and red carrots and buttery mashed potatoes. The genial owner, who spoke English, told us he recently sold the restaurant and was relocating to San Francisco to open a French wine bar.
The next morning we headed outside Lille to the suburbs for two terrific and worthwhile attractions.
Just a 25 minute metro ride from the center of the city is Piscine de Roubaix, a museum of art and industry. The museum once contained a lavish Art Deco indoor swimming pool constructed between 1927 and 1932. Closed in 1985, the pool was remodeled into a museum, also incorporating an old textile factory next door. The museum has an excellent and well-rounded collection of mostly 19th and 20th century works, including an impressive selection of porcelain and pottery. One massive hall has a revamped version of the swimming pool hedged by plaster and marble statues and, on the upper floors, authentic looking Art-Deco railings and balconies.
After leaving Piscine de Roubaix, we took a tram ride to Croix to visit Villa Cavrois. During the 10 minute walk from the tram to the villa, we viewed some stately mansions and manor houses with well-manicured gardens.
Villa Cavrois is the crowning masterpiece of French architect Robert Mallet Stevens. Built for textile magnate Paul Cavrois and his wife and seven children, Mallet was given free reign to his design -- the only parameters were that the house be should be comfortable, practical and not over budget. Construction began in 1929 and completed in 1932; the family lived in the house until 1985. It was supposed to have been demolished after it was sold to a developer, but the project was abandoned in the 2001. The state bought the villa and it took 13 painstaking years to restore it. Today, Villa Cavrois is a stunning, still relevant example of modernist architecture. We marveled at the scale and size of the rooms and the handsome furnishings, impeccable architectural details and natural light flowing through the rooms. A long, narrow reflecting pool complemented the symmetrical, manicured gardens, and the swimming pool is an extension of the house, rather than being separated.
Although Lille is easily a day trip from Paris, we recommend staying overnight to visit Piscine de Roubaix and Villa Carvois.
Train information Paris-Lille
Le musée de l'Hospice Comtesse
32 Rue de la Monnaie, 59800
La Maison Natale de Charles de Gaulle
9 Rue Princesse, 59000
Palais Beaux-Arts Lille
Place de la République, 59000
Roubaix La Piscine
23 rue de l’espérance, 59100 Roubaix
60 Avenue John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 59170 Croix
Mercure Hotel Grand Place
2 Boulevard Carnot, 59000
25-27 Rue Esquermoise, 59000
37 Rue Royale, 59000