I’ve been through Lille many times. From my seat on the trains whooshing in and out of the station en route between London and Bruxelles or Paris I had gazed disdainfully at the grimy, graffiti covered buildings near the station and decided I was glad to be passing through.
I’ve had a change of heart.
Lille, and Roubaix a little further out to the north east, were once wealthy cities thanks to the textile manufacturing that boomed in the wake of the industrial revolution, but with so many other beautiful towns and villages neither are likely to hold the top spots on a list of France’s must visit places. But when Lille was my destination she turned out to be beautiful and interesting – rather more so than I had imagined, and Roubaix has a genuine treasure in La Piscine; the Museum of Art and Industry.
The Old City of Lille centred around the Grande Place, now called Place du General de Gaulle, tells the story of its history through the beautiful old buildings surrounding the square; the ups and downs of its fortune, who was in charge and who was fighting whom are reflected in architectural styles and monuments. From the outside facing onto the square the elaborate Flemish renaissance styled Old Bourse (the Stock Exchange) attracted me; a glimpse into the interior courtyard had me curious enough to venture through the arched doorway to check out the antique book sellers setting up their stalls under the vaulted balconies.
My inner science geek sparked up when I spotted the wall plaques honouring French scientists, mathematicians, engineers and inventors whose work contributed to the health and economic well being of the region; in fact to people everywhere. Amongst the notable names I found Louis Pasteur’s, for his work on fermentation, Ampere mathematician and physicist for his work on electromagnetism, Claude Louis Berthollet for his work on the bleaching property of chlorine and its application in whitening cloth and Philippe de Girard, engineer and inventor of many things including a machine to spin linen; all important in the textile manufacturing industries around Lille. No women’s names that I could see but times have changed since the plaques were put up in 1854 – at the same time the University of Science and Technology at Lille was established.
Following the Old Lille route in the City Walks guide book led us to more gems like rue de la Monnaie, location of the mint built in 1685, and 18th century weaver’s cottages in rue Peterinck. The picture of old Lille as a thriving city with knowledge and a practical inventive spirit to fuel the textile industry is apparent as you walk the streets.
The main purpose of our trip north was to visit La Piscine, the Museum of Art and Industry at Roubaix to see the Wool War One exhibition. A 10-minute ride on the Greater Lille metro system Line 2 from Lille’s main train station then a short walk from the Roubaix Grand Place metro stop, its easy peasy to find. As we meandered through the entrance hall the wall-sized grainy black and white photographs of chaps in their 1930’s styled bathers elicited a smile and a thankful thought that fashions have changed. Then, the wow factor: the pool room. The huge sun like stained glass window at the far end beams a golden glow over the sculptures that line the poolside. It’s no longer an actual swimming pool, but back in 1932 this art-deco styled public bathing facility was described as “the finest swimming pool in France”. The conversion into an art museum was completed in 2001 to house the collection of the Roubaix National Museum, and it is a sight to behold. The former changing cubicles are beautifully restored, the light coloured tiles polished clean and the spaces used as novel display cases for different collections including superb Sevres vases and ceramic works.
I oohed and ahhed at the textile samples on display; these were just a small offering of the rows and rows of hefty sample books from bygone eras in fashion that are held in the fabric library. (The library is open for research by appointment and there is an on-line catalogue too.)
Lille and Roubaix might not be tourist hot spots, but they’ve certainly gone up in my estimation; science and history, wool and textiles, art and industry, a feast of interesting topics, and the beer was good too, (application of the science of fermentation of course!). As the saying goes you can’t judge a book by its cover and seems you can’t judge a city by its railway station. More photographs of our visit here.