The former industrial city in the north of France was named a European Cultural Capital for 2004. Hundreds of cultural events are planned to attract visitors to the often overlooked city.
Thousands gathered to usher in Lille's year as Culture Capital of Europe.
The city of Lille has made a big investment: facades, entire rows of houses, streets and public squares have been renovated. Three four-star hotels have been built. The city that was never bombed, but was long forgotten, is dressed in its Sunday best.
Lille, long known as an industrial center, just became the European Capital of Culture for 2004, a distinction it will share with the Italian city of Genoa. And it's grey dot on the map just got brighter as tourists head to it in the search for something authentic, such as the wonderfully restored 17th century residential street, Rang du Beauregard.
Idea for cultural capitals began nearly 20 years ago
The idea behind the distinction stems from a 1985 proposal by the Greek cultural minister, Melina Mercouri, who saw it as a way to open up various aspects of European culture to the public at large. Each year, a different capital (or sometimes more than one) takes center stage and offers year-round cultural programming to show off its native talents to a European audience.
Lille is the capital of the region Nord-Pas de Calais and has a population of 215,000. It is France's fourth-largest metropolitan area, and 100 million Europeans -- from Great Britain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and, of course, France -- live within a 300 kilometer radius of the city.
Historically, Lille was the center of the coal and textile industry in northern France -- a sad, drab working-class city. When the coal plants and then the textile firms began closing in Lille, Roubaix and Tourcoing, a painful transition from manufacturing to service began.
Capitalism and socialism clashed in Lille
Capitalism and worker-supported socialism clashed bitterly in Lille. In the Saint Sauveur neighborhood, Pierre Degeyter wrote the melody to Eugene Pottiers' poem "L 'Internationale" in 1888. But visitors won't find mention of the industrial past in the neighborhood. There an abandoned building has been turned into a student dorm without so much as a dedication plaque.
"The people of the north keep the sun in their hearts because they don't have it outside," goes a French pop song. So even in the wind and bad weather, locals may be found sitting on the terraces. Statistically seen, Lille is quite young: 28 percent of the population is younger than 25. This stems partly from the fact that there are more than 100,000 students living in Lille.
Lille's Musee des Beaux-Arts is the second largest museum in France after the Louvre. With some 3,000 drawings and paintings by Flemish, Dutch, Italian, French and Spanish masters the museum is definitely worth a visit. But not even the likes of Goya, Rubens, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Donatello and David -- to name a few -- could change the grey image of the city.
View of the northern facade of the Grande Place
Evolution of a city
The changes started 10 or 15 years ago. First came the high-speed train, then the failed attempt at hosting the Olympics and then the application to become a cultural capital of Europe. Perhaps it helped that the French prime minister at the time, Pierre Mauroy, had once been the mayor of Lille.
In any case, the city has received many millions of euros in support. And today, buildings whose 17th and 18th century charm had been covered with "modern" facades are once again architectural attractions.
Lille is the third French culture capital, after Avignon and Paris. One of its most beautiful architectural treasures is the so-called Old Exchange, built in 1652 in the Flemish Renaissance style and comprised of 24 two-story buildings. Book vendors and chess players are among those drawn to the exchange. And on warm summer nights, it's a popular spot for tango dancers.
Indeed, Lille is no longer a city where one goes only for business. Today, it is a place to relax and unwind.