In an hour, you can be in another country. Lille, capital of French Flanders, has a distinctive Flemish feel that makes a visit “dépaysant” in the good sense of getting away from your everyday surroundings. And now that it is on the northern TGV route, it is closer to Paris by train than many Paris suburbs are by car.
Lille has long had an image as grimy, gray and industrial. This was always somewhat unfair, and never more so than in recent years. Post-industrial Lille has a beautiful old city center and, as the communications hub of “the North,” has advanced farther into the 21st century than most of provincial France.
This contrast hits you upon arrival, for the old Lille-Flanders station (its facade once graced Paris’ Gare du Nord) is right next to the futuristic Euralille center. The brainchild of Lille’s mayor, former Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy, Euralille houses the new Lille-Europe station and the hub of the automated VAL metro system, as well as a hotel, offices and shops.
For connoisseurs of urban architecture Lille has many attractions. Start, as in all good Flemish cities, at the Grand’Place (officially the Place Général de Gaulle, after a native son who is also celebrated with a small museum). In and by it are some of Lille’s chief treasures:
The Vieille Bourse, from the mid-17th century, is an outstanding example of Flemish Renaissance, built barely 15 years before Louis XIV forced this part of Flanders to become French, thus changing the look of Lillois style. In the nearby Place Rihour, the interesting brickwork of a Gothic palace houses the tourism office, which offers quite good guided tours of Old Lille in French every Saturday from September (35F; other tours and days added in high season).
Northeast of the Grand’Place rises the Flemish Revival belfry of the new Bourse, built early this century by Louis-Marie Cordonnier – as was its neoclassical neighbor, the home of Opéra Lille (this season features works by Bartok, Debussy, Beethoven and Vivaldi; for details tel:  18.104.22.168). Facing the new Bourse is a row of late 17th century houses in the Franco-Flemish transitional style, some proudly displaying Austrian cannon balls imbedded in their walls from an unsuccessful 1792 siege.
A few minutes’ walk north lies the Hospice Comtesse, founded in 1237; the present buildings are 15th-18th century. Among its current attractions are Flemish works from Lille’s fine arts museum, which is closed for renovation until at least mid-1996 – unfortunately, for it is reputed to have perhaps the finest collection in provincial France. Near the Beaux-Arts building is one of the few surviving houses by the Art Nouveau architect Hector Guimard.
The Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing metropolitan area, served by an excellent VAL-tram-bus network, features a highly regarded modern art museum at Villeneuve d’Ascq. Local cultural life also includes the renowned Orchestre National de Lille (tel: 22.214.171.124), directed by Jean-Claude Casadesus, and the Théâtre de la Métaphore (tel: 126.96.36.199) under Daniel Mesquich.