Culture in the
Land of the Ch’tis
The Lille post-office tower sports a Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis banner. Photo: J. Gascoigne
After the runaway success of the film Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, set in the north of France very near the city of Lille, I decided that an outing to Lille was in order to have a look at the land of the Ch’tis for myself. The inhabitants of Lille have certainly taken the movie in good humor. When I was there, a group of businesses had unfurled a huge banner bearing the film’s title from the grand post-office tower. (Another recent film, Un Conte de Noël, is also set near Lille in the town of Roubaix.)
In the last few years, Lille has gained enormously in importance. Not only was it the European Capital of Culture recently, but it is also a stop for Eurostar trains on the London-Paris and London-Brussels lines. Judging from the number of British tourists visiting Lille in the middle of the week, it seems that many people are choosing to come for day-trips.
For anyone visiting Paris, Lille is only an hour away on the high-speed train (the TGV). Even if you are not a culture vulture, the shopping is magnificent. I would recommend avoiding the Parisian touristic hellholes that are Printemps and Galeries Lafayette and go to the same two stores in Lille, especially the latter, which opened a few months ago (always a sign of a city’s improved fortunes). Altogether a more pleasurable and spacious experience.
The city has no shortage of good restaurants either, even though the influence of nearby Belgium means that every second eatery is a generic moules-frites (mussels and French fries) establishment. You can stay in hotels of all types. If you are feeling flush, how about the opulently elegant Carlton Hotel just opposite the Opera House?
Lille is also flourishing in the realm of culture. I would recommend going there on a Wednesday, because every week at 6 p.m. between September and mid-June, you can attend a recital in the sumptuous foyer of the opera house for only €8. When I was there, the up-and-coming British mezzo-soprano Rachael Lloyd, accompanied by Laura Baxter, gave an exquisite recital of Schumann’s mostly joyous song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben, followed by Elgar’s occasionally bombastic but uplifting cycle, Sea-pictures. The opera house itself has an excellent lineup. For the 2008-9 season, it is producing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro in October, Purcell’s Faery Queen in December, Weill’s Mahagonny in April and Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen in June.
The Palais des Beaux Arts is second only to the Louvre as the top art museum in France. You will find a great range of paintings and sculptures, and there is always a special exhibition of interest. An excellent show of Goya’s satirical Caprichos prints and etchings is on until July 28. What makes this particular exhibition all the more interesting is the accompanying show of modern artists’ interpretation of the Caprichos. Yasumasa Morimura’s colorful photographic reconstructions of Goya’s figures are particularly impressive.
As I had not yet seen Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, I decided that it would make an interesting anthropological experiment to watch it in Lille. It seemed to be warmly received by the locals, one family of which seemed to have walked straight off the movie set. In a similar spirit of scientific research, I sampled one or two glasses of the local Ch’ti beer, which was appropriately flavorsome.
Opéra de Lille: Place du Théâtre, Lille. Tel. 08 20 48 90 00. www.opera-lille.fr
Palais des Beaux Arts: Place de la République, Lille. Tel: 03 20 06 78 00. Open Monday, 2 p.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 7 p.m. on Friday). Admission: €5; first Sun of the month free. www.pba-lille.fr/
Carlton Hotel: 3, rue de Paris. Tel.: 03 20 13 33 13. http://uk.carltonlille.com/
Getting there: Numerous SNCF TGV trains leave from the Gare du Nord daily.
© 2008 Paris Update
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