The city of Lens has risen from the dark slag heaps of its industrial past into a sleek, glass phoenix bringing with it increadible art, fine-dining, a passion for football and respect for its history imbeded in the ground around it.
Lille, ‘the Capital of Flanders’, was once an important merchant center of French Flanders, and many Flemish influences remain. Loose yourself wandering around cobbled streets lined with beautiful 17th-century brick town houses in the historic center, Vieux Lille. Then enjoy the diverse culture of this bustling university city.
By Andrew Threlfall
Are you one of those people who gets to the airport just five minutes before check in closes? Every time making the connections by the skin of your teeth? Sitting back in your seat, a tad sweaty but luxuriating in your masterplan and street smarts? Well, let me run this by you. It’s September and the days are still long. You’re up at a very reasonable 6.30am. And at the Eurostar check in an hour and a half later to take the 9am train to Lille. You arrive at 11.30am local time and quickly jump on a ten euro maximum local train to Lens 50 minutes away.
Why look through rose tinted Lens? Rather than Paris? Well the unmissable collections at the Louvre-Lens museum set on a former closed mining slag heap have smaller queues for a start. But the layout and chronologically marked collections are the equal of those in the capital.
So, let’s think hypothetically, as say we are on time and at 1:30pm you pop next door to the museum to the magnificent (in design terms and culinary skills) restaurant l’Atelier du Cerisier. This is really high class cuisine and very affordable before you then walk off the sumptuous meal in the ten minutes it takes to make it to the Lens versus Rennes league match.
Racing club de Lens, football for the people
Now it gets even more expo exponentially cultural because Racing club de Lens was created in 1906 with “strong values, for the people who created this exceptional club. Exceptional for the human relations between all football players. Exceptional for its history deeply linked to the history of the city of Lens which has always recovered from many obstacles and problems. We come from a city where people are quite discreet, people used to hardly ever speak about themselves, about their sufferings. The mining world was like that. We must be proud of our background. The city of Lens is synonymous with human richness, heart fighting and solidarity. This is the reason why a mining lamp is printed on our shirt. This is the symbol of our past and historical background. This is a proof of reliability and respect of the future.” This is not sport by numbers, this is sport from the heart.
Racing Club Lens are…quite an experience. PSG routinely win the French League title each year, so as French football expert Sarah Tapsoba tells me: “Andrew, the crown goes to whoever finishes second these days. That title is the meaningful one.” And can you believe that Lens finished second last season and made it back to the Champions Leauge for the first time in two decades. The fans reminded me of Newcastle supporters, made from the resilience once lethal local coal mines exerted on it’s people. “Some blood and some gold!” it reads on the club merchandise…”we do not count our wealth and richness in Euros, but our richness in humans. Our supporters support the blood and gold (sang et or) colours anytime and everywhere in Europe.”
For a city that numbers only 40,000 to have a stadium that holds 39,000 feels unique. But all of the neighbouring towns and even as far afield as Lille witness thousands travelling in by train and car for each home game. There is no number 12 shirt at this football club because the loyalty and support of the fans are seen as the de facto number 12, the extra man.
Everywhere you wander in Lens there are reminders of the working man’s struggle like free concerts at La Maison Syndicale des Mineurs, formerly a miner’s union house : a large building with fascinating engravings that used to be the headquarters of the huge Lens mining company.
Back to London, or a luxurious lie-in?
If you are staying the night in Lens, rather than rushing home (you can make it back to St Pancras for 10pm each day) then nowhere compares to the recently opened Hotel Louvre-Lens, across the road from the museum and featuring the actual original mine walls in a number of the rooms. This is luxury with a conscience and I’m all for it. Evening dinner at their restaurant Le Galibot was just magnifique but the hotel is all about the rooms hewn from Lens’ brave and courageous industrial past.
A modern building singing memories of a difficult past
And, on that theme, the next day I set out to Lewarde: the largest mining museum in France, next door to Cité des Electriciens a former miners’ dwellings now a visitor centre echoing the ghosts of a past based on a class system that even extended to shower and changing room apartheid. The holiday cottages and arts centre include the wonderful 9/9 Bis Oignies surely the only mining site in Europe that has been turned into a music centre. The trip to Lens sparked many memories of growing up in Sheffield where men often internalised their daily hardships in the steel furnaces. You work through a lot of literal blockages spending the longer 48 hours stay inside Lens’ mineshafts and state of mind.
Melted cheese brings Lille, and the world, together!
If you’re just visiting Lille by the way then lunch at Hein restaurant is great place to test out Welsh Rarebit in this part of the world. Basically cheese in melted cheese with some more cheese added. And ham. Quite the experience! Thankfully I walked off the damage at some truly picturesque golf holes at Golf du Sart. I took the metro 2 (red line) from lille flandres station to the Jean Jaures stop, followed by a 5-minute walk to the golf course. I lost my travel pass (naturally) and was then assisted in buying a ticket by a lovely Russian lady, Marina, which simply went to show what a fabulous melting pot Lille is. There is even a bar here called Le Zeppelin. The Immigrant Song sums up this place. In a good way.
Lille’s cobbled streets carry you away to culture filled culinary escape
The cobbled streets in the centre might not be good for supermodel heels but they are fabulously evocative as was the almost renovated cathedral. This is a dreamy city, forget that it is just 90 minutes from London, I felt myself carried along on almost Parisianesque romance blossoming streets at Grand Scheme, THE best street food temple, which is at 31 Rue de Béthune, 59800. I mean where else in France can you find one of four Notting Hill Coffee shops and buy Portobello or Shoreditch roast beans? The answer is…nowhere.
Lille is such a beautiful city that my restaurant of choice Au vieux de la Vieille, was suitably adjacent to the cathedral, where I watched French couples, young and very old, walk hand in hand like a scene out of a very sophisticated romcom.
The Grand Hôtel Bellevue might have been only a four star rating but nowhere gives good city square views close up quite like this impressive old decadent lady.
A City pass for Lille is a great idea and do drop in at the tourist board office which is right next to the hotel I stayed at. With the city pass a trip to the museum Le Palais des Beaux Arts is a must as was a visit to Le Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse. As well as the exhibits in a former train station L’exposition “range ta chambre” Gare St sauveur.
Images curtesy of Pas de Calais Tourism
Louvre Lens building ©Yannick Cadart
The Metaphone 9/9bis ©Jean-Michel André
Landscape around Lens ©Yannick Cadart
You may like to continue your travels through France into Champaign. See treats what we found in the region of celebration bubbles, here.