The wool factory in Roubaix near Lille was abandoned 45 years ago, but tonight the buzz of industry must rival that
of peak production.
More than 100 artists, spread across two market halls, are stitching, hammering and spray painting away as part of the annual Art Braderie – a 24-hour event where creative types recycle junk into commercial goods. There’s a sense of excitement and unleashed creativity.
Combined with the strong paint fumes, it’s a very real possibility I could walk out of here with a lamp made from plastic beakers, a chest of drawers graffitied with Luche Libre heroes or a chair covered in knitted cassette tape. When I came to Lille on a shopping break, this wasn’t what I’d anticipated.
Lille and its satellite towns have had many incarnations. During the 19th century the Flemish city was the centre of the textile industry. When business ran dry money was thrown into banking and universities, and in 2004 Lille was crowned European Capital of Culture.
These days, just an hour from the Calais ferry terminal and an 80-minute Eurostar ride from London, the city has emerged as an attractive and accessible shopping destination.
As well as the famous annual flea market La Braderie (not to be confused with Roubaix’s Art Braderie), Vieux Lille, the old town, boasts narrow streets of independent boutiques, chain shops and designer stores.
Skip easily from Méert patisserie on to Diesel and Agnès B. Then there’s the gleaming department store Galeries Lafayette, new last year, and the ever cheap and reliable Carrefour (if stocking up on booze here, make your visit early – by the end of the weekend the place had been looted).
But while the spotlight might have shifted from the off-beat creativity that made Lille Capital of Culture, the fruits of 2004 has not been left to rot.
La Condition Publique, home to the 24-hour art fair, is one of several spaces created from abandoned industrial buildings and dubbed maisons folie (mad houses). The most famous is arguably that in Wazemmes, but La Condition Publique more than holds its own. The huge complex of brick buildings, sliced in half by an indoor glass-roofed street, was used for the preparation and trade in wool. Today it hosts an exhaustive calendar of events that includes club nights, music festivals and art exhibitions.
The on-site restaurant continues the boho vibe with industrial brickwork and a ceiling of coloured wires and chandeliers. The food is less experimental – in a good way. A member of our group braved the steak tartare, claiming it was the best she’d had in years.
Proving that Lille had a talent for cultural renovation before the Capital of Culture budget arrived is the Roubaix Museum of Art and Industry, nicknamed La Piscine.
The art deco public swimming pool was shut after being declared unsafe in 1984, and reopened in 2001 as an art museum. Today you can follow the path of swimmers past, visiting the baths, shower cubicles, changing rooms and pool all the while admiring the art, which includes some of Picasso’s ceramics.
In the centre of Lille the artistic buzz has not been quashed by the day trippers either. Of course there’s the Palais des Beaux-Arts, said to be France’s most important art gallery after the Louvre, but there’s also Tri Postal, just by the Lille-Flanders station. It’s a former mail sorting office that’s been transformed into a club, theatre and art gallery in one, much like La Condition Publique.
Unlike this maison folie, though, the Tri Postal has no permanent features. Designed to be a blank canvas, even the restaurant menu changes depending on the programme. When we were there the three-tiered space was hosting work by Gilbert and George and Cindy Sherman.
If you’re determined to stick to shopping you can still get a taste of creative Lille by stopping for a bite to eat at the quirky cafe Tous Les Jours Dimanche, on Rue Masurel. Unlike the modernised maisons folie, the coffee shop has been transformed to look ancient with battered armchairs, old newspaper peeling off the walls and the odd antique bicycle propped against the bannisters.
The novel twist is that everything you see is for sale. Finish off your spéculoos cheesecake (a local speciality that’s definitely recommended) and you can walk out with the plate it was served on and the chair you sat in if you so wish.
Like I said, head to Lille for a shopping break and you’re likely to get more than you bargain for.
» Amy Adams travelled to Lille with P&O Ferries (0871-664 6464 ; www.poferries.com. Day trips from Dover to Calais start at £25, with longer return fares for £50. Accommodation was provided by Novotel Lille Centre (+33 3 283 85353; www.novotel.com, with doubles from €169 per night.