Summer 2022. The monkeypox virus is spreading, almost exclusively amongst men who have sex with men (MSM). In Belgium it was and is almost impossible to be vaccinated. But in France, conditions are less strict. The Centre De Dépistage Anonyme Et Gratuit (CeGIDD) or Anonymous and Free Screening Centre in Lille (Rijsel) announced a day of vaccation without appointment. It was picked up by Brussels HIV and STI prevention organisation ExAequo, by Belgian media and by Maarten. So we went.
Maarten and I had decided to meet up anyway, on that Saturday 6 August. But instead of watching ‘The Prom‘ on Netflix, we got up really early to take the first train to Kortrijk (Courtrai) and there catch a train to Lille.
From Lille-Flandres Railway Station, we rushed to the CeGIDD. It paid off we did so. A few minutes after our train arrived, the TGV from Brussels-Midi arrived, filled with gay men wanting the vaccine they can’t get in Belgium. So Maarten and I were about 30th in the queue, instead of 230th. It was imperative to be there early, as the Lille health official had announced they had 400 doses for that day.
We only waited for some 30 minutes after opening at 9 AM to get in. The process involved a brief consultation with a doctor, the jab and 15 minutes of recovery. So by 10.30 AM we were out. as in outside. We’ve been out for decades.
So it was time to stroll around Lille.
Lille is a city in the northern part of France, in French Flanders. On the river Deûle, near France’s border with Belgium, it is the capital of the Hauts-de-France region, the prefecture of the Nord department, and the main city of the European Metropolis of Lille.
The city of Lille proper had a population of 234,475 in 2019 within its small municipal territory of 35 km2 (14 sq mi), but together with its French suburbs and exurbs the Lille metropolitan area (French part only), which extends over 1,666 km2 (643 sq mi), had a population of 1,510,079 that same year (Jan. 2019 census), the fourth most populated in France after Paris, Lyon, and Marseille.
The city of Lille and 94 suburban French municipalities have formed since 2015 the European Metropolis of Lille, an indirectly elected metropolitan authority now in charge of wider metropolitan issues, with a population of 1,179,050 at the Jan. 2019 census.
More broadly, Lille belongs to a vast conurbation formed with the Belgian cities of Mouscron, Kortrijk, Tournai (Doornik) and Menin (Menen), which gave birth in January 2008 to the Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai, the first European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC), which has more than 2.1 million inhabitants.
Nicknamed in France the ‘Capital of Flanders‘, Lille and its surroundings belong to the historical region of Romance Flanders, a former territory of the county of Flanders that is not part of the linguistic area of West Flanders. A garrison town (as evidenced by its Citadel), Lille has had an eventful history from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.
Very often besieged during its history, it belonged successively to the Kingdom of France, the Burgundian State, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation and the Spanish Netherlands before being definitively attached to the France of Louis XIV following the War of Spanish Succession along with the entire territory making up the historic province of French Flanders.
Lille was again under siege in 1792 during the Franco-Austrian War, and in 1914 and 1940. It was severely tested by the two world wars of the 20th century during which it was occupied and suffered destruction.
A merchant city since its origins and a manufacturing city since the 16th century, the Industrial Revolution made it a great industrial capital, mainly around the textile and mechanical industries.
Their decline, from the 1960s onwards, led to a long period of crisis and it was not until the 1990s that the conversion to the tertiary sector and the rehabilitation of the disaster-stricken districts gave the city a different face.
Today, the historic center, Old Lille, is characterized by its 17th-century red brick town houses, its paved pedestrian streets and its central Grand-Place or Place (Place Général-de-Gaulle).
The belfry of the Hôtel de Ville de Lille (Lille City Hall) is one of the 23 belfries in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Somme regions that were classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2005, in recognition of their architecture and importance to the rise of municipal power in Europe.
The construction of the brand-new Euralille business district in 1988 (now the third largest in France) and the arrival of the TGV and then the Eurostar in 1994 put Lille at the heart of the major European capitals.
The development of its international airport, annual events such as the Braderie de Lille in early September (attracting three million visitors), the development of a student and university center (with more than 110,000 students, the third largest in France behind Paris and Lyon), its ranking as a European Capital of Culture in 2004 and the events of Lille 2004 and Lille 3000 are the main symbols of this revival. The European metropolis of Lille was awarded the ‘World Design Capital 2020‘.
So after the monkey business, Maarten and I went to the historic centre. We had brunch at Emilie And The Cool Kids.
The historic centre is not big. There’s the Place Général-de-Gaulle, the Place du Théatre, the Vieille Bourse or Old Stock Exchange and a bit further down the road the Notre-Dame de la Treille Cathedral.
Lille has more to offer. The Hospice Comtesse Museum, the La Piscine Museum of Art and Industry, the Rihour Palace, the Villa Cavrois, the LaM – Lille Métropole Musée d’art moderne, d’art contemporain et d’art brut, the Citadel and the Fine Arts Museum.
So we just walked in the city centre. I had a muffin filled with Nutella at La Bande à Basile and Maarten had a vegan burger at Hank Vegan Burger.
Some of these, such as La Piscine and Villa Cavrois, are actually in Roubaix (Robaais) and thus further afield. You need a car to get there.
I can’t go to Lille and not go to Le Furet du Nord, an incredible bookshop in Francophone Europe.
On our way back to the station, we hopped inside the Westfield Euralille shopping mall. As it was a Saturday afternoon, that was very crowded.
From Antwerp, Lille is perfect for occasional day trips. From our Antwerp perspective I don’t really see it as a destination for a two or three-day weekend. If I’d do that, I would need a car and use Lille as a base to see the vicinity.