I’ve been to Lille several times and somehow never managed to get to the Palais des Beaux Arts. So one sunny morning I set off to spend some time there. Well it was sunny when I left but by the time I got there it was raining, and not just a drizzle, it was bucketing down. There was nothing for it but to head for a café and take cover with coffee and croissants until it was over. As there is an absolute plethora of fabulous cafés in Lille that’s not really a hardship!
Once the sky had got a grip, I walked from Lille train station to the Palais des Beaux Arts. There’s great public transport in this city with a highly efficient metro system but I like to walk, you get to see more, and the architecture of Vieux Lille where the museum is, just begs to be seen, it is magnificent.
The Palais des Beaux Arts lives up to its name, it really is a grand palace. The original museum was built in 1809, and then updated in the 1890’s to the Belle Epoque style you see today. It is one of the largest museums in France and has the second biggest collection of fine arts outside of Paris. Much of it was confiscated from religious organisations during and after the French Revolution, still more came from loot collected by Napoleon during his many campaigns.
It’s an eclectic collection, many grand and fabulous paintings including an exquisite Goya painting called “The Old and the Young”, a friend of mine says it’s like an early selfie – but much darker! There are ceramics, sculptures, religious art and much much more. I’d heard that they have the most incredible town models in the museum and I was keen to see them. Everyone I know who goes here says “you mustn’t miss them, they’re in the basement”. I wasn’t sure quite where the basement was so I asked a guard sitting at the top of some steps leading below “is that the basement where the huge town models are?” She wasn’t sure and told me to check at the reception. I decided to follow the steps down anyway and there at the bottom of the stairs were darkened rooms with the most extraordinary, enormous 18th century maps, though to call them that isn’t really accurate, they’re map models I guess, complete with tiny houses and churches depicting the area hundreds of years ago. Quite how the guard wasn’t aware of their existence is beyond me!
I spent three hours in this museum, there’s a mix of ancient and modern, a juxtaposition that works – it doesn’t always – such as the enormous coloured glass chandelier in the reception hall. There’s some great innovative technology on show here, the day I went, there were screens set up next to some major artworks and film of someone drawing some of the art on display – it was clever, witty and mesmerising, visitors stood staring at this original way of showing how great art is created.
This museum is a welcoming sort of place too with a huge atrium with comfy seats where you’re able to take your packed lunch or just stop for a break in comfort and watch the film show that changes regularly, when I went it was a lesson in drawing.
By the time I’d finished in the museum it was noon, time to find a great restaurant, the only hard thing is choosing from the several hundred there are in the city but luckily I’d had a recommendation from a friend to go to the newly re-opened Au Molin d’Or opposite the Opera House (31-33, place du théâtre). Good choice, no, great choice. The service is fab, the food is great, proper old fashioned brasserie style with a modern twist, not expensive and the renovated restaurant is gorgeous.
In the afternoon, it rained again, it doesn’t matter, even when it’s wet this city is terrific and it’s the perfect excuse to find a bar and drink Champagne under an umbrella!
If you go to Lille, it’s well worth visiting the Palais des Beaux Arts – give yourself at least an hour and a half even if you’re a fast touring type!
More on Lille
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10 brilliant reasons to eat and drink in Lille
Why shopping in Lille should be on all shopaholics and fashion lovers must do list
Lille Palais des Beaux Arts website
Lille Tourist Office