French Revelation: Celebrating Its Status as a 2004 European Capital of Culture, the French City of Lille Has Transformed Itself to Mimic Other Cities around the World. but, as Octavia Lamb Discovers, Its Many Attractions Make It Well Worth a Visit in Its Own Right

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At its inception in 1985, the European Capital of Culture concept was founded on the observation of two basic principles: first, that Europe has always produced and encouraged a rich and diverse vein of artistic and cultural activity; and second, that its cities have been essential ingredients in a high level of production. This year, the judges have selected two winners, Lille in France and Genoa in northern Italy. In its choice of the former, as well as several towns in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, the European Commission has identified a place that fits its criteria perfectly.

Situated on the Deule River in northwestern France a few kilometres from the Belgian border, Lille has a complex history of ownership and occupation that is manifested today in its multicultural population and character.

The French settlement of L'Isle is first mentioned by name in a charter of 1066. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, merchants from Binges and Ghent trailed their wares through the town en route to fairs farther to the south. In the years that followed, the town changed hands between the Burgundian court and the Spanish royal family. It eventually came under French rule in 1663, when it was included in the dowry of Maria Theresa of Spain in her marriage to the Sun King Louis XIV. With the exception of two short periods of occupation during the 18th century, first by the Dutch and then by the Austrians, Lille has remained a part of France until the present day.

Today, it is France's fourth largest city. Its position as a thriving centre of finance and business provides a stark contrast to its socialist history as a textile production area and stands as a testament to its efficacious struggle throughout much of the 20th century to overcome mass unemployment. This year's acquisition of the coveted European Capital of Culture stamp represents the zenith of Lille's success story.

Formerly known as the European City of Culture, the initiative was conceived by the late Greek minister for culture Melina Mercouri, who was also known for her campaign for the return of the Parthenon marbles to Athens from tire British Museum. During the early 1980s, she felt that culture wasn't being afforded the same level of respect as politics or economics. So she introduced the plan to a receptive EC and, in 1985, Athens became the first city to be awarded the accolade.

Lille launched its year in the hot seat in December 2003. With its extensive rail links (it's en route from London to both Paris and Brussels on the Eurostar, which this year celebrates is tenth anniversary), Lille instantly fulfils one of the stipulations required of bidding applications for the Capital of Culture award: to improve access to, and to encourage visitors from, the rest of Europe and thereby enhance communication between countries and their people. Other selection criteria for potential bidders include the ability and intention to "promote events involving people active in culture" and to "enhance the historic heritage, urban architecture and quality of life in the city". …