MY ART ATTACK IN LILLE; Ian Hughes Enjoys French Culture

Article excerpt

THE large, mainly grey, concourse that greets you as you disembark from the Eurostar and subsequently Lille Europe Station, is a picture of the drab concrete dotted with glass-fronted food chains that populates pretty much every city in Europe.

This, coupled with an unusually dense fog blanketing nearly everything in sight, lent an eeriness to proceedings. By way of introduction to Lille, it was unspectacular. In little over 24 hours I would be standing more or less the same spot - but in the middle of well over 10,000 other people while the Lille Philharmonic Orchestra surged through Ravel's Bolero, backed by pyrotechnics and one of the best firework displays I have ever had the joy to witness.

It was powerful stuff. French President Francois Hollande would be standing on a bridge barely 20ft above my head.

The mist, it is important to note, was an art installation. Near enough everything in the city was during the first weekend of the arts festival, Lille 3000 - in French it rhymes: Lille Trois Mille.

Once you had walked fewer than 300 yards into the city proper, the grey concrete melted away rapidly.

A glare of neon pitted about store fronts near Lille Flandres Station shone through the October haze of drizzle and wind. It gave the city a hint of Blackpool about its Flemish baroque architecture. Instead of tackiness, this was a vision of threadbare charm and vibrance.

I was told by a local - formerly a resident of Edinburgh - that the people of France regard inhabitants of Lille in perhaps the same way the UK regards those of Newcastle.

Not wishing to make too much of a sweeping generalisation, but it is, I was told, the city in France where you would most likely find the women braving the depths of December in little more than a pair of heels. A fun place to be, she assured me.

There is also a local dialect, which she likened to Geordie, called Ch'ti (pronounced shtee). It was not as widely spoken as I had expected and my limited GCSE French could not pick out any discernible accent in the locals. But it did lend its name to one of the city's finer beers - after a few jars of the local produce, its pronunciation provided a source on near-endless enjoyment. To me and about three others, at least.

Beer, incidentally, forms a large part of what Lille has to offer a tourist. This is due in no small part to its proximity to Belgium and its historic ties to the county - Lille did not become part of France until some time in the 17th century.

There is wine, as you would expect with any large French city, but the selection of fine ales was extensive - including a lethal fruit beer brewed especially for the Lille 3000 festivities.

I was in the city for the launch of Lille 3000. Three months of art events were bursts of life from the embers of the city's title of European Capital of Culture 2004.

The legacy has taken the form of a huge arts and culture festival, held at three-yearly intervals and with a new theme each time. This instalment was suitably named Fantastic. The area's numerous art galleries played a full part in the celebrations - approximately 700 special exhibitions and art installations were spread across both the city and the outlying Greater Lille area. The aim of organisers was to transform the urban space into a magical wonderland.

In other words, Lille became a huge experimental canvas.

The festival, which has now drawn to a close, seemed to fit Lille. The city provided a perfect stage. I could have spent every one of my 48 hours there walking between gallery after gallery and still have some to spare.

Although I have never been able to class myself as an art aficionado, there was more than enough in the city to keep me thoroughly entertained.

What is not to love about a 12ft tall man made entirely of spaghetti? Or a bloodcovered skeleton smoking a cigarette? …