Lille’s flea market culture has some pedigree. After all, it is home to Europe’s largest in the form of La Braderie that takes over the city for two days in September every year, and is a tradition that stretches back to medieval times. So, having taken up a challenge from the owner (a Francophile) of Haslemere’s landmark Grade II listed hotel, The Georgian, to source a genuine French antique to compliment a Gallic theme for their new lounge-come-brasserie space, Lille was an ideal city to explore even during a crisp December weekend.
Eurostar deposits passengers at the business and residential quarter of Euralille, an architecturally refined and strikingly modern cluster of buildings that cleverly links them to the front of Gare De Lille Flandres, mostly under the canopy of the shopping mall’s avenues of retail heaven.
From Gare De Lille Flandres, the walk to the Grand’Place is a symbiosis of Franco-Flemish architectural styles and historic buildings. December heralds the start of festivities and so the historic square gives way to the glittering lights of the city’s Christmas market that spreads itself across the ancient cobbles. Even the giant Ferris wheel cannot upstage one of the city’s great buildings, The Vielle Bourse (Old Exchange); this was the vision of architect Julian Destrée, who built 24 adjoined houses in 1652. The majestic façade hides a beautifully arched internal courtyard where visitors leaf through the dusty tomes and journals from the few booksellers circuiting the inner sanctum of the building.
Waking early on Sunday morning, I head to Wazemmes Flea Market; the district of Wazemmes is one of Lille’s most multicultural and vibrant districts, just 10-minutes to the south of the centre yet light years away in terms of vibe. As if to confirm this, the pavement in front of ‘‘Marché de Wazemmes’’ is occupied by hipster activists armed with saxophones, trumpets, drums and a repertoire of Jazz tunes, to circulate their message to ‘‘Fight with music for the freedom of diversity, fair distribution of wealth and the joyful use of a public space!’’
With the sounds of a saxophone petering out, I snake past rows of fruit and veg sellers competing for passing trade with repeated shouts of “deux euro par kilo.’’ Moving deeper into the market, I pass electrical goods, cosmetics, shoes and clothes but there is little sign of any antiques.
Entering the covered market, as much for the aromas of local cheeses, baking bread and cured meats as to ask for directions; a strong waft of freshly ground coffee from L’Episcerie Equitable – a dried spice and tea outlet – is too good to ignore. It is also another chance to sit and observe the badinage between sellers and consumers from my perch. ‘‘Le Brocantes on-y-va,’’ the barista says pointing to another exit.
The antique and bric-a-brac stalls of the flea market sweep around the foot of Saint Pierre Saint Paul Church every Sunday. Whilst few in number, their disparate, vintage and antique objects provide an unconscious historical narrative to the city which slowly emerges as one eventually visits the key sites across the Lille and Nord-Pas-de-Calais region.
My eyes are immediately drawn to several art-deco bronze figurines in stylised poses, balanced upon their marble bases; closer inspection, however, shows them to be modern and simply cast.
Zig-zagging between stalls, ignoring the seemingly endless amounts of glass and chinaware, searching above and below the table-tops of contrasting items, my attention is caught by a frayed tricolour service ribbon, whose medal is date stamped 1942. It accompanies other ephemera relating to both World Wars, including shell cases that now carry intricate metal work designs to postcards of soldiers heading to the Front during WW1. These items point towards the key figures and sites that are a must to explore; the Lilloise are very proud that Charles De Gaulle was born in their city and his birth house (a museum and historic monument) is restored to its 1890s glory, at 9 Rue de Princesse.
An intricately carved section of wood is a tempting purchase and easily envisaged within The Georgian Hotel but is too large to carry. Its hand-carved ornate swirls of dark, solid wood reminds me of the entrance to another of Lille’s famous sites, the Hospice Comtesse, a former hospital founded in 1237, situated along Rue de la Monnaie, a cobbled street to the rear of the Gothic church of Notre Dame de la Treille.
Looking behind one seller to a table next to the open door of his van, I spot a brass lamp; solid, heavy and well-made. It clearly has age and remnants of candle-wax in its base. Stamped into the brass it reads ‘‘Luchaire – Rue Erard. 27 – Paris.’’ Léon-Henri Victor Luchaire (1830-1899) was an entrepreneur who specialised in producing lamps for various industries including the Railways. The antique is circa 1870 and the dealer believes it to be a railway Carbide lamp. Without hesitation, offers are exchanged until the dealer accepts a fair price.
The lamp will soon be heading to Surrey. Energised by seeing such an eclectic mix of objet d’art, the nearby Palais des Beaux-Arts museum, home to France’s second largest art collection outside the Louvre, deserves time to be enjoyed. The museum displays work from Picasso to Goya and Rembrandt to Rubens.
Having found The Georgian Hotel a small piece of French antiquity, thoughts of returning next September for La Braderie, to brave its 200km of stalls lining the ancient streets, seems a little less daunting and would surely secure me another ‘‘Lille’’ bargain.
For more information about Lille, go to en.lilletourism.com. To book with Eurostar, go to www.eurostar.com or call +44 (0)3432 186 186. For more information about The Georgian Hotel, go to www.georgianhotelsurrey.com.