After our week in Brugesnyland, we were ready for something a little more real! The heir to the Goodrich tire company had told us that Lille was a gritty town, so off to France we went! Only an hour’s drive from our prior destination, the ‘Zoundsmobile made record time. 550 topless horsepower worth of red and silver blur roaring their way across the… wait… no… actually, the hobbled beast was still stuck on a boat, somewhere between Atlanta and Nova Scotia. But that mattered not, as we had the fortune to rent an absolutely KILLER Volkswagon with a whopping 1.2 liter engine. Take that, America! How ya gonna beat that? Huh? Huh?
We were expecting French food to be the best. It’s what we’ve heard. It’s what you’ve heard. Well…oui et non. Lille, being a “normal” city as opposed to ridiculously touristy, had a wide range of fast food, reasonable dining food, casual cafes, and swanky restaurants. Competition in the main town square kept prices very decent, for the most part, and we took advantage. Sautéed mussels, which cost 25 euros in EVERY restaurant in Bruges could be had for less than 9 euros in Lille, and were absolutely delicious. Steak on the other hand, which we expected to be on par with the fantastic steak in Bruges, was tough. Now, we knew the French serve horsemeat, but at least warn us first! So it was a bit hit-or-miss. But overall, you could get cheap, decent food which you wouldn’t write home about… or blog about… so we’ll move on to other topics and save the big French food critique for another time.
What you do need to partake of is a bit of the French lifestyle–sit at a sidewalk café and spend a few hours drinking your cappuccinos and Stellas while you could otherwise be productive. With every coffee, you get a tiny ginger cookie. And with every beer, you get a tiny bit drunker. Good times!
Oh… and one last thing. Lillians (Lilliputians?) have this odd habit of working from 10 to 12 and then 2 to 7. One day, we walked into a restaurant at around 12:30, and asked to be seated for food. The bartender eyed us nervously, said “un moment, s’il vous plait,” and snuck into the back. He came out a short while later and told us that he was very sorry, but the chef had taken off for lunch. Waitaminutewhatdidhejustsay?!?!???! A second gentleman, looking very dapper, we must add, emerged from the back, apologized with a tear-jerkingly heartfelt, “je suis desole,” with sad, French eyes, lit a cigarette, and walked out the door with his backpack on his shoulder. The bartender explained, “that was the chef.”
What can we say about the Lilliputians? (It’s really Lillians, but we like Lilliputians better, even though they tend to be tall… so we guess it’s sort of an ironic name, like calling the 6’6” 350 pound linebacker on your football team ‘Tiny.’) What were we talking about… oh… yes… the peoples! These are some of the genuinely happiest and friendliest people we have ever met. We thought the French were supposed to be rude and arrogant. Why are they trying to end that myth? These are the people who will taunt you a second time (at least the Brits would have you think so.) Instead, you can’t go anywhere without someone telling you “bonjour” and giving you a smile. And when we were a tad lost upon arrival in the town, asking a strange (well dressed, and smelling quite lovely, we might add) woman for help resulted in her leading us to our destination. What the hell?!? We’re from New York. We’re not used to this craziness!
A Note About Style: Speaking of unusual things… OK, America. Listen up. And I’m only going to say this once (today): you need to work on your style game. You’ve totally let it slip. The French are KILLING you. First of all, you don’t see people in Lille who are overweight (except for the occasional American tourist–It’s true). You really don’t! Yeah yeah… I get it. It’s hard with all the hours you put in and your glandular condition, the meds you were given as a child for your ADHD-PTSD-IRS-LOL, and the fact that you can order general Tso’s pork fried lo-mein with a free egg roll and 16 ounce coke at 3 in the morning. But seriously, cut the crap. You know you don’t have to weigh that much. And your clothing? We didn’t see anyone going to the store in sweatpants. Or flip-flops. Or with sunglasses and a hat to hide their face because they couldn’t be bothered to wash their hair that week and fix their makeup. It was the exact opposite. EVERYONE looked good. They didn’t have to look great, but they had to look good. Clothes FIT–they weren’t too small or too large. They weren’t 45 years old and wearing t-shirts which read “I’m not a gynecologist, but I’ll take a look.” Men were well groomed. Women had their makeup and hair done—and we’re including old ladies who had nowhere to go… you’d see them all over the salons getting dolled up for no one in particular. But at the end of the day, you walked past them and felt better about life, because you just passed someone who cared. And because you just got a whiff of some fantastic perfume. We did mention that they all smell good, right?
Is there a reason to do all this? NO! It’s pointless in the grand scheme of a strictly deterministic universe for a seventy year old to doll herself up with makeup, pay to have her hair done, dip into her perfume collection, and walk proudly amongst the living. But you know what else is pointless? Billie Jean era Michael Jackson, and we couldn’t and shouldn’t live without that! Between the effort and the accent, the French have leapt into the top spot on the sexy scale. There are just no two ways about it. Best looking people? No. But definitely the ones you most wished you had known more of back when you were single.
Not one person in this photograph is underdressed, we promise.
A note to the French: Just because we’re loving on you doesn’t mean you’re blameless. For God’s sake, GET OUT OF THE SUN!!! You all look twice your age because you use every opportunity you can to bake your faces into crispy golden nuggets. We get that it looks temporarily good, but nobody likes making out with a baseball glove. (Nidal certainly didn’t. Don’t ask.) And if you don’t know what baseball is, it’s a formerly cool game where men with sticks hit each other’s balls. Sadly, it turned uncool when it was revealed that they were all on steroids the whole time, much like your Tour de Bikes, or whatever it’s called. (But we still love you.)
We’re talking about the physical city which is left after the zombie apocalypse empties the land here, so pay attention. It might just save you from having your face eaten off (no it won’t). The architecture in old Lille is a proper mix of Neo-Gothic, Flemish Renaissance Revival, and Neo-Classical Beaux Arts (whatever that means… just look at the pretty pictures, will you?)
The Chamber of Commerce building (that’s ‘Chambre De Commerce’ for those of you who ne parle pas d’Anglais), also housing the post-office, is one of the centerpieces of the town, with a wonderful clock tower visible for quite a distance (assuming the narrow streets and dense buildings don’t conspire to block your view). Columns, arches, statues, and unnecessary flourishes of beauty abound. You can spend all day walking around, looking up in this town. The integration of a modern, living town with boutiques, restaurants, and cafes has not hurt the ornate façade the same way it has in other cities. These are the French, after all. They know how to do subtle/sexy with a side of grit better than anyone we’ve seen.
The streets towards the center of town are a maze, with some streets designated as pedestrian-only, while others are pedestrian only for a bit, then switch into automobile-accessible. It’s enough to give you navigational fits (though a current GPS map tends to do just fine.) You’ll find free parking in the park by the Citadel, which is an old renaissance-era star fortress (awesome!), still used as a military barracks to this day (more awesome with two exclamation points!!), and inaccessible to the public without a pre-arranged tour (boo, hiss).
Just to let you know, Lille has a lot of underground parking. But we’re not so sure about the elevators used to get you in and out. Looks to us like you’ll either be beamed up, or send on an Excellent Adventure with Keanu Reaves and that other guy.
Otherwise, it’s about 2 euros an hour to park in the old town on the street and you have to keep coming back to your car every hour or so to feed the meters so you won’t eat a fat ticket. You don’t want any part of that, unless you’re unnecessarily rich, in which case, you should go to Paris.
In the center of town is the fabulous Cathedral of Notre Dame De La Treille. This monumental neo-gothic masterpiece has a rear façade brimming with gargoyles and grotesques, and a front-façade later renovated in an art-deco style which seems totally incongruent with the interior and rest of the structure.
Etymological side panel of the day–Gargoyle vs Grotesque: A gargoyle is a decorative figure, human or animal, with the functional use of diverting water away from a structure (like a giant spitting gutter-spout). A grotesque is similar to a gargoyle, but does not have the functional purpose of diverting liquid. Both also had a purpose as ornaments to ward off evil spirits as well as to educate the illiterate masses. Of course, this meant that they would be built in ugly and frightening forms, which is why we take the word “grotesque” in our current speech to mean just that. However, the derivation of the word “grotesque” comes from the Italian ‘grotteschi’ or grottoes, and refers to the excavated findings in Roman homes of statues serving similar ornamental functions. Oh, those goofy Italians! If only they could build a reliable motorcycle! (wait… what?) When gargoyles reappeared in Europe during the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Church was strengthening. As most living at that time were illiterate, these images, often of anthropomorphized creatures, displayed imagery the pagans believe to have mystical powers, and the Church’s use of this imagery helped drive conversions. Church Marketing, 104.
The structure of the cathedral is positively epic. The front façade contains a 6.5 meter (that’s 21 feet to you non-metricites) diameter stained glass fixture which offers a different take on the massive 17 meter (56 foot) older horizontal stained glass windows to the rear of the cathedral…yet due to the color palate and the repetition of round forms, the styles don’t clash.
Click images for much larger image link.
The stained glass windows tell several stories, such as that of Joan of Arc (which was installed before she had been canonized by the Church.) One of the more fascinating chapels is that of Saint Charles Le Bon, which includes a thousand year old relic of the saint. I guess you can call it the Chapel of Saint Charles Le Bone (see what I did there?) Touch it, and we’re sure you’ll either be turned into a wisp of ashy smoke, or lifted up on a beam of light to take your place amongst the saints of old.
What to do?
We’d suggest hitting the clubs. There are French people there! And we’ve already established how sexy the French are, with their sensible diets and keen fashion sense (and in the clubs, it’s too dark to see their leathery skin). But we were only there on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so we needed to find something we thought would be a bit less exciting. Boy, were we wrong!
We managed to find our way to the Palais Des Beaux Arts, which happens to be the second largest art museum in France after the Louvre.
On top of that, we did the math, and the place is visited by less than 1000 people a day. While 1000 sounds like a large number, remember that this place is huge, so it really feels very open and relaxed. There are no throngs of people elbowing you for a view of that Picasso. You have all the time you need to stroll about and examine what you wish.*
*Note: as mentioned in the food section, the French have a very odd way of pausing work: between 12 and 2, the entire lower floor is closed. It houses a fantastic medieval/renaissance exhibit which should not be missed! See it early, or see it late, but see it. Don’t let the Frenchies’ poor work ethic deter you!
The museum itself is housed in a fantastic building, which you’d assume to be Beaux Arts style (duh) but looks more like neo-classical to us. But what the hell do we know? We’re just a biochemist-come-forced-mechanic and someone who now wishes she had gotten her 3.999 GPA in Art History as opposed to Business Management/Finance. If anyone can explain the architectural nuances of this building to us, by all means, please do so. We want to learn!
So where do you start in this amazing museum? One name: BOSCH!!!! That’s right, folks, this is the SECOND time in a week we had seen an actual Hieronymus Bosch painting.
Think about that. Over 70 years of combined life on this planet, and we hadn’t seen one until a week ago, and now a second! Run THAT by your actuaries. Except we’re in France, so the museum’s powers-that-be changed the man’s name on the placards from Hieronymus Bosch to Jerome Bosch. Jerome. That means every time we watch Seinfeld, we’re going to be thinking of him as Hieronymus Seinfeld. Awesome! The painting, “Concert Dans L’oeuf,” or Concert Inside the Egg shows a scene just as the title suggests, but with bonuses, like a hand reaching out to grill a fish?! Who thinks up of this stuff? Only Bosch! Jerry Bosch! That’s who. If you don’t love this fantastical mild acid-trip, you need to have your head examined.
By way of displaying this one work, this museum had already won. But it had more to give; displayed by the Jerry Bosch was ‘Vanite’ by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (that sounds nasty, I hope it’s not contagious).
The style of this painter was Antwerp mannerism, developed in the 16th century. Strong, almost abrasively vivid colors and shadows highlight muscular, powerful Schwarzenegger arms and neck on… a female? What are we looking at exactly? Her gestures and expression are dramatic and her costume lavish. Butterfly wings, a skull reflected in a mirror, something written in Latin. Yeah, this is bad news for the vain! Learn Latin and figure it out. It’s easy. The Romans spoke it, and most of them were illiterate, so how hard could it be? “Ecce rapinam omnium rerum” (something about death and all that… too grim to translate for our happy tale… we should move on to something more upbeat…)
So let’s talk about Jesus being nailed to the cross, shall we? We’re in Europe. You KNEW it was going to come up at the museum. At least it’s not EVERY painting. But it is cool to compare and contrast, isn’t it? So with all the Jesus/Cross painting out there, how do you make yours cooler? You make it BIGGER! And that’s precisely what Peter Paul Rubens did with his “La Descente de Croix” (Descent from the Cross.)
Look at the size of that thing! Rubens (who would argue to his dying day that size really DOES matter) was a big fan of exploring religious and mythological themes in large-scale paintings which used the vibrant interaction between color and light to display the human form. This Flemish Baroque painter from the seventeenth-century was famous for producing Counter-Reformation altarpieces and portraits, as well as pieces about allegorical subjects and mythology. It’s true! Look it up! What’s the other major observation one can make looking at this Rubens shot? That the woman admiring the painting is most definitely NOT French, with her ill-fitting clothes. Get a tailor, hippie!
When we move on to the Renaissance pieces, we delve even deeper into Jesus-art. I mean, these people had to catch the fast train to Heaven, so they needed to put their work in! We first have an excerpt from “Le Couronnement de la Vierge” by Anvers (well, maybe it was some guy called “Anvers”… sometimes, these things aren’t known for sure, so it’s the curators’ best guess).
In it, Jesus is helping to crown Mary. But not just ANY Mary! Nay! In this case, Jesus is teaching the unwashed masses (literally—this is the middle ages—they were unwashed) that He DOES love the hydrocephalics. (He always hated it when Hulk would beat The Leader.)
Moving on, we then see what was one of the coolest triptychs out there. I call it “Hot Tub Jesus”.
The center of the image is literally a giant tub full of Jesus Blood (it’s not tomato juice, right?) with a group of people bathing/splashing/lamenting/I-don’t-know-what in it. I KNOW there are art history majors or religious zealots out there who can explain this to us. Please do. We’d really like to know! So would the rest of the group who managed to read this far down the page. Jean Bellegambe calls his painting “Triptyque du Bain Mystique,” or Triptych of the Mystical Bath. That would certainly be fitting!
The last of the “Jesus” group is a work by the AWESOME Dieric Bouts. The Flemish Primitive, influenced by Van Eyck, painted the marvelous “The Way to Paradise” and “The Fall of the Damned.” Now, you might remember that we mentioned these two artists in our report from Bruges. If not, you get a demerit for not paying attention. Bouts has a work in the St. Salvador church museum entitled “Martyrdom of Saint Hippolytus” which depicts the saint being drawn and quartered by four horses (I guess it would be hard to be quartered by three horses.) It was seriously cool, on account of being so casually grotesque (there goes that word again). You know what was seriously uncool? That the museum part of the church didn’t allow photography. Boo! Hiss! Time to get a spy camera next time we’re in NYC. But, in the Palais Des Beaux Arts, you CAN take pics of Bouts’ work… if you could get past the ONLY crowd we had seen in the entire joint!
To see it from the comfort of your smartphone, you can easily find the entire work online photographed significantly better than the glare-filled shot we managed to capture, but we did include a close-up of “The Fall of the Damned” for your viewing pleasure.
And THAT’S how the damned get treated! Suck it, damned! The saddest thing is that the two pieces on display are the side panels to a triptych, and the central piece has been lost to the ages. A travesty!!! (Jesus’ bust from the central panel is somewhere in Sweden, actually. The rest of this panel hasn’t been seen in quite a few hundred years.) Not coincidentally, Bouts had a profound influence on Jerry Bosch (whose other influence probably came from the business end of a magic mushroom).
Moving on to more modern pieces, one you’ll instantly recognize (though you won’t know the name) is “London Parliament” by Claude Monet.
Now, if you’re thinking, ‘wait a minute… I’ve seen this at the British Museum, and the Met, and the Louvre,” well then you probably have. Monet painted several of these, each cool, and each slightly different (kind of like all the Jesus paintings out there). One (odd) thing we love about this work is the thickness of the paint.
An interesting pair of painting displayed by Amaury Duval are “Naissance de Venus” and “Femme de Saint-Jean-de-Luz”. Similar, yet different women inhabit these works. One, a goddess, unashamedly bares all while the other, a mortal, goes as far as covering her hair in modesty. Yet both women pose looking to their left, in front of an ocean setting, and both capture the viewer’s attention and imagination for a good long time (enough to make security guards rather uncomfortable, it turns out.) Duval shows his true mastery of using the subtlest of skin tones in crafting these two ladies’ features.
Bitch stole my look!
Edouard Pignon, a man heavily influenced by the cubism of Picasso, painted “Le Meeting,” using flat colors and thick rings, as well as the ‘golden rule.’ The son of a miner, and a skilled worker working in several factories (building cars, of all things), he took up a serious art career when he lost his factory job and turned his efforts to lithography. If you don’t know what lithography is, it’s when you graph liths. In any case, the scene depicted in the painting alludes to his membership in the Communist party. Yup. Alllll about making workers’ lives better. That’s exactly how communism worked out!
Le Palais also has a small but world class sculpture collection. As you enter the exhibit, you are greeted by Emmanuel Frémiet’s neoclassical life-sized “Le Chevalier Errant,” which, if you know horses, you know is positively massive. Management frowns upon your trying to climb the back of the beast for a cool vacation photo. We recommend not listening to them. (but you should probably see the rest of the exhibit first)
Forget Le Chevalier, we want to know what the chick on the lower right is up to!
Perhaps the most surprising of sculptures is the work of François Dominique Aimé Milhomme’s (try saying HIS name fast 5 times in a row). As you enter the room, you’re presented with the work’s back, which looks to be typical of a beautifully carved Roman seductress. But as you round the statue, you’re presented with… a surprise. My cousin who recently returned from Thailand whispered of a similar experience in hushed tones.
Oh yeah… and the work’s name is “Hermaphrodite,” in case you were still wondering.
Look at that ass… he must do a LOT of StairMaster!
What Pradier did to cause the 1834 scandal was to use his mistress as the model for the ‘bacchante’ while he imposed his own face on that of the Satyr. We are still waiting to hear what Mrs. Pradier thought about all this. The government of Louis-Phillipe (the prude), refused to purchase the work. But a cool cat named Count Anatole Demidoff stepped in and scooped it up for his palazzo in Florence, no doubt so he could tell 1830’s ladies, “want to come back to the Count’s Palazzo in Firenze and watch some dirty sculpture?”
On to less naked matters…. or maybe not. Displayed prominently in the sculpture gallery is the life-sized “La Verite,” or The Truth, by Jules Cavelier, naked in all her glorious (im)perfection. In her right hand, she holds up a mirror to challenge the viewers to bare all to themselves (we don’t mean that literally… you’re already in trouble with the staff for trying to climb that horse). Her raised cloak evokes a single wing, as if to say that though she is a goddess, she too is not perfect. Absolutely mesmerizing!
There are other fantastic works in the sculpture gallery, including Rodin’s massive “The Shadow,” and you can spend hours staring at works which you’d swear are staring back disconcertingly, trying to consume you while offering you knowledge, giving you an eerie and exhilarating feeling all at once. Speaking of Rodin, we saw his sculptures in no less than 3 separate exhibits in the museum. In one temporary exhibit, 5 separate foot-tall statues stood together. Collectively known as “Les bourgeois de Calais,” each was named after a man who probably never imagined he would be immortalized in black bronze for millions to see.
And if you want to see a different type of sculpture, how about one of an entire medieval town? But it’s not a sculpture in the usual sense… it’s a completely fabricated miniature relief map of a French town, complete with trees, homes, etc. which are each a fraction of an inch tall. Occasionally, you might get the grandiose cathedral measuring in at 2 inches! The nerve! And if this one display weren’t enough, there are “maps” of about 20 of these towns. Someone’s back must have been hurting big time.
And if all THAT isn’t cool enough for you, there’s one more work the likes of which we had never seen. “Dessins prepatatoires pour l’installation ‘Extases'” by Ernest Pignon-Ernest (we would have just gone with Ernest Ernest, or Ernest²) is a massive piece drawn in charcoal on gargantuan paper depicting seven female mystics, each presented individually in her state of rapture.
It’s alright… you can look. It’s art! Tell THAT to HR when they catch you surfing this.
Rodin, Bosch, Rubens, Bouts, Monet. Tons of others. What are you waiting for? Get into your rented 1.2 liter VW Golf and get down there ASAP!