Gillian Thornton shares some of her favourite art museums, just a short hop away across the Channel in Northern France.
Take your car or travel by train to France’s ‘Region of Culture’ to enjoy centuries of stunning artworks in some of Europe’s most unusual buildings. Whatever your taste in paintings or sculptures, ceramics, glassware or textiles, you’ll find it here with nearly 50 museums classified as Musées de France, the highest concentration anywhere in the country.
New kid on the block is Louvre-Lens, first satellite museum of The Louvre, which opened its doors in December 2012 on the site of an old colliery. Around 90 minutes from Calais by car and half an hour by local train from Lille, Lens had become one of the poorest cities in Northern France, following the closure of the last mine in the 1990s. The new museum however is the flagship project of a huge urban regeneration programme in the former mining basin, now listed by UNESCO for its industrial heritage.
The brand-new, single-storey museum building is light, bright and calm, totally different in style from its Parisian cousin. Around 200 artefacts from antiquity to the 19th century are displayed permanently in the Gallery of Time, where visitors can view the exhibits in any order with guidance from a MP3 player. Another wing houses special exhibitions combining items from The Louvre with artefacts from local collections.
Totally different in style is La Piscine, a stunning example of how an existing building can be put to new use. Once the public swimming pool for textile workers in Roubaix, the Art Deco building has been given a new lease of life as the town’s Art and Industry Museum, just a short bus ride from Lille. The central hall with its ‘sunshine’ window of coloured glass is hugely atmospheric, the marble figures reflected in water and polished wood against a periodic soundtrack of happy bathers from times gone by.
Wildly different again is Lille Métropole – or LaM – at Villeneuve d’Asq on the outskirts of Lille, which numbers paintings and sculptures by Picasso in its permanent Modern Art collection alongside collections of Contemporary Art and Art Brut. The angular brick buildings stand in a large park dotted with huge modern sculptures that are guaranteed to challenge perceptions and provoke debate.
Lille has an excellent Fine Arts Museum in the centre of the city, as does nearby Arras, a historic town that also boasts two huge market squares fringed with gabled houses and stone arcades that were totally rebuilt after the Battle of Arras in 1917.
The Nord-Pas de Calais region offers a wealth of both city and countryside accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. I enjoyed an overnight stay at La Maison Rouge in Noeux-les-Mines near Louvre-Lens. With 40 bedrooms decorated in red, black and white, this 3-star red brick hotel serves innovative cuisine in classically elegant surroundings.
For B&B with style, I can also recommend La Cour des Grands at St Nicolas on the outskirts of Arras. This delightful property is just ten minutes on foot from the city centre, and offers four charming bedrooms, a quiet riverside garden, and charming owners.
Details of other regional museums from www.northernfrance-tourism.com