The road from Roubaix led us to Lille and Arras and the stunningly beautiful WWI Vimy Ridge Memorial.
Roubaix is a small city in northern France, located 10 miles (15km) northeast of Lille and very close to the Belgian border. The current population is ~97,000 inhabitants, making it the third largest city in the French region of Hauts-de-France. Roubaix had Flanders rulers for so many years that the local dialect remains a mix of French and Flemish; locally called Roubaignot.
In 2000 the city received a coveted designation of ‘Town of Art and History’ and we saw quite a number of historical and artistic sculptures and memorial monuments. The city of Roubaix has been a popular filming location, with more than 20 international movies to their credit. It is also home to the highly acclaimed La Piscine museum; a museum that is housed in the Art Deco-style former swimming pool of Roubaix. Unfortunately the day we set aside to visit, the museum was closed so all we could do was peek through the iron grates. We instead strolled through the center of the city admiring the beautiful churches, the architecture of the train and subway stations and especially enjoyed the mix of older building facades next to imaginative newer contemporary buildings.
Our spacious and comfortable Roubaix apartment was on the top floor of a 7-story building so we enjoyed sweeping views of the town and hills beyond. The nearest tram stop was conveniently located mere steps away from our front door providing easy access to Lille and beyond.
It was a stormy day the day we visited Arras so after a hurried exploration of the town we elected to stop for an early light dinner away from one of the downpours.
Arras, population ~40,000, is one of the older towns we visited in this region and it is believed to have been established during the Iron Age by the Gauls.
The city is known for its architecture, culture, and history and our favorite and most memorable site was the Beffroi d’Arras, or Belfry of Arras which is attached to the city hall. The belfry was built in 1554 and has twice been rebuilt using the exact same design as the original. The striking roof design on the city hall also caught our eye. The Belfry is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list along with other belfries in France and Belgium. There are two magnificent baroque squares (La Place des Héros and La Grand’Place) but surprisingly the larger square is used for parking; definitely detracting from its surrounding beauty. It was the first square we have seen where the main historic center square has been turned into a parking lot.
Arras was the site of battles in both World War I and II as the nearby memorials, museums and cemeteries attest. The magnificent Canadian National Vimy Memorial is just outside of town so a brief stop in Arras before heading to the memorial is definitely worthwhile.
Vimy Ridge – National Vimy Memorial
The impressive National Vimy Memorial pays tribute to the 60,000 Canadians who fought and died during World War I. It also commemorates the 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were missing and presumed dead in France and that have no known grave.
Candian artist, Walter Allward designed and built this outstanding monument. He sourced his limestone from an ancient Roman quarry found near the town of Seget, Croatia. Construction began in 1925 and finished 11 years later, when in 1936, King Edward VIII unveiled the Vimy Memorial.
Two magnificent white pylons stand 120 feet tall (30 meters). They are meant to represent the shared sorrow and sacrifice of war for Canada and France; one with a carving of the Canadian maple leaf, the other has the fleur-de-lis for France. The French suffered ~150,000 casualties in their attempts to gain control of Vimy Ridge and the surrounding territory.
In addition to the 2 pylons, there are 20 exquisitely sculpted human figures as part of the monument.
- There are 8 figures on the top of the pylons representing Justice, Peace, Hope, Charity, Honour, Faith, Truth and Knowledge. Peace is the highest figure reaching upwards with a torch.
- Between the pylons are 2 figures that represent sacrifice. One is a dying soldier who has passed a torch to his comrade.
- Two groups of figures located at each end of the front wall comprise seven figures called The Defenders. There are 3 figures called Breaking of the Sword on the southern corner of the front wall and 4 figures called Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless at the north corner of the front wall.
- The 2 reclining figures on the back side of the memorial represent the mourning mothers and fathers of Canada’s war dead.
- The 1 solitary female figure draped in a cloak, stands on the wall on the north-eastern side of the memorial. She is bowing her head looking down at a stone coffin below her. This figure is called Mother Canada or Canada Bereft and she represents the nation of Canada grieving for her dead.
The land at Vimy Ridge although officially not part of Canada, the French government, in 1922, granted to “the Government of Canada, gracefully and forever, free use of the land, free of any form of tax.” It is however still subject to French law.
National Vimy Memorial is the most prestigious landmark in Europe we visited and one not to be missed.
Surrounding much of the memorial are fields full of craters and unexploded munitions that still lie beneath the surface of the fields. For public safety the fields are fenced off and cannot be entered. A herd of sheep keep the grass trimmed and are light enough not to damage the pocked shaped shell holes of the landscape.
Although the Memorial is the centrepiece of the 250-acre park that was once a part of the Battle of Vimy Ridge battlefield, there are several other memorials and cemeteries guests can visit. We joined a tour led by a young college student who pointed out that many soldiers would have been of her same age. It was a poignant reminder that thousands of youths sadly lost their lives while still in their teens and early 20’s. She took us through World War I tunnels and trenches noting the dismal living conditions, the grueling work required to build trenches and pointing out that the distance between enemy trenches could have been anywhere between 50-250 yards (15-75 meters) apart.
In the Middle Ages, Lille, along with Roubaix, was considered one of the great Flemish centers and this delightful capital of the northern Hauts-de-France region only became part of France in the mid-17th century when Louis XIV invaded. Lille’s beautiful baroque architecture in the historical centre reflects that heritage. Elsewhere in the city we spotted wonderfully restored 18th and 19th century homes tucked away on narrow and winding cobbled streets.
We discovered that France’s most famous president, Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was born in Lille. Also from Lille came Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) the French biologist, microbiologist and chemist who created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. Pasteur is renowned for his invention of the technique of treating milk and wine to stop bacterial contamination, a process named after him, called pasteurization.
La Vieille Bourse is the eye-catching 365+ year old stock exchange building, and along with its neighboring clock tower, we felt, were two of the most outstanding and ornate buildings in Lille.
Lille had wonderful Mexican art sculptures called Eldorado installed all along both sides of one it’s streets in front of Lille-Flandres train station. We noticed 10 brightly colored 20-foot tall (6 meters) wooden sculptures called “alebrijes”, which are Mexican folk art fantastical creatures. This open-air street museum will host these temporary sculptures until December this year. We had seen hand sized alebrijes during our visits to Mexico but these giants were outstanding.
Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse
The Museum of the Hospice of the Countess is housed in Countess Jeanne of Flanders palace in Lille. She founded the hospital in 1237 inside a part of her palace. This compelling museum showed 17th century wood paneling, wood floors and tiled walls. The kitchens and living rooms are full of furnishings, sculptures, paintings, tapestries and other art and gold objects. We walked through a lovely chapel, a pharmacy and a medicinal garden, each needed to support the hospital. Although not as highly rated as most museums we attend, we felt this one was extremely well presented and provided a wonderful piece of Lille history.
Palais des Beaux Arts
The Fine Arts Museum of Lille claims to be the second largest art gallery in France, after the Louvre in Paris. We did spend a number of hours exploring the multiple levels and thought it was an exceptional gallery. Apparently Napoleon distributed his spoils of war throughout the galleries in France and Lille received quite a number of very beautiful and valuable pieces. The Flemish masters are well represented as are many of the french masters. The sculptures we thought that were included in the show were extraordinary.
One entire floor had a collection of 18th-century scale models of cities from around Belgium and northern France. Each was incredibly artistic, accurate and detailed. Displaying the 300 year old scale models in an art gallery was a brilliant idea.
Basilique-cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-la-Treille de Lille
The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille or simply Lille Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Lille. The foundation was laid in 1854 but it was not completed until 1999. The cathedral was named after a 12th century statue of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of the Treille that has miracles attributed to it.
The contemporary components and simple lines within this Cathedral are a refreshing change from older churches. We particularly liked the addition of two cubist style pieces of tile art by Francesca Guerrier. This church left us feeling uplifted, cheerful and peaceful by the time we exited it.
It seems the Lillois take there time when building churches. It took 150 years to build Notre-Dame as mentioned in the above paragraph and it took them 500 years to build Église Saint-Maurice.
The church has been bombed three times, in 1914, 1916 and 1942 and as a result several stain glass windows have been replaced. The new beautiful replacement windows can be seen in the photo link below. The Saint-Maurice church has two organs: A large organ, built in 1877 and a choir organ, built in 1882. We are humbled each time we see (in a number of France’s churches) beautiful plaques acknowledging and commemorating the British Empire’s one million soldiers that lost their lives in France in World War I.
It was another enjoyable and busy week experiencing Vimy Ridge Memorial and exploring Arras, Roubaix and Lille. The city of Lille was a much larger city and more populous with 236,000 inhabitants, and therefore had more sites to visit. This region of France is well-known for its Flemish roots and it was wonderful to get to know a little more of this fascinating country.
Santé from these Roubaisiens
Ted and Julia