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French coal mines give way to spectacular art attractions

By Ron Smith

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THE north of France, the part closest to the UK, is usually overlooked as a holiday destination, but it has so much to offer and is developing its many attractions. One example is the Louvre, at Lens.

The Louvre, in Paris, was the royal palace from the Middle Ages up to the French revolution, when it became a museum and art gallery. It is the largest in France. I have been there, and remember endless queues to get in and difficulty in seeing the famous paintings for the crowds.

Like most museums and art galleries, the Louvre has a great many items that it just does not have room to display, and so in 2003 it came up with the idea of rotating the exhibits throughout France, asking for regions to come up with ideas. The Nord Pas de Calais region responded (the only one to do so) and pledged to build a new Louvre at Lens. The region already has 49 museums classified as ‘Musée de France’ and over 150 other themed museums; this new one would add to the attraction.

The north-east was the big coal mining area of France, but has suffered closures and a steady bleeding of jobs. Developing tourism was seen as helping turn the tide – and it has succeeded. The first sod was dug on November 16, 2009, on the site of coal mine shaft number 9, which was closed in the 1960s and had been a derelict wasteland in the centre of Lens. The 150 million Euro Louvre Lens (financed 80% by the region) was opened to the public in December, 2012, and is confidently expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year. I went to see it.

To get there from here is easy. Air France fly from Aberdeen to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport three times a day. From the airport railway station, sleek TGV express trains run every hour to Lille, taking just an hour. Lille has lots of cultural events, it was European Capital of Culture in 2004, so there are shows and expositions all year round. It is also the capital of shopping, with 3,900 shops. Between the main railway station, Lille Flandres, and the new Lille Europe station where the trains to and from the UK arrive, there is a massive retail centre.

With lots to see, minibus guided tours set off every hour from the tourist office, but there is also a metro system with two lines, two tramway routes and 60 bus lines. The fare is 1.40 Euros for the entire network. A day pass costs just 4 Euros (see www.transpole.fr)

There is also a self-service bike hire system (with the bicycles being made in Lille), electro bike hire, electric bike hire, scooters and Segways, and even a cycle taxi service.

Very useful is the City Pass www.destination-lille-metropole.eu which costs 20 Euros for 24 hours up to 45 Euros for 72 hours, and it comes with vouchers for the bus tour, discounts in shops, and access to museums. I am a fan of Lille. I stayed in one of the two Novotel hotels in the city centre, not far from the railway stations. They are high quality and affordable, and a good base from which to explore the city (see www.novotel.com)

For more information about Lille look to the “Lille – a giant- sized attraction” article in this Travel section on 23.1.2012.

From Lille Flandres station there are many trains to Lens, at least one an hour, taking from 37 minutes to 52 minutes, and the return fare is £7.50 adult.

From the railway station at Lens a broad walkway (it used to be a railway siding into the old mine) takes you directly to the new Louvre, in about 15 minutes walking. On the way you can see brick terraced houses, old coal miners’ cottages. Every now and then a row of houses will be punctuated by nice villas, which were the manager’s houses.

Approaching the Louvre, you are struck by the parkland surrounding it, and the low lying buildings. The parkland has been cleverly designed to give 11 entrances that lead to the main entrance to the Louvre. It is also used for concerts, cultural exhibitions, shows and events so that it is integrated into the Louvre, and also available to the local inhabitants.

The building is spectacular. It is deliberately low lying so that it does not overwhelm the surrounding terraced houses. It is several flat roofed buildings linked together, made from polished aluminium and glass, and reflects the green parkland and daylight, so it fits in harmoniously with the area but at the same time is absolutely striking. The winding path to the front entrance passes a separate circular building in the same glass and aluminium, which is the restaurant; no junk food here, the chef has two Michelin stars.

This really is a 21st century museum, so far away from being stuffy and dusty. As the President of the Louvre said, it “participates in the life of the city, its economic development, tourism, sustainable development, artistic, social, and educational role”, and it has succeeded.

The huge entrance hall is a place to meet, have a coffee, rest and browse. There are no crowded queues or barriers. The hall and the shop, café and so on are in glass circles, no straight lines, and light and airy. Altogether there are five buildings, all steel, aluminium and glass, reflecting the parkland, the ceilings features natural light, which is controlled to give an even spread.

The Gallery du Temps is the main area, 3,000 square metres with no walls or barriers between the works of art. Here 205 works of art from the beginning of writing 3,500 BC to today are displayed and 20% of the exhibits change each year. In most museums and art galleries you move from room to room, each having specific items in it. You move from paintings to statues to small items, all of a period. I reckoned there were at least 2,000 people milling around, including school parties, when I was there.

The Glass Pavilion has annual themed exhibitions. When I visited it was giant papier maché models. It is a local custom to wear these (the wearer looks out through discrete eye holes about the giant’s chest) at local events. This Louvre is unusual in that it does not have any items of its own to display – they come from the Louvre in Paris, or in this gallery, from other museums in the region. Then there is the temporary exhibitions gallery. This year it had a significant Rubens paintings exhibition.

I am not an art lover but I was captivated, and spent over three hours in the main gallery. The surrounding area has coal bings dotted about, rows and rows of terraced houses and signs of an industrial past, and yet here in the centre is this incredible building. In the first year of opening, up to 900,000 people visited it, far exceeding expectations. My only regret is that I could not have stayed in Lens longer.

For more information on the Louvre Lens go to www.louvrelens.fr

The easiest way to get there for us is to fly from Aberdeen with Air France. There are three return flights a day between Aberdeen and Paris, taking two hours, and flights are available if booked in advance for around £219 return. See www.airfrance.co.uk

To book your onward French railway tickets go to www.raileurope.co.uk who are official agents for French Railways and will supply everything, including reservations, and it is so easy when the railway station is under the airport.

For more information on the region have a look at www.northernfrance-tourism.com or www.uk.pas-de-callais.com

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