Grand Place home to Vieille Bourse

In the heart of Lille, the Grand Place has always been a grand place

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Probably the busiest area in Lille is the Grand Place located in the heart of Central Lille. The official name for the square is Place du Général de Gaulle, for it was here in 1890 that Général de Gaulle, a former French president, was born.

Originally, in the 11th century, the medieval square was used as a bustling wheat market. These days the beautifully preserved historic buildings surrounding the square, together with its myriad of cafes and terraces, still makes it an obvious choice for a rendez-vous and a good place to commence any sight-seeing tour. Around the square there are a number of very impressive buildings.

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The most beautiful is the Vieille Bourse, the old stock exchange. It was built by Julien Destrée in 1653 whose commission was to build an exchange to ‘rival that of any great city’. It was also a commission motivated greatly by the persistent ill-health of the Lillois bankers and merchants. Trading had always taken place in the unprotected open air at the Fontaine-au-Change on the Place du Vieux-Marché in all types of weather. As a result the bankers endured regular bouts of flu and colds. By 1651 they had had enough and took their wheezy deputation to the Magistrate. The Magistrate, in sympathy with their cause, put in an application to Philip IV, King of Spain and the Count of Flanders, for a more suitable stock exchange. The result is a quandrangle of 24 privately purchased, ornately decorated yet identical houses surrounding an interior rectangular courtyard where trading could take place. Access into the courtyard is through any one of the four arches located at each of the four sides.

There are three levels to the houses. The ground floor was reserved for and tenanted by stylish shops chosen for their ability to complement the overall beauty of the decor. The wealth of Flemish Renaissance style decoration includes cute chubby cherubs, garlands and marks that frame the windows.

The four entrances are marked with cornucopias, symbolic of wealth and happiness; Turkish turbanned heads tell of their Eastern markets and the Lions of Flanders signify that Lille once belonged to the Netherlands. Under the arcades there are medallions and tablets in honour of great men of science.

Unfortunately with the passage of time, the Bourse became dilapidated and had to undergo serious restoration. The task was undertaken by two dozen big enterprises including Auchan, La Redoute and Le Crédit du Nord. This was the biggest restoration project of private sponsorship ever known in France. Below the windows on the second floor are the colourful emblems of these sponsors.

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No longer used as the stock exchange, these days the courtyard is home to a clutch of second-hand booksellers’ stalls and florists and a band of chess players. The current champion, Francois, a bookseller, says that any passer-by or tourist can play.

Opposite the Vieille Bourse is Le Furet du Nord, Europe’s biggest book shop. The building in which it is located is a copy of a 17th century house.

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In the middle of the Grand Place stands The Goddess, a sculpture by Theodore Bra of Douai. She stands tall on her column, La Colonne de la Déesse, rising up from the centre of the Grand Place from the midst of a mountain. She stands in memory of the Austrian canon ball siege that took place in 1792. Despite the onslaught of 35,000 Austrian soldiers the townsfolk bravely stood their ground and were victorious. Initially she was to be placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but she returned to Lille, standing in place Rihour for three years before being moved in 1845 to stand atop Charles Benvignat’s column on the Grand Place.

Her crown represents Lille’s ramparts and in her right hand she holds the fuse which fired the old canons and her left hand points to the inscription on the pedestal ‘the courageous refusal of Mayor André of Lille to surrender the town’.

Throughout the year she will witness a variety of activities taking place below her such as student protests, bands playing during the Gay Pride Days, parading giants during the Fetes de Lille and at Christmas a grotto is erected and stays put through December and January. A huge ferris wheel accompanies Christmas and turns continuously from early morning well into the small hours. Otherwise, a quiet day would see countless people just milling around and using her as a landmark.

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There are three more female statues around the square. They can be seen crowing the top of the Voix du La Nord (the voice of the North) newspaper building. The statues were placed atop this 1932 building by architect Victor Laprade to defy the wind and weather. Each of the three graces represents the region’s northern provinces of Artois, Flanders and Hainault. The frontage has 28 windows which are a very visual representation of the 28 issues of the newspaper that are printed.

Next to La Voix du Nord is the 16th century Grand’Garde. This was originally built to house the king’s guards, but now it is used as a theatre called la Métaphore.

Take a look at the buildings behind the Vieille Bourse by turning into Rue des Manneliers (the basket makers road) or Rues des Sept Agaches (road of 7 magpies) on either side of the Vieille Bourse. Both these roads lead to Place du Théatre situated at the start of Boulevard Carnot.

The Place du Théatre became the venue of the new chamber of commerce Nouvelle Bourse in 1903. It was built by Louis Cordonnier in the new Flemish style architecture. The Bourse comes complete with its own bell tower looming over the building and in fact over the city. The 100 metre high belfry symbolises the power of industrial cities.

The neighbouring building is the Opera, originally built in 1875 but accidentally burnt down in 1903. The sumptuously decorated replacement was built by Louis Cordonnier in the Louis XVI style. Its inauguration took place in 1923 during which Lalo, Bizet and Massenet had top billing. On the pediment there are figures of Apollo and muses. To the left is an allegorical music band representing music and to the right is a tragedy sculpted by Lernaire.

Facing the chamber of commerce is the Rang de Beauregard, a uniform row of elegant terraced houses. These were built in 1687 by order of the Magistrate of Lille to complememt the architectural style of the Chamber of Commerce building.

The three-storey houses, built only in brick and stone, are decorated with pilasters and cartouches and are the most characteristic examples of 17th century architecture in the area. In similar fashion to the Vieille Bourse, the ground floor is home to elegant shops.

Take a moment to scruitnise the walls and search out the small canon balls lodged in the brickwork. These are in fact the canon balls left by the Austrians during their siege some 200 years earlier. Though the buildings may be privately owned, the balls are deemed historical monuments and belong to the city.