Forget Paris – try Lille for a cultural weekend – Scotland on Sunday Travel

The French city of Lille, an hour and a half by Eurostar from London St Pancras, hosts the Lille3000 arts festival all summer long. Photo: PA Photo/Alamy.

Lying flat on my back under a ring of light, I close my eyes as psychedelic music plays from a speaker.

This trippy and transcendental experience is part of the Lille3000 summer artistic festival, an event that has been taking place in Lille and in museums, art galleries and restaurants in the Hauts-de-France region for six editions.

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But it’s 2022’s celebration, Utopia, that should cement this French city’s reputation as a champion of abstract, mood-altering art.

The Cosmic Serpent, the installation I’m listening to, is presented at the Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (32 rue de la Monnaie; €7/£5.95). Organized by journalist Fabrice Bousteau, it connects strands of DNA to snakes, to highlight the symbiotic relationship between man and nature.

This is not the only surrealist work exhibited. I’m also in love with a plant-headed hominoid called Minitos. Created by artist Jean-François Fourtou, the extravagant piece is inspired by a tale he used to tell his daughter about vegetables that help cook dinner and tend to the garden.

As soon as I arrived in Lille, an hour and a half by Eurostar from London St Pancras, I was greeted by 10 large installations of green urban art, erected in honor of the Utopia celebrations. It was a sign of things to come.

Lille’s relationship with modern art really took off in 2004, when it became European Capital of Culture. Two years later, Lille3000 starts with the aim of continuing the artistic dynamic. This year’s theme focuses on the connections between people and nature in a time of climate crisis and unattainable ideals.

Jean-Fran’s Minitos at the Hospice Comtesse Museum, Lille. Created by artist Jean-François Fourtou, the extravagant piece is inspired by a tale he used to tell his daughter about vegetables that help cook dinner and tend to the garden. Photo: PA Photo/Maxime Dufour.

It all sounds rather noble, but what’s on display is actually a lot of fun.

At Musée La Piscine (roubaix-lapiscine.com; €9/£7.65), a gallery housed in an art deco swimming pool, I am amazed by the array of fascinating sculptures and works of art.

Pieces by Rodin, Picasso, Maillol and Giacometti are centered around a huge basin with a sunrise and sunset at each end. Several of the tub’s original showers and bathrooms have been restored, adding to the originality of the place.

At the Palais des Beaux-Arts (pba.lille.fr/fr; €10/£10.50), I entered the immersive exhibition La Forêt Magique, organized by Bruno Girveau and the director Régis Cotentin. It includes a giant mirrored image of Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, Nottingham, created by English artist Mat Collishaw to symbolize his distaste for Brexit.

La Piscine, a gallery in an art deco swimming pool, Lille. Photo: PA Photo/Gemma Bradley.

The tree – Britain’s largest oak tree – is famous as it is said to have provided shelter for Robin Hood and his men, and still attracts thousands of visitors each year to Nottingham.

In Collishaw’s work he only survives because he is held down by chains and supports, which he takes to mean that being alone or independent does not necessarily mean success. That’s a fair and scary point.

I continue my artistic journey at Saint-Sauveur station (garesaintsauveur.lille3000.eu), a former freight station transformed into an exhibition center, which also houses a nightclub, a stage and a bar.

The free access exhibition Novacène, organized by Alice Audouin and Jean-Max Colard, is housed in the vast open-plan space. Of all the post-apocalyptic pieces on display, one in particular caught my eye. The Last Human, created by Maarten Vanden Eynde, is a skeleton with computer chips in its brain, lying next to a petrified gas station.

An interpretation of Major Oak by Mat Collishaw at Utopia in Lille. Photo: PA Photo/Gemma Bradley.

While a pretty blatant social commentary, doing this job made me feel an unrecognizable pain of sadness and an urge to reflect on my own habits and desires.

My last trip to the museum is to the free exhibition, Les Vivants, at the Fondation Cartier (fondationcartier.com). It explores today’s major environmental issues and showcases the most disturbing, yet intriguing works of art.

Particularly grotesque but incredibly interesting is a man made of clay, with tubes of water extending from various parts of his body (including his eyeballs) and earth spitting from his mouth.

At dawn on Saturday evening, I head to the main square to watch the Utopia parade.

While sipping champagne on the third floor of the Hotel Belle Vue (one of the best vantage points), I observe dancers dressed as playing cards, closely followed by men jumping on stilts. A giant wooden puppet and huge inflatable fish compete against the glittering tableau.

My night ends sitting next to a lake surrounded by crowds looking up at a magnificent fireworks display. It’s a real moment of togetherness and a reminder that although sometimes neat and esoteric, art still has the power to connect us all.

Clay Man, by the artist Fabrice Hyber in the Living Worlds exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, Lille. Photo: PA Photo/Gemma Bradley.

Utopia Lille3000 runs until October 2, 2022. Visit utopia.lille3000.com

Rooms at the Okko Hotel (okkohotels.com) start from €250/£215 per night with breakfast.

For more information on the destination, go to lilletourism.com.

The Utopia Parade in Lille, France. Photo: PA Photo/Gemma Bradley.