I've just spent a day in Lille and Roubaix (the Manchester of Flanders). Lille was strangely empty for a Saturday. Were the inhabitants on holiday? They weren't in the Palais des Beaux Arts in the Place de la Republique. It has a good collection of paintings, a little heavy on the religious. The best rooms are of landscapes, including records of the "debacle" – a bitter winter when blocks of ice sailed down the Seine. Sisley and Duran were there. The talented Carolus Duran could turn his hand to subjects as different as society portraits and the Prussian invasion of 1870. Perhaps his reputation has suffered because his Sergeant-like fashion plates are too easy to like. A temporary exhibition, Miroirs d'Orient, displays photos of women of the Middle East from past and present.
We relaxed in the gardens of a 16th century star-shaped fortress (Citadelle Vauban), next to the moat. There's also a zoo and a children's funfair. We wandered back to the gare through the old town, stopping off at a shop full of bandes dessinées and Tintin-abilia.
We took the metro to Roubaix, where there's an art museum in a decomissioned Art Deco swimming pool (La Piscine). The interior is stunning and still features a classical mask spouting water into a shallow pool, now surrounded by sculptures. Changing rooms have been converted into vitrines for the collection of ceramics and textiles. Paintings dwell on interiors and gardens. The pool's café is still open. Sadly we were too late to visit the garden with its dye and fibre plants. Another time.
Everywhere we went, greeters in orange uniforms offered friendliness and help with ticket machines. Two even walked us to the Piscine while we chatted to them in fractured French.
And it's only an hour from St. Pancras.