From the Middle Ages until the late twentieth century, great Flemish cities like Lille, Roubaix, Douai and Cambrai flourished, mainly thanks to their textile industries. The other dominating – now virtually extinct – presence in this part of northern France was the coalfields and related industries, which, at their nineteenth-century peak stretched from Béthune in the west to Valenciennes in the east. At Lewarde you can visit one of the pits, while in the region’s big industrial cities you can see what the masters built with their profits: noble townhouses, magnificent city halls, ornate churches and some of the country’s finest art collections.
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Accessed by metro (line 2 to Gare Jean Lebas) and just 15km northeast of Lille, right up against the Belgian border, Roubaix is a once-great Flemish textile city that fell into decline and is striving to rejuvenate itself. The city centre is not especially attractive and even the modest outlet shopping mall on its southern fringe is somehow dispiriting. Nevertheless, Roubaix is worth a visit to see its showpiece museum, La Piscine. Opened in 2001 and home to the magnificent Musee d’Art et d’Industrie, it is the improbable setting of one of France’s most beautiful swimming pools and bath complexes, originally built in the early 1930s for the poor of the city. Architect Paul Philippon’s contemporary conversion retains various aspects of the baths – part of the pool, the shower-cubicles, the changing rooms and the bathhouses – and uses each part to display a splendid collection of mostly nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sculpture and painting, plus haute couture clothing, textiles and photographs of the pool in its heyday.
Right in the heart of mining country, 40km south of Lille, Douai is an unpretentious, surprisingly attractive town, despite being badly damaged in both world wars. Its handsome streets of eighteenth-century houses are cut through by the River Scarpe and a canal. Once a haven for English Catholics fleeing Protestant oppression in Tudor England, Douai later became the seat of Flemish local government under Louis XIV, an aristocratic past evoked in the novels of Balzac.