Walking in a buried city

November 9, 2006

When Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 (CE), Pompeii, a vibrant city of around 20,000, as well as nearby Herculaneum and Stabiae, were buried in volcanic ash. We have an eyewitness account of what must have been an experience terrifying beyond measure. Pliny the Elder, who was commanding the Roman fleet stationed in the Bay of Naples, saw it happen. Alerted by his sister to — as his nephew writes several years later to Tacitus — “a cloud of unusual size and appearance,” Pliny decided to set sail with the fleet for a closer look and to rescue as many people as possible. In fact he, himself, perished on the shore. “When daylight returned on the 26th, two days after the last day he had been seen,” writes Pliny the Younger, “his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.” The cities remained buried until excavations began in 1748.
I’d seen pictures and documentaries, looked at Web sites, and read the guidebook. I’ve stood on Hadrian’s Wall. I’ve seen the stunning Pont du Gard. I’ve seen Roman remains and amphitheatres in England, France, Yugoslavia, and Italy. But nothing could have prepared me for the reality of Pompeii. You’re not seeing just one building or structure (however impressive); you’re walking along the streets of what was once an entire Roman city. You’re going into houses people lived in and shops where they bought food—complete with intact mosaic counters and deep tubs that would have held olives. You’re seeing the sidewalks they walked on and the public water fountains, fed by an aqueduct system that is surely one of the wonders of engineering, that they used on a daily basis. You’re touching stones they touched and looking at frescoes they commissioned as decoration for their villas.
And everywhere you look, you know that you are seeing what was, for so many terrified people, the last thing they would ever see. I found it breathtaking and very moving.

City gate: II

August 5, 2006

This is the Porte de Paris, which stands on the Place Simon Volant, named for the architect of the city gate and unveiled in 1692. It was originally called “la Porte des malades” because it led to the hospital.

The original moat is replaced by an ornamental garden.


City gate: I

August 4, 2006

La Porte de Gand dates from the 1600s and is one of three remaining city gates to the old walled city of Lille. You approach the along cobblestoned streets that lead through a fashionable dining section of Lille. The gate itself houses a restaurant, la Terrasse des Ramparts.

Lydéric and Phinaert

July 30, 2006

Here are the patron giants of Lille, Lydéric and Phinaert, supporting the tower of the Hôtel de Ville. According to legend—and I hope Elisabeth and MLL will put me right if I haven’t got the facts straight—in the year 620, a prince named Salvaert, fleeing an insurrection with his pregnant wife Ermengaert, was ambushed by Phinaert, a bandit lord. Salvaert was killed, but Ermengaert escaped and was taken in by a hermit. She gave birth to a son, Lydéric. When Lydéric was 20, he sought out Phinaert, challenged him to a duel, and defeated him. The King of France gave Phinaert’s lands to Lydéric, who founded the city of Lille.

There is apparently a wonderful view of the city from the tower, but it wasn’t open the day we were there. We had to content ourselves with looking around inside, where we found two more huge effigies of Lydéric and Phinaert in the auditorium.

French Flatiron

July 29, 2006

This building in Lille reminded me of the Flatiron Building in New York City, famously photographed in 1903 by Alfred Stieglitz.

I wonder if Elisabeth or MLL knows anything about this building. I would love to see one of the apartments (I assume it’s an apartment building). I imagine them as very elegant.

The art of the swimming pool

July 27, 2006

I have never seen anything like these wonderful petunia pillars before. They are in Roubaix, which is 20-minutes or so away from the center of Lille on the excellent automated métro. Roubaix was an important textile manufacturing town in the 15th to 19th centuries

But the main reason to go there today is to visit La Piscine.


Originally an Art Deco swimming pool, it is now the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie. The old pool is a gallery of 19th and 20th century sculpture. The tiled edge of the pool is still visible behind the statues. The stretch of water in the middle is about three inches deep.

The old shower stalls and changing rooms have been turned into display cases for—among other things—the splendid displays of textiles and related items, and the wings that made up the municipal bath house and once contained bath tubs now house the fine arts collection.


To remind you of this wonderful building’s past, every so often, you hear a couple of minutes of taped shrieking and splashing.

The architecture of commerce

July 25, 2006

The exquisite 76m neo-Flemish belfry of the Lille Chambre de Commerce is seen towering above the buildings on this street. The Chambre was designed by Louis Marie Cordonnier and blends well with the style of such nearby buildings as the Vieille Bourse.


Below is the boxy Credit Lyonnaise tower, conceived by the architect Christian de Portzamparc as a block in the sky signalling renewal. It stands near the Gare Lille-Europe and the Euralille Centre.


Two such different buildings, both representing commerce, both built in the 20th century, and both—to me—with their own distinctive appeal.