Fête de Lilas….and not a lilac in sight…part I

David reports back from a recent trip to France…

Can you believe it? Burnley’s twin town is a suburb of Paris:Vitry-sur-Seine; only 5 miles from the centre of Paris! 

Invited as part of a group of the ‘retired’ – the cheek of it!…..but then again….Paris in the sunshine……we arrived to celebrate Vitry’s Lilac Festival.  The town is the same size as Burnley with a population of around 75,000.  We stayed for a long weekend with families and what a weekend it was!

The first evening we attended a concert in the civic theatre: 60 musicians and a choir of 100 singing ‘Carmina Burana’ – a spine tingling start to an incredibly uplifting cultural journey.

After a day in Paris (more about that in part II), we attended a reception in the Town Hall to welcome visitors from Vitry’s 3 twin towns: Meissen in Germany, Kladno in the Czech Republic and Burnley.  The striking thing about the modern town hall is it genuinely belongs to the people of the town – it is open to everyone.  It has a gallery with changing exhibitions inviting people to call in.  Huge pieces of contemporary art hang from its walls and the striking contemporary stained glass windows filter coloured shafts of light into the building.

This year the focus for the weekend was Burnley!  Terrific displays prepared in French by Burnley Council’s Graphics Unit showed our town’s past and present industrial base from the Weavers’ Triangle to Aircelle, the new University College to Gawthorpe Hall; cabinets full of artifacts from Towneley Hall, Burnley Football Club, Moorhouses Brewery and Rourke’s Forge kindled a real sense of pride in our  town – the champagne at 10 in the morning did help! The evening offered a huge free open air concert for all ages.

Vitry has had a long term commitment to public art with a huge Dubuffet sculpture on a roundabout in the centre of the town. But what struck me this year was the amount of street art on walls and doorways all over the town.  From a small piece masking an unsightly grid to huge pieces on the walls of blocks of flats…and I mean street art not grafitti. 

The Mac Val Musée, a major national gallery for French contemporary art in the centre of the town, had commissioned a Palestinian artist, Mona Hatoum,  to represent the origins of the people of Vitry. She had done this by creating a ‘forest’ of swings. Each swing hung by chains with obvious symbolism of the pain many had left behind; each seat  inscribed with a street plan of a major town or city of their country of origin: from Paris to Berut, from Tunis to Hanoi.

…and yes; I was told off by one of the attendants for setting every swing in motion: “ Ne touchez pas!!”

This year the Festival had sent a representative to consult with Burnley Council and Mid Pennine Arts to send over an artist for a residency in Vitry. ‘Space Cadets’ from Todmorden created a series of tasteful, inflatable lilies which floated on the lake to form a centerpiece for the Festival.  They were perfect.  Like our own Community Festival every community group and charity in the town had a stall.  Families and friends came together in the sunshine to sit at communal tables to eat from barbecues, paella, pizza and other dishes.

Then we had The Procession. I have never seen anything like it.  It took 2 hours to pass my vantage point.  Groups of musicians, flag wavers, street performers, marching bands from all over Europe: Belgium,Spain,Switzerland,Poland and my personal favourites – gilles from Belgium.

All this in a town no bigger than Burnley;  creating a Festival with something for all the people of the town and committing the money to pay for it.  I hope that our Mayor and Leader of the Council were taking notes!

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