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Euro 2016: Lens prepares to welcome football fans

By Rosanna Pound-Woods
BBC News

image captionThe Place Jean Jaurès, where a fanzone is being set up for those without tickets

Welsh football fans will travel to France in their thousands this month, after qualifying to play in the European Championships for the first time in 58 years.

One tiny city is preparing to greet them, despite concerns about its size.

Wales will play England in the northern city of Lens on 16 June.

The town has a population of under 40,000, but as many as 100,000 fans are expected to arrive there.

Ticketless fans are being urged to travel to larger towns in the area such as Lille.

But for those planning to brave the crowds in Lens, what should they expect when they get there?

Mining heritage

In a similar way to many towns in Wales, Lens once had a booming coal mining industry.

image captionThe famous slag heaps are made from mining waste material, and are protected by UNESCO World Heritage status

"There is a lot of testimony of the mining heritage in the town," said Marlène Virey, from the Lens tourist office.

"We have got the two big slag heaps, so you could have a walk on them," she said.

The mining mountains, or "terrils" as they are referred to locally, dominate the landscape.

There were 340 of them in the area during the 1970s, but 200 remain today.

image captionTino Cioffi takes tour groups on guided trips to find out more about the area's mining heritage

The Nord-Pas-de-Calais mining basin was recently registered on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites, which protects the slag heaps from damage.

Base 11/19, named after the two mining shafts, is one of four main protected sites in the basin. It sits just outside Lens.

The two slag heaps are 186m (610ft) tall, said Tino Cioffi, a tour guide who tells visitors about the mining history of the town.

Formed from rocky mining spoils, they are "the highest mining mountains in all of Europe," he claimed.

The site was established by the Societé des Mines de Lens in 1894, operating for almost a century before being closed in 1986.

It was "really terrible" said Mr Cioffi, leading to "high unemployment" levels in the town, at almost double the national rate.

Capacity concerns

Lens will play host to four games during the competition, in the Stade Ballaert-Delelis, which will hold 38,000 fans.

Anyone else arriving will be competing for a spot in the 10,000 capacity fanzone, or the handful of bars and pubs in the town centre.

For those left on the streets, purchasing and drinking alcohol has been banned on match days.

Sylvain Robert, the Mayor of Lens told BBC Wales he was worried they will not be able to cope with the influx of people.

Economic boost

A much-needed economic boost was given to the town in 2012, with the arrival of the £109m Louvre-Lens museum, an outpost of the Louvre art gallery in Paris.

It opened on the site of a disused colliery. A modern building of glass and aluminium, it is aptly sandwiched between the football stadium and the mining mountains.

image captionThe Louvre-Lens looks distinctly modern, a contrast to its larger counterpart in Paris

"It's a collection of 205 artworks," said Bruno Cappelle, from the Louvre-Lens team.

"They are all coming from the Paris Louvre and you can see a little bit of everything, so you've got all the techniques and all the civilisations that you could see in Paris."

To time in with the Euro 2016, they have a special exhibition on this summer, celebrating their much-loved local football club - RC Lens.

"It's a big collection of objects and testimonies, by supporters of the local team.

"This is really something very important here in Lens.

"There used to be the mines and football, now there is football and the museum," he said.

A taste of home

image captionWelsh rarebit is a local delicacy, for anyone searching for a taste of home

For Welsh fans searching for further links to home, many restaurants in the town centre serve a surprising local delicacy.

Welsh rarebit became popular after soldiers fighting in World War One brought it over with them, said Mr Cioffi.

Much of Lens was destroyed during the War and the town is surrounded by major remembrance sites at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, Vimy Ridge and La Maison Blanche, Cabaret Rouge Cemetery, Loos Memorial and Dud Corner Cemetery.

image captionPeople in Lens are excited to welcome different nationalities during the Euro 2016 competition

Capacity concerns aside, the town seems really excited to welcome Welsh fans.

"For the inhabitants, it's very exciting to welcome other football supporters, because in Lens, it's a tradition to support football - the inhabitants are fond of football," said Ms Virey.

Mr Cioffi said: "Lens people I think, will support the Welsh team of course.

"We have the same history and it's a small team, like Lens.

"And I hope to drink some beers with Welsh people."

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