The Wallonian city of Liege has been called the "la cité ardente" (the city of fire), and for good reason. This ancient city, sat astride the Meuse in eastern Belgium, has seen its fair share of battles, blazes, revolts and rebellions. The Liegois are not to be messed with. And while not actually the capital of the southern French-speaking province of Wallonia (that title being held by Namur), many consider Liege the economic and cultural heartland of the wooded hills, and proud river-cities, making up this picturesque slice of Belgium.
The city of 200,000, which was once the industrial power-house of the region, has undergone a make-over of late – now it is the IT and high-technology firms forging their digital wares here. But Liege has kept its proud independent and 'people-first' attitude, even into the new millennium. And as a city that lies on the fault-lines of Belgium's diversity – where the flat Flanders landscape gives way to the forests and ravines of the Ardennes, and where French, Dutch and German are all official languages – Liege is great for visitors wanting to jump head-first into their Belgian experience.
It's a city that's easy to get to, too. While a bit further from the Channel coast than Flanders' towns and cities, it lies on the cross-roads between Paris, Antwerp, Cologne and Maastricht. That central location is also part of the reason it became, and remains, such a vibrant trading hub. But there's another clue to Liege's success in the name. It is said to mean 'people', softening from liudiz, in the old Germanic languages, to today's Liege. And that name makes a lot of sense, when you see how its citizens have played such a central role in shaping the city's history. But the city first rears it head in the history books with a somewhat dastardly event – the murder of a bishop on the banks of the Meuse.
While the history in these parts stretches far back beyond the horizon – the first Neanderthal skulls were found in caves close by – it was the settling of the Franks in this part of Belgium, in the 2nd century that placed the area around Liege firmly at the centre of European history. These Germanic tribes-people were settled in modern-day Wallonia by the Romans, to help defend the empire's northern border. They did this well, and they became thoroughly Romanized, speaking Latin and living in villas – long after the Roman empire was eventually swept away in the 5th century. Their German-tinged Latin would eventually become modern-day French. And one of these Frankish villas, on the banks of the Meuse, became the scene of the murder of a certain Lambert, the bishop of Maastricht, in 700.
The murder was at the hands of a rival family – the Franks were a feuding lot – but being a bishop who had helped convert the Franks, he was held to be a martyr. His holy relics were bought here, to what was to become Liege's St. Lambert Cathedral. And the town clustered around this island in the Meuse never looked back. Liege remained at the centre of Frankish politics – Charles Martel, self-proclaimed Duke of the Franks, was from Liege. Never heard of him? He headed an army that defeated the Islamic Moors at Poiters in 732, who otherwise looked likely to overrun the whole of Western Europe. It was also near here the Charlemagne, founder of the Holy Roman Empire and conqueror of much of France and Italy, was born and raised.
The city really took off under the rule of a Benedictine monk called Notger, who took charge in 972, as its first prince-bishop (the area around Liege had become Bishop-Principality, and was to be ruled over by elected bishops for over 800 years). He was a man who got things done in Liege, building a hospice, schools, six churches and a new cathedral. He also won the city the right to hold its own market, stamp its own coins and avoid some taxes. No wonder the towns-people came to say 'Liege owes Notger to Christ, and everything else to Notger.' And the city, in this golden age, became known as 'the Athens of the three Gauls.'
From then on, Liege managed to remain independent of the various big powers, intent on carving up Belgium for their own ends. But it had to fight. Sometimes it fought against interfering neighbours – the Burgundians, under Philip the Good, in the 15th century sent his armies into Liege three times to suppress its rebellious citizens, leaving it burning for 7 weeks in the last assault. Sometimes the people fought their own Prince-Bishops, when they tried to clamp down on their hard-won freedoms. Perhaps the most dramatic shout of independence, though, came in the 18th century, when Liege decided it was going to be part of the French Revolution.
The First Republic - beating the French to it
The democratic roots of Liege had reached long and deep, before people started talking about revolution in the 1780's. The city was was run by various types of elected council, including a period between 1384-1424, when any citizen could stand for election. The middle classes always remained strong in the city, keen to defend their political freedoms. That often bought them into conflict with some of the more hard-headed Prince-Bishops. But in 1772, François-Charles de Velbruck, the new Prince-Bishop, turned out to be something of a benevolent dictator. He swept in an age of Enlightenment that transformed the city. He made serious efforts to combat poverty and poor health with numerous projects, including a hospital, a midwifery service and open education for all.
He also developed the city's cultural life, setting up an academy for sculpture and painting,and society's for science, literature and poetry. Liege's intellectuals flourished, and so did progressive ideas. Unfortunately these Enlightenment values weren't shared by Velbruck's successor, on his death in 1784. Hoensbroeck was his name, and he clamped down hard on the population, siding with the nobles, and rolling back Velbruck's reforms. He became known as the 'tyrant of Seraing', the palace of his summer residence. In August 1789, with revolution already under way in France, local democrats, including Jean-Nicolas Bassenge, deposed the town's mayor, and then forced Hoensbroeck to sign in a new regime. Within weeks Hoensbroeck had fled, and the Liégeois revolutionaries had declared a republic – something the French weren't to do until 2 years later.
Hoensbroeck did come back, on the coat-tails of the Austrian army, in 1791, but this only opened the door to the revolutionary French army. They defeated the Austrians in the 1792 battle of Jemappes, entering the city of Liege to wide acclaim. Liege then voted to join the French republic, which it was to remain part of until Napoleon's downfall in 1815. The inclination for revolt remained throughout the 19th century, stoked by a growing industrialization, and a more assertive working class.
Liege had become one of the major steel-making centres in Europe from the 1830's. And at around the same time it became a major centre of European class warfare too. In 1886, the workers rose up to demand the vote, and there was violence, as 6,000 troops put down the strike, with many dead. The general strike became a tool perfected by the Leigois, with regular strikes from 1893 to 1936. In 1950 a strike across Wallonia began in Liege, in protest against the return of the disgraced King Leopold III. Many Walloons saw him as having collaborated with the German occupiers in WWII. The city of Liege was seized by the strikers, and the crisis almost led to the break-up of Belgium, as the Flemish were more supportive of the King. Four strikers died near Liege, before the King decided to abdicate.
Over the past 50 years, with the decline of the old industries, that radical ferment of the Liégeois has eased somewhat. But the stubborn independent Liégeois spirit remains intact.
Getting There & Getting About
Liege may be tucked quite deep into the south-east of Belgium, but it is well-connected to the outside world. Surprisingly, the city has the third largest river port in Europe, with the broad River Meuse connecting it directly to Antwerp and the wider world. But for those disinclined to sail up the river, Liege can be reached easily by train, car or plane. There is a local airport – the major cargo terminus of Liège-Bierset – which does do passengers. But these are mainly for shipping Liégeois out to the sun, via charter flights to the Med sunspots, not shipping visitors in.
So if you have to fly in, Brussels Airport is probably the best way option, followed by an interconnecting train service to Liege (though you will have to change at Leuven or Brussels Nord). On the high-speed connection, Brussels it is only 40 minutes to Liege. An alternative is to fly in via Maastricht Airport, in Holland, and again come into Liege on the train – though Maastricht is less well served by the international airlines. Those choosing to let the train take all of the strain will have many options, as Liege is well-connected. The main station, Liège-Guillemins, also links directly up with Aachen in Germany, Luxembourg, Paris, as well as Antwerp, Namur and Charleroi in Belgium.
If car is your transport of choice, then there's only one way into town – for those coming from the Channel coast at least – which is along the E40 from Oostende. The first leg to Brussels is along the A10/E40 section, then it's a swing around the Brussels ring road, and onto the A3/E40 section direct to Liege. But there are six major motorways coming into Liege from all directions, so travellers from all points of the compass are well served.
Because of the rather irregular layout of the city's roads (split as it is by the broad river Meuse), many find car travel around the city confusing. It's simpler by far to park-up in one of the city-centre garages, and use the bus to get around. Cyclists do alright here, but parts of Liege are pretty hilly, so some of your travels will involve a measure of huffing-and-puffing. The city centre itself is walkable, though perhaps less pedestrian friendly than some other Belgian cities.
It would be safe to say that Liege, as an post-industrial town, doesn't have quite the same stock of quaint or charming hotels as is found in some of the prettier Belgian cities. But, as a large city, Liege manages to run through the full gamut of stay-over options – from the plush luxury of city-centre hotels like the Crown Plaza, to the many mid-range hotels and family B&B's further out, to cheap-yet-well-liked budget hostels, such as Youth Hostel Georges Simenon, in Outremeuse.
There are also some interesting alternative to the run-of-the-mill – fancy staying on a floating hotel?Liege has one, in the L'Embrun, which is generally docked at the Port des Yachts. And Liege also boasts a hotel right on the Meuse, in a former convent – the Ramada Plaza Liège. Campers are also well looked after – Liege is the gateway to the hills and forests of the Ardennes where camping isn't just an option, it's insisted on. Some camp-sites can be found only a stone's throw from town, too, such as Camping Les Murets, in the lush greenery of the Ourthe valley.
For The Love Of Beer
Let's get the obvious out of the way first. Yes, Liege is home to one of the biggest breweries in Belgium (the Jupiler brewery is part of the Inbev group). And yes, its Jupiler pilsner lager is the most popular beer in Belgium, and exported all around the world. But popularity and good taste rarely skip together hand-in-hand. And Jupiler's qualities can be summed up in just one word – insipid. It has nothing for the beer-lover, so let's move swiftly on. Fortunately Liege, and especially the surrounding villages, have much more to offer the connoisseur of hop, malt and yeast.
In Liege itself, though, brewing takes a firm second-place to consuming – there are no breweries of distinction, open for the inspiration, and education, of the beer tourist. But what Liege lacks in breweries, it makes up for in brown cafés and beer-shops. Perhaps the best-known is the Vaudree beer-shop and brasserie combination, on the left-bank of the Meuse, across from Outremeuse. This place has a mammoth beer list, running to 900 if you want to count them. And Wallonia's finest are to be counted amongst them. There is a particularly good representation of the mini-constellation, that the local Saissons beers make, to Belgium's beer universe.
The Saissons are a peculiarity of the Walloons, so-called because they were generally brewed in the winter, to be consumed in the summer by farm-workers (saissons is Walloon for 'seasons'). They typically use a mild Pilsner malt, but add a solid dose of spelt grain too, bringing a nutty hint to what are otherwise refreshing, zesty beers. Every farmhouse traditionally took a different approach to providing refreshments to their workers, and Saissons are a pretty diverse bunch as a result. Du Pont and Silly, both found at Vaudree, are good places to get started on these seasonal treats.
Just outside of the city there are a number of breweries that are well worth a visit. A must-see-and-drink is the Abbey du Val-Dieu, which revived the tradition of abbey-beers at the site of this Cistercian monastery. Set in typically rural Wallonia – complete with orchards, sheep and wooded valleys – it is just a few miles east of Liege. Val-Dieu brews and serves a typical troika of Belgian beers – a blonde, a brune and a tripel. It's the Triple (9.0% ABV) that's the favourite of many, an unfiltered, unpasteurized, rich pale ale brewed according the old monastic recipe. There plenty of other fine breweries set into the rolling hills close to Liege. But if you really want to go on a beer quest, Liege makes a great base for decamping into the depths of the Ardennes, home of many of Belgium's legendary brewing houses. But that is a tale better expanded on in our Ardennes section.
Food & Gastronomy
There's an old gag about Walloon cuisine, and their fondness for food – they don't like to boast about it, because it's rude to speak with your mouth full. Hearty rural food, and plenty of it, is the motto in Wallonia. And Liege manages to do its fair share of keeping the average Walloon's mouth fully-occupied, bringing a nice fat list of specialities to the table. Starting with balls. By which we mean meatballs, of course,which are a firm favourite with Walloons in general, and the Liégeois in particular. Their own take on the meatball – Boulets a la Liégoise – is a seasoned blend of pork and beef-meat, usually cooked with one of the local sweet apple syrups, a dash of red wine and plenty of fries.
Liege restaurants also do home-town salads – Salade Liégoise – a fried-up mix of green beans, potatoes and diced bacon, which goes especially well with the local bacon omelette, the fricassee. Another Liege favourite that has gone global is the Herve cave-aged cheese, renowned for its combination of softness and powerful flavour. It is made from cow's milk from pastures in the nearby village of Herve, slowly ripened in its caves until it achieves that notable red-brown rind. Strong tasting, Herve is often served with malty beers or bread smeared with another local treat – Sirop de Liège.
This sticky fruit 'butter' is made from the treacly fruit juices of apples, pears and apricots (or often a blend of all three) gathered from the orchards found south of the city. But perhaps the best known of Liege's many contributions to world cuisine is another sweet treat – the Gaufres de Liege, or Liege-style waffles. These are crispier, denser and more complex versions of the Belgian waffle, suffused with pearls of caramelised sugar. Avoid the over-priced, over-loaded tourist waffle-houses, and buy these from the street-corner stands. You'll be gifted with what is probably the best waffle experience in the world.
And where in Liege would be the best place to taste all these delicacies? Well, as you might expect, the central area around the Place Saint-Lambert is well-furnished with restaurants, particularly the Le Carré area, south of the Opera House. Outremeuse also offers a somewhat cheaper and more authentic slice of the Liegeois cuisine. And there you may pick up on one surprising feature of Liege's gastronomic offerings – the sheer number of Italian bistro's and trattorias. Liege is actually something of an Italian city, thanks to the large number of Italians who came here to work the city's steel mills in the 20th century. So polish up on your Buon appetito's!
Shopping & Markets
Shoppers in Liege naturally gravitate towards the centre of town, the Place Saint-Lambert, on the left bank of Meuse. And it is a great place to kick-off your sight-seeing, with the requisite tourist traps, the inevitable modern shopping centres (the Galeries St Lambert) and a whole slew of cafés, bars and restaurants. But if you're looking for shopping with a little more interest and character, you might want to head a couple of hundred yards to the Meuse to the embankment market of 'La Batte'.
This outdoor market claims to the oldest and biggest in Belgium; and at one mile in length, that size claim is almost certainly true. Held every Sunday, it is a long straggle of colourful stalls, selling everything from cheeses, flowers, cloth and textiles, to books, records, toys, sweets and (of course) plenty of wonderfully fresh Liege waffles. Another shopping-place with a difference is the Passage Lemonnier, ½ a mile south of the centre. This covered-lane is the oldest purpose built shopping arcade in Liege, and packs in a good spectrum of modern and traditional shops, all at a very human scale.
And if you really want to get a taste of authentic working-class Walloon, you could try shopping in the flea market on the Boulevard de Constitution, in Outremeuse, the central island of Liege. This district is a city within the city, a self-declared 'free republic', with a very different atmosphere to what they call the 'other city'. In fact Outremuese is just starting to rise beyond its working class roots, becoming a fashionable place to live, similar to the recent 'gentrification' of the East End in London.
Sightseeing & Culture
With most cities, sight-seeing starts with the cathedral and ends with a castle. But Liege lost its cathedral in the revolutionary turmoil of the 18th century, when St. Lambert's was burned to the ground. Instead, the grand open space of the Place Saint-Lambert is overlooked by the Prince-Bishops' Palace, a 16th century building that has been similarly haunted by fire. The first Bishop-Prince's palace was built by Notger in the tenth century. It burned down, and was rebuilt by Rudolf of Zähringen. It too was burnt to a crisp by the Burgundians, in 1505. So in 1526, then Prince-Bishop, Érard de La Marck, got his builders working on third version, which forms the base of the current palace. It wasn't 'third time lucky', however, for the palace as that building too was gutted by fire in 1734, requiring a Louis XIV-Regency style facelift for southern façade.
Nearby is another open space, housing one of Liege's icons – the Perron of Liege, in the Place du Marché, which is a proud symbol of the city's independent laws. The Perron is a stone pedestal from which the laws and regulations of Liege were proclaimed, and judgements made. It became part of the heraldry of the city, and of the Prince-Bishopric itself. Because of its symbolic importance, those – like the Burgundians – who were trying to squash Liege targeted it. In fact, during the tussle with Burgundy in the 16h century, the Perron was removed by the Burgundians, and taken to Bruges to show-off the defeat of Lieges. You'll be pleased to hear it's now back in place.
Keeping the sight-seeing to a religious theme, while Liege doesn't have one grand cathedral, it does have seven churches as part of a 'collegiate cathedral'. One of the most iconic of these is St. Bartholomew's church, north-east of the Place Saint-Lambert. This is an amazing white and red church decked out in the local Mosan style – a Romanesque art movement of the11th-century that many consider as the first golden age of Lowlands arts. St. Bartholomew's also houses one of the most favoured pieces of Mosan metalwork – a beautifully wrought baptismal font created by the 12th-century goldsmith Renier de Huy.
Liege loves its Mosan art so much, it has a museum dedicated to it, the Museum of Walloon Art & Religious Art, which is well worth a visit. But if contemporary is more your scene, try the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, set in a finger of pretty parkland at the tip of an island in the Meuse. After all that, if you're still really desperate for some fortifications, there is actually still a bit of castle – or rather a citadel – left in Liege. But you'll have to look hard for it. The 13th century castle, built upon by successive rulers into a mammoth citadel, was largely destroyed when the new Liege hospital was built on the site.
Activities & Entertainment
Liege can do fun too. If you want some buzz in the evening, then the Liégeois will be happy to show you how to party. There is good contingent of students here (the University is home to some 40,000 of them), and it's to the bars and clubs of the city's 'Le Carré' area that much of the youth gravitate at night. Outremeuse also does its own more gritty and feisty version of night-life, keeping it old-school with traditional taverns, piano bars and jazz clubs.
It's also the Outremeuse area that is the focus of one of the most interesting events in Liege's calendar, the "Le Quinze Août", on the 15th of August, which celebrates the Virgin Mary. There are dances, processions and the local people open their doors for a mammoth communal party, involving the downing of plenty of peket (the local juniper-flavored spirit). It is also during Le Quinze Août that Liege's distinctive mascot character takes centre stage.
His name is Tchantchès (which is Walloon for François), and he allegedly lived in Outremeuse in the times of Charlemagne. Born a pauper, the young boy was deformed, ugly (even a drunkard) but brave. Elected 'Prince of Outremeuse' he became a companion to a nephew of Charlemagne, and helps win victory in battles with little more than a scarf, a black cap and a pint-full of bravado. In other words, the perfect representative for Liege itself. Tchantchès is celebrated especially in processions and puppet shows on Le Quinze Août.
A procession of a different sort happens each Spring, when the professionals of the cycling world descend on Liege as part of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race. This is one of the oldest of the classic cycle race, dating back to the 1892. Starting and finishing in the north of Liege, the racers strike south into the hills and ravines of the Ardennes, for what many consider one of the toughest professional races, because of its many frequent steep climbs.
B2B & Conferencing
Liege is a very well connected town, making it an ideal location for those looking to host events and meetings. And with Liege's recent climbing up the high-tech IT ladder, it has found itself increasingly popular for business and technology conferences. Being so close to the outdoor sports mecca of the Ardennes, Liege also has an interesting angle for providing extra-curricular activities for visitors.
In Liege itself, there are several purpose-built venues for meetings and small conferences. One interesting twist is provided by the Kinepolis Liège, a plush 16-theatre cinema that rents its theatres out for presentations for up to 600 people. For those looking for larger meets, the exhibition centre of Les Halles des Foires, on the north side of the city, offers a dramatic modern building, overlooking the Meuse. It has six exhibition rooms, and 15,000 sq.m. of space for its clients use.
The local Liege MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city. It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Liege will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.