Tournai, two millennia of European history

A quick read of the extraordinarily turbulent history of Tournai would make you think it sat at the crossroads of the European continent, rather than being a small town in the west of Belgium. That though belies the importance of Tournai throughout the medieval period. A once important river crossing on a major trade route during Roman times, by the 16th century wealthy Tournai was a glittering prize for competing European nations.

When the armies of Henry VIII of England ‘liberated’ Tournai in 1513, it had been part of France for over 350 years. It only took France five years to regain control, during which time Tournai was represented in the English parliament, but by 1521 France had to cede the town to the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. He gave it to the Spanish Habsburg province of the Netherlands.

Grand Place, Tournai, Belgium
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium
Grand Place, Tournai, Belgium
Belfry, Tournai, Belgium
Hôtel de Ville, Tournai, Belgium

Wars of religion made their mark later in the 16th century, but the Spanish retained control until 1667, when Louis XIV claimed it again for France. It was given to the Austrian Habsburgs in 1713, only to ping-pong back and forth between France and Austria until Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, when it became part of the short lived United Netherlands. Finally, it was incorporated into newly independent Belgium in 1830.

It’s a town that should have been allowed to live in peace after all of that, but it was heavily damaged, first by the Germans and later by the Allies, during the Second World War. Careful restoration in the 1950s onwards have returned most of Tournai’s ancient buildings to their original grandeur. Two of which, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Belfry, are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Parc Reine Astrid, Tournai, Belgium
Saint Luc peignant la Sainte Vierge, Tournai, Belgium
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium
Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium

When we arrived at the train station around 10am, Tournai was covered in a blanket of mist that took an hour or more to fully lift. We strolled along the atmospheric River Scheldt to the 13th century Pont des Trous. The tourist office describe it as “one of the most prestigious vestiges of medieval military architecture in Belgium”. Not in Tournai, but in Belgium.

So we were surprised to discover the whole thing has been deconstructed to allow for larger boats to sail down the river, which is still a major trade route. At some point, it will be reconstructed and will look similar to the bridge that has straddled the river for the best part of 800 years. While I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of progress, it does seem like an act of historical iconoclasm.

River Scheldt, Tournai, Belgium
Tournai, Belgium
Grand Place, Tournai, Belgium
Tournai, Belgium
Musée des Beaux-Arts , Tournai, Belgium

We made our way to the truly magnificent triangular Grand Place. Lined with gabled houses, at one end of the square is a statue of Marie-Christine de Lalaing, wife of Pierre de Melun, the 16th century governor of Tournai. Her husband was fighting elsewhere, so it was left to her to defend Tournai against the Spanish in 1581. At the other end of the square stands the 70-metre Belfry, which dates back to 1217.

It’s a special sight, particularly as the whole scene is dominated by the spires of the cathedral, which looms over the cityscape from almost every direction. We made our way to Le Pinacle, a cafe that had been recommended to us. In the shadow of the cathedral, and seated next to a statue of Saint Luc peignant la Sainte Vierge, we ordered food and a local beer.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame, Tournai, Belgium
Église Saint-Jacques, Tournai, Belgium
Grand Place, Tournai, Belgium
Tournai, Belgium
River Scheldt, Tournai, Belgium

We looked around the cathedral, under restoration inside but with a beautiful rose window, before going to the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This small museum could do with a bit of sprucing up, but it has a wonderfully eclectic collection, including works by Bruegel, Rubens, Manet, Monet and Van Gogh. The Art Nouveau building by Victor Horta is the real star though.

We had to walk back across the town to get to the station, and stopped in the Grand Place to enjoy a beer in the unseasonably warm late afternoon autumn sun. It was the perfect end to our first trip to Wallonia.

9 thoughts on “Tournai, two millennia of European history

  1. Thanks for this virtual walking tour of Tournai. With your terrific photography and interesting, informative copy, I feel I’ve been there in person. What an interesting place!

    1. I really don’t know Belgium well at all yet, but it is proving to be full of surprises.

      1. You’re fortunate to be immersed in it. I’d be happy for just a few days.

  2. Flanders is the land of my fathers… My father’s family came from Courtrai (Kortrijk) to France in the 1700’s

    1. Have you visited Kortrijk, Brian? I’m told it’s a lovely spot, and I’ve got it on my mental list of places to visit when the weather improves. If for no other reason than it’s the location of the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

      1. No I haven’t. My ancestors came from bot Kortrijk and Lendelede. A “grandfather” had an inn there called “dri Koningen”. The three kings. (MId 1600’s) The inn/pub is still there though it was bombed by the Brits or the Americans in WWII. (What kind of sgtrtegic importance could Lendelede-lès-Courtrai have? haha. Been rebuilt. Modern style. My brother went and took a picture.

      2. I will have to look up the battle of the golden spurs. Greetings from NY. (Freeezing!)

  3. I’m loving this series of posts about what is one of my favourite countries. Like Germany, I feel it gets very overlooked and in some ways I want that to continue, so it doesn’t become overwhelmed by tourists! That makes it nicer for me!

    1. I will never understand how Germany isn’t more visited and better known. It’s an extraordinary country. We’re still adjusting to Belgium, but so many people here take a secret (and not so secret) pleasure in the fact that those who don’t know it think it’s boring or not worth visiting. Just these last couple of months have disproved that.

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