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.
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.
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.
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.
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.