The small, unassuming town of Kortrijk, or Courtrai in French, is largely overlooked by visitors to Belgium keen to see those other Flemish glories, Bruge, Ghent and Antwerp. Yet, the town has played host to two of the most significant events in Belgian history. On the 28th March 1820, the Treaty of Kortrijk was signed here, creating the independent country of Belgium; while in 1302, the Battle of the Golden Spurs resulted in defeat for the French and their expansionist plans.
The Battle of the Golden Spurs is celebrated as one of those seminal moments in the collective identity of Flanders. Gathered on Groeninghe Field just outside the town walls, poorly equipped and even more poorly trained farmers, weavers and trades people faced off against a French army. They evened the odds by luring the French cavalry into the surrounding marshes, where their horses sank and the knights were easily killed.
It’s claimed that 700 pairs of spurs were taken from the slain knights and then hung in celebration in the Onze Lieve Vrowekerk (Church of Our Lady). Still stung by this unexpected defeat, the French, under the leadership of Charles VI, returned In 1382 and sacked the town. They made a point of removing all of the golden spurs from the church before burning the town down.
Today, this place of around 76,000 people may not be well known outside of Belgium, but back in the Middle Ages it was one of the largest and richest cities in Flanders – a match for any of its local rivals. It was flax, which was transformed into highly sought after linen, that made Kortrijk a very wealthy place. Even today, the fields around the town are filled with flax and the industry remains a mainstay of the local economy.
The excellent TEXTURE museum tells the story of the flax industry and its intimate relationship with the River Leie (known as the Golden River), which flows in front of the museum and through the centre of the town. I was surprised to discover the close relationship with parts of the UK, in particular Belfast in Northern Ireland. The mutual dependence was so great that there’s even a street called Belfaststraat near the museum.
Given its epic history, you might expect Kortrijk to be blessed with glorious medieval buildings similar to those found elsewhere in Belgium. Alas, the town has suffered at the hands of fate. A major railway hub, it was the target of Allied bombing during the Second World War. This culminated in July 1944, when 300 Allied planes destroyed the city centre, including many of its finest historic buildings.
Those buildings that survived this disaster give a real taste of the history. This starts in the town’s spacious Grote Markt. The centrepiece of the old central square is the UNESCO listed Belfry, a 92-foot high red brick building that once housed the treasury. Sadly, the medieval Cloth Halls that once surrounded the belfry did not survive Allied bombs, but at the other end of the square is the 16th century Stadhuis.
The Grote Markt is a good place to get your bearings and do a bit of people watching from one of the many cafes and restaurants. Nearby are two major churches: the 12th century Church of Notre Dame is home to a Anthony Van Dyck painting, The Raising of the Cross; while the hulking Saint Martin’s Church and the nearby Begijnhof date from the 13th century.
I walked to the river where the medieval Broelbrug with its dramatic towers crosses from the town to the island of Buda. The Broelbrug is one of the few remnants of the old medieval town walls, and vies with the Belfry as the town’s most important symbol. It’s a remarkable sight, especially considering that it was destroyed twice, in 1918 and 1944, only to be resurrected.
You can stroll around the island of Buda, which seems like it’s going through a period of regeneration, before crossing over to the other bank where TEXTURE is found. All these sights are close together and could easily be seen in a few hours, but Kortrijk deserves more time. It may not be top of the list in Flanders, but it’s a welcoming and rewarding place to visit.