Liège, the city of stairs on the Meuse

If there’s one thing that the city of Liège wants you to know, it is that it has a splendid railway station. Cutting edge, massively over budget, horribly delayed, and still only a railway station, but splendid nonetheless. The Liège-Guillemins station was designed by notorious architect Santiago Calatrava (he did the still not finished, years late and over budget Mons station as well), and is so impressive, sci-fi films get shot here. Although that isn’t enough to guarantee the toilets work.

Liège-Guillemins railway station, Liège, Belgium
River Meuse Museum, Liège, Belgium
Second World Way memorial, Liège, Belgium
River Meuse Museum, Liège, Belgium
Palais Provincial, Liège, Belgium
Hôtel de Ville (La Violette), Liège, Belgium

Less impressive is the sense that they built the station in the wrong part of town. Or at least, nowhere close to the real centre of the town. There’s a vast sweep of open space in front of the station (currently a building site) that takes you to the River Meuse and the lovely Parc Boverie on an island in the river. From there it’s a good couple of kilometres on foot into the real heart of the town.

On a sunny early spring morning it was a pleasant walk, but first I went straight up the hill behind the station to visit the Église du Sacré-Coeur de Cointe and Phare de Liège, a dramatic 1920s memorial to the dead of the First World War, and which is an actual lighthouse. Sadly, both church and memorial are in a distressingly dilapidated state. It could have done with some of the investment the railway station received, but the views over the town are great.

Liège is one of Belgium’s great cities. It offers a truly heady mix of history, culture and industrial decline that seems to produce a vibrant, modern and youthful place with a happy-go-lucky vibe, good food, and even better galleries and museums. The casual observer wouldn’t notice it today, but less than a year ago this city was hit by some of the most devastating floods Europe has seen in many years.

There are a few tell-tale signs of the scale of the disaster that befell the city, but largely it seems like this is a place that has absorbed its collective shock and bounced back stronger. I wouldn’t wish to make light of the disaster that struck the town last July, but it is probably one of the few times when living at the top of an enormous flight of stairs up a steep hillside has proved more convenient than not living on a steep hillside.

If there is one thing Liège is famed for, it is its wobbly-leg inducing staircases that climb steeply up the hills that shoot up from the river below. I decided to get the climbing out of the way early so made my way to the Montagne de Bueren, a stone stairway with 374 lung-busting steps up a 30-degree slope in the heart of the old town. It’s an impressive and intimidating sight.

As I passed a boulangerie en route to the Montagne de Bueren a woman came out with a bag of baguettes and walked in front of me. She reached the stairs and set off up them while I stopped and stared in wonder. Houses improbably line the stairway and she lived close to the top. This was her daily routine just to get bread. You have to be tough to live in Liège.

Montagne de Bueren, Liège, Belgium
Montagne de Bueren, Liège, Belgium
Montagne de Bueren, Liège, Belgium
Montagne de Bueren, Liège, Belgium
Le Grand Curtius Museum, Liège, Belgium
Eglise Notre-Dame-de-l’Immaculée-Conception, Liège, Belgium

Having walked up and down the Montagne de Bueren, I confirm that it has earned the designation ‘mountain’. It also offers good views over the town. At the top is another war memorial above which is the old citadel of Liège, now the town’s hospital. At the bottom of the stairs is Liège’s medieval core and I descended to continue my explorations. First, though, I headed to the Brasserie C, a nearby micro brewery with some interesting beers. I figured I’d earned it.

15 thoughts on “Liège, the city of stairs on the Meuse

  1. I’ve looked at these photos again today. They’re magic, of course. You’ve captured the light and color quite well. But you’ve also given me the feeling of height in those stair step photos. Excellent! And now I feel as though I’ve been to Liege.

  2. That is some staircase. I bet the heart pathologies in Liège are lower than the rest of the country.

  3. Stairs as steep as in La Paz!
    I would actually love to live at the top of those stairs, as they would force me to exercise more. And maybe smoke less.

    I also love the Art Deco church towers! I have seen them in Antwerp and in Brussels as well.

    And the train station (plus the sad place in front of it) is really the only thing I have seen of Liege, so far. But I did marvel at the station roof each time!

    1. That station roof is something to marvel at! Luckily the oxygen is a little more plentiful than in La Paz, not that I wasn’t badly out of breath by the time I got to the top. All I can say is, the people of Liege must have very good calf muscles.

      1. Maybe that’s where all the famous Belgian cyclists come from?

        1. Some of the routes that Belgian cycle races follow are insane. I went to a museum dedicated to the Tour of Flanders recently and the impression it left was terrifying. There was a compilation film of crashes on the route that definitely would qualify as ‘parental guidance’ in a cinema.

        2. Oh yes, I listened to a podcast about that once, and it was crazy!
          I have written about tourism to the Western Front, but sadly thus far only on my German blog: I should really get cracking on translating that! But the photo from the 1919 “Michelin Guide to the Battlefields” shows what the region looked like back then.

          TL;DR: Dark tourism is nothing new. :/

        3. Funnily enough, I’ve made a couple of visits to Ypres and the surrounding area recently, but have yet to write about it. Thanks for sharing the blog, I had no idea they began battlefield tourism so soon after the war ended. Truly odd, but I think a continuation of a tradition that went back to at least the Napoleonic wars, and Waterloo. I wanted to visit Langemark on my most recent Ypres trip, in particular I’d like to see the sculptures by Emil Krieger, but I ran out of time so will visit on my next trip.

        4. Just for you and your readers, I have now sat down to write the English version of that article:

        5. That’s brilliant and very generous. I’ll link to it again when I write about Ypres and WWI.

  4. I think you’re right: You have to be tough to live in Liege! What a staircase! What hills! What tough people who climb this area. And after seeing your post this week, I do wish we had had time to see Liege. (From a helicopter, perhaps!)

    1. I noticed locals have a technique for going up the stairs: walk one flight, then walk across the flat bit between flights before starting the next flight. It gives you a little time to get more oxygen into the lungs. A very nice town despite the stairs.

      1. Nice tip! Could have used that one!!!

  5. Stairs I feel would be my undoing… So many lovely old buildings, and then there’s the blasphemy of the railway station….on a smaller scale, in Adelaide the central station was moved further out, highly inconvenient. I guess though that someone made a tidy sum of money from the deal. As usual these corrupt days. Hope the brewery measured up😀

    1. Those stairs are tough work, but the local beer definitely was an incentive. The weird thing about the station is that it’s quite amazing when you’re inside it, but it’s a bit of a sore thumb (imo) from outside.

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