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.
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.
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.