When I was researching my trip to Liège, I came across a forum on a well-known travel guide where someone had posited the question, “Is Liège a dump?” I expected outraged comments from proud citizens but, to my surprise, the commentators largely agreed that this is not a city that should divert would be visitors from more ‘important’ Belgian cities. The comments were from a few years ago, and Liège has done much to improve its post-industrial decline image since then, but I feel compelled to come to the city’s defense.
It’s true, Liège has seen hard times and it isn’t a major tourist destination for a reason. It’s also true that it is a bit grubby, with many buildings covered in soot and grime. That, though, downplays the many positives of a town that feels like it’s on the up. The 19th century industrial powerhouse that used the nearby coal mines to power iron and steel foundries, glassworks, copperworks and armament factories, seems well on the way to a renaissance.
Building on a legacy of hard won rights and a strong independent streak going back centuries, the new working class of the Industrial Revolution gained Liège a reputation for radical politics. It’s a reputation it maintains today despite the demise of those same industries. The River Meuse connected Liège’s industries with France and the North Sea in the Netherlands, and it has played a pivotal role in the city’s long and often violent history.
It’s a history that earned it the nickname of ‘la cité ardente’, the city of fire. The repeated battles, sieges, revolts and sackings it endured over the centuries culminated with serious damage during the Second World War as it was liberated. Despite all this, central Liège retains an historic core, including seven collegiate churches dating back centuries to when Liège was an important medieval religious centre.
I had started my visit at the Montagne de Bueren and spent the next couple of hours walking the seven nearby Impasses, a network of dead end alleyways and courtyards lined with small houses. The most interesting, like the Impasse des Ursulines, feature steep stairways and narrow lanes. Nearby is the colourful 12th century collegiate Church of Saint Bartholomew, home to a famed 800-year old baptismal font.
Close by is Le Grand Curtius museum, housed in a former 16th century palace. I went to check it out but didn’t have time to visit. I already had two museums on my list and one of those was a ‘can’t miss when in Liège’. The Musée de la Vie Wallonne presents an engaging cultural history of Belgium’s French-speaking region, including the ‘struggle’ for a Wallonian identity and the French language.
It’s housed in a former monastery close to the 16th century Palace of the Prince Bishops, the pleasant Place du Marché and pretty Hôtel de Ville. The streets were busy with Saturday shoppers as I closed in on one of the truly unique sights in Liège. In the Cathedral of Saint-Paul (yes, in the actual cathedral), you can find a statue known as The Lucifer of Liège but officially titled, The Genius of Evil.
The marble statue is by Belgian artist Guillaume Geefs, and replaced an earlier version created by his younger brother, Joseph. That version was considered too beautiful so Guillaume created a Lucifer with bat wings, an apple at his feet with an Eve-shaped bite missing, his toes are claws, and he sports small horns on his head. I have to say, it hardly made me tremble in fear, so perhaps Guillaume didn’t entirely succeed in demonising it.
I just had time to recover from this close encounter with evil in Le Pot Au Lait, a strange and quirky bar serving up a large range of local beers, before making the trek back to the traín station via Liège’s premiere cultural institution: La Boverie. A fine arts museum set amidst the city’s largest park, its collection includes works by Picasso, Pissarro, Monet and Chagall. There was also a special exhibition on Magritte. Liège, I’ll be back.