Tournai is a city with a lot of history, and beautiful architecture
Tournai was the second stop on our trip through Wallonia, Belgium. To give you a little bit of history and allow you to get your bearings, I´ll start by telling you why Tournai is historically important. The town is found along the Scheldt River (which runs right through the middle of town) only 10km from the French Border. In fact, one of the first signs we saw upon leaving the train station was pointing the way to Lille. This is a town filled with history, as it is one of the oldest in Belgium dating back to the Franks of the Merovingian dynasty who used Tournai as the seat of their kingdom during the 5th century. Another of the city´s claims to fame is the famous painter Roger de la Pasture (Rogierven der Weyden). And, in the middle ages, it was a center for tapestry weaving, along with export and trade of the blue grey stone which is so common in the architecture of Wallonia.
We traveled by train from Namur on a rainy spring morning hoping that the weather would improve by the time we got to Tournai. The hotel was easy to locate (thanks to the technology of our mobile phones), and after leaving our bags in the room, the first order of business was lunch. We had arrived just before lunchtime and worked up an appetite after walking from the train station to the historic center of town. Unlike the first day of our trip, this time, we were able to sit down and have a meal typical of the area. We chose a restaurant close to the Grand Place called “L´Imperatrice.” The building itself reminded me a little bit of an Irish Pub, but with distinctly Belgian cuisine. We ordered some local beers (which came along with a miniature bag of paprika flavored Lay´s potato chips, and for our meal: “Carbonnades a la Leffe,” which turned out to be a kind of beef stew made with Leffe beer. The dish came accompanied by French fries and a little side salad with a yummy sort of dressing. The atmosphere was perfectly relaxed and the service was very good.
After having eaten, we were ready to explore the city and first on our list was the Belfry. As we´ve mentioned in other articles, Belgium has a LOT of Belfries. They served as look out towers and monuments, and Tournai has a huge Belfry right in the corner of the Grand Place. I will take this moment to point out that the Grand Place of Tournai is exactly what you would expect from a Plaza in Belgium. The store fronts are just the right size- none outshining another, and a row of façades that almost resembled gingerbread houses. These are, in fact, the palaces from the noble families of the 17th century. Behind the plaza, you can see the towers of the famous Cathedral rising up almost as high as the Belfry. As you walk around the periphery of the plaza you can see a variety of restaurants, flower shops and locally run businesses.
The Belfry tower itself has now been taken over by UNESCO World Heritage, and after paying a small fee we were allowed to climb up the seemingly unending spiral staircase of this 12thcentury civic tower. It is 72 meters tall and from the top there is a fantastic view of the whole town, as well as the surrounding countryside. I couldn´t get over how picturesque and GREEN everything was just beyond the town´s buildings. We were also very lucky in that the sky had cleared by this point, and we had a great view of everything. The tower also holds 43 bells, and as we were walking down the spiral stairs to get back to ground level, we were quite startled when these beautiful bells began to chime for the hour.
On the ground once more, we wanted to get a closer look at the Medieval Cathedral of Notre Dame. This is, far and away, the most spectacular building in Tournai. It was built in the 12th century on even older foundations and combines three different styles: Romanesque, Transitional and Gothic. There are five bell towers (which is what we saw earlier from the Grand Place.) Unfortunately, the Cathedral was under renovations when we visited, so a large portion was sectioned off. Even so, the stained glass windows and sculptures were impressive. For two euros, you can also visit the treasures of the Cathedral.
After having visited the Cathedral we decided to check out a neat church we had seen in the Grand Place. It was the Church of Saint Quentin, built in the 17th century, although renovated since then. It is easy to spot, and just behind the church is a beautiful little garden with dirt paths and trees with branches twisted into a canopy. Inside the church is peaceful and modern looking, but we loved visiting it almost as much as the Cathedral itself.
As it was getting late, we made our way to the Folklore Museum of Tournai (you can read about it in a future article). And spent a little over an hour looking at all kinds of Tournai artifacts. By this time, we were ready for an afternoon snack and it was time to try a Belgian Waffle! Although it might seem out of character for us, we decided to sit in the Grand Place and enjoy our late afternoon treat. The waffle was everything I hoped it would be! It was like a classier version of the waffles I´d had at different fairs through the years. And the views of the Grand Place were a great way to accompany the waffle.
From here we took a walk down to the River Escaut and the Medieval Bridge that dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The bridge was once part of the city´s fortifications, but now it serves as a reminder of the history that Tournai whitnessed. The bridge is also known as the “Pont des Trous” or “Bridge of Holes” because it has three rather large openings for boats to pass through. I should also add that just along the river is a nicely designed path for pedestrians, as well as benches for you to sit and contemplate your surroundings.
After enjoying the last of the late afternoon sunlight we headed back to the hotel to rest and get ready for dinner. We would ruskommend a visit to picturesque Tournai with 5 boquerones, as it is a city with a lot of history, and beautiful architecture. We would also ruskommend you take advantage if there happens to be a guided tour available because I´m sure we missed out on some of the interesting stories that these streets hold. A gorgeous day, to be sure!