LIEGE, Belgium — This is a city straight from the storybooks that offers adventures back to historical times. The streets and people hold a fairytale fascination, and the architecture is reminiscent of the Brothers Grimm. My adventure in Belgium began with an easy two hour train ride from Paris on the high speed rail system, and then an easy drive through the pastures and orchards of Belgium into Liege to attend the inauguration of Santiago Calatrava’s renovation of the Gare du Liege. Liege is now perfectly positioned to be a quick ride to Paris and London, and even shorter commutes to Antwerp, Brussels and Frankfurt and is a deserving gateway of present as it always has been in the past.
I only had a few short days in Liege, and my first day was set in the typical rainy Belgian weather, a cool reminder of the oncoming autumn season and which added an aura of mystique. Set in the valley of the River Meuse, and hemmed in by its foothills, the quaint narrow streets are filled with pubs and snack shops. Pommes frites — French fries — are a common craving amongst the citizens. Famous for its chocolates and beers, the Belgian Blue Beef and wines for even the pickiest connoisseur are not to be skipped. There are modern shopping markets, palaces and judicial buildings and outdoor amphitheaters.
I met some friends and colleagues who were also over for the Gare du Liege festivities, and our first night was spent enjoying the above mentioned delights at a Spanish-named, Italian restaurant named La Cantina. The food was rustic and flavorful, with fresh seafood and tender beef cuts. Outside in the courtyard a table of children colored, and upon exploring, boasted to me of their abilities to speak Japanese and English, as well as their native French and German. There are a number of restaurants that feature an inner, courtyard-style garden, and our second meal together brought us into the cozy but modern ambiance of Jardin des Begards. Again the service, and tasty treats were unforgettable, the lighting swirled in colors around you, nothing was quite the same any time you glanced up and our meal felt a bit like a grown-up version of the Mad Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland, complete with a lovely round-faced Cheshire Cat chattering in the garden for his deserved attention, and receiving well his worth.
With the weather clearing the rest of the trip into crisp sunny days, and the sun glistening off the Meuse, our group set out to explore the city and was drawn to some of the cathedrals. Religion has always maintained a high importance to the city; with the ruling party typically a Prince-Bishop, a great number of cathedrals have been constructed for over 1,000 years. As a result of the constant process of wars and rebuilding, the city has a highly developed Archeoforum, which is a result of nearly 100 years of archaeological excavation and contains remains dating as far back as the Paleolithic era. The charismatic Cathedral St Bartholomew which is the oldest dating back to 1015 boasts a festive red and white icing-like paint job and a variety of influences ranging from Romanesque to Neoclassical. The grand gothic-like St. Paul’s Cathedral dates from the same era, but with major renovations throughout time has taken on the character of the famed Parisian Cathedrals. Near the foot of St. Bartholomew is a climb of 400 steps along a stairway called “Montagne de Bueren,” leading from Hors-Ch¢teau to the Citadel. Once atop the city, the view overlooking the valley showcases the river, and ranges from the Gare du Liege at the foot of the Cointe Hills to the city-centre. The Citadel is now home to a modern hospital complex, but the brick and mortar remains of its original duty still stand guard and offer a fascinating glimpse into Liege’s strategic quality recognized by her founders.
On the outskirts of the city in the Seraing district, known for its factories and steelwork, there is a lasting reminder of the religious age, allowing for the tradition of great handcrafted arts to survive, in what was once a great Cathedral and later convent. The Crystal factory of Val St. Lombard is nearly a lost art. Here, crystal glass is sculpted into delicacies for your home. Artists create their glassware or artworks from scratch, a hands-on process from the mixing of the powders to creating the molten crystal and finally spinning a vase from the kiln like a skillful Pied Piper. The steel industry made a lasting mark on the area, and there are still a handful of operating factories and signs of the industrial age, but the economy has shifted to studies of chemistry and biology with a large number of Liege’s residents being college students.
Liege has an obvious significant historical value, dating back to Charlemagne and the Middle Ages, when the city was home to his mother. A signifying reason was accessibility and topography along the invaluable River Meuse. The river is not only a trading route, but home to many nautical-know-hows in the colorful varieties of barge-meets-houseboat. The rolling, tree-lined river valley showcasing the charming, eclectic mix of architecture and creates a gingerbread landscape, nestling the city inside hills and popularizing the city as an effective defense against enemy forces during the wars. The Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest skirmish American forces saw in WWII was fought near the city, and around the city there are a multiple of monuments to those who lost lives in all battles.
The new Calatrava-forged Gare du Liege was constructed over an arduous 12 years, built over the existing, continuously-operating, original train station. The project cost 245 million Euros to upgrade the track system, allowing for high speed train accessibility. The result re-centers Liege as a key transportation hub which in turn revitalizes the city. The final result was a sculptural masterpiece of steel and concrete, softly mimicking the undulating hills and taking on almost as if by osmosis the magical charm of its new home. Coinciding with the beginning of the Festival of Wallonia in the district of Liege, the inauguration boasted a never before seen performance by Frank Dragone and performers of Cirque du Soleil fame, employing many local dancers and talents, and reminiscent of the Olympics opening ceremonies acts. There was a reception in which many local dignitaries and government officials attended, and the performance, set on the train track platforms, and included trapeze artists, ballet, opera, fireworks, and a handful of trick-pony horsemen. There were large, projected images of video footage showing the construction of the station, highlighting the proud citizens bringing the arcs to life. There was sincerity, and a celebration. As with any Cirque du Soleil performance, but especially here, in Liege, at a train station, the music, lighting and performances were exhilarating and sealed Liege as one of my fondest memories.