I didn’t plan to write about Tournai but it’s definitely worth a few paragraphs, especially as it’s so easy to get to – it’s in Belgium, of course, but under half an hour from Lille, which is just an hour and a half from London by Eurostar (and can also be reached by TGV and Thalys trains from all over western Europe). The small Roman town of Tornacum later became the capital of Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty and thus of what is now France – and so Tournai claims to be the oldest city in Belgium. Ruled by its bishops, it became very prosperous in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but was then fought over by many countries, being ruled by the English, Spanish and Austrians at various times. It suffered terribly in the world wars but is now part of a prosperous cross-border metropolis centred on Lille.
Its main landmark is the cathedral of Notre-Dame, which is a very odd-looking building, with a central tower above the crossing and four taller towers clustered around it in the four angles of the transepts – they’re all different, clearly showing the transition from the Romanesque style to Gothic. If the nave and chancel didn’t exist the transepts, 67 metres in length, would still form a large church (though 90 degrees out of line, of course). The current building was begun around 1140, but work began in the next century to make it bigger and full of light, along the lines of the new Gothic cathedrals in the Île de France, requiring huge flying buttresses. Interestingly, it was also the model for the church of Our Lady in Brugge (Bruges), where I was the next day.
The cathedral was badly damaged by a tornado, of all things, in 1999 and is now undergoing major refurbishment; scaffolding was erected in the transept in 2013, supposedly for a period of five years, but it looks as if it’ll be there for a bit longer, with plenty more outside. There are other churches that are worth visiting, such as St-Quentin and St-Jacques.
Just north of the cathedral is a very solid belfry, one of 55 across northern France and Belgium that are inscribed as a group on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (as – separately – is the Notre-Dame cathedral) – built between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, they’re important as symbols of civic power, a third pole between the church and the lord’s castle. This one, built in 1188 and raised and strengthened in 1294, is the oldest in Belgium. I’d seen the one in Amiens, with a twelfth century base and an eighteenth-century top, the previous day (as well as the modernist Tour Perret by the railway station), and in the next couple of days I was to see the Belforts in Brugge and Gent (both high, and reminiscent of the campaniles in Florence and Siena), as well as in Namur, Mons (the only Baroque belfry in Belgium), and the Deco one in Charleroi (1936; also on the World Heritage List). And a week later in Dinan, I saw their fifteenth-century horloge, which played a similar rôle as the town’s third pole of power (there are just three left in Brittany, in Dinan, Fougeres and Concarneau). I’m really not sure that the group of 55 belfries hang together as a group, but it makes more sense in conjunction with UNESCO’s listing of Belgium’s carillon culture on its register of intangible cultural heritage in 2014 – time and again, in Belgium and in to a certain extent in the Netherlands, one hears bells playing a pretty simple tune that people seem to think is a significant expression of their culture. Personally, I was more impressed by the number of people playing pianos in stations and elsewhere – yes, public pianos are quite common elsewhere, but they seem particularly well used here, and the standard is pretty high too. In 2016 UNESCO added Belgium’s beer culture to the register of intangible cultural heritage, which seems far more worthwhile to me.
The medieval walls included the Pont des Trous, built across the Scheldt in about 1329 – the central arch was destroyed in 1940 and rebuilt after the war with a wider span to allow the many big barges to pass more easily. Not far north is a circular tower built for Henry VIII (yes, Tournai was held by the English from 1513 to 1519), which is currently covered in scaffolding but did remind me of his castles at Pendennis and St Mawes. I was also struck by the grim three- and four-storey Romanesque houses, built at the end of the twelfth century, in the St Brice quarter.
On the art front, Tournai was the birthplace, in 1399 or 1400, of one of my favourite artists, Rogier van der Weyden – there’s a lovely Virgin and Child by him (well, the child is less lovely) in the Musée des Beaux Arts, as well as a Holy Family by one of his followers or students. The display standards are not great, but the museum does also have works by Pieter Brueghel father and son, Jordaens, van Goyen and Mabuse, and from the nineteenth century Courbet, Manet, Monet, Alfred Stevens (Belgian, by the way) and a poor Seurat; there’s also an ink drawing by van Gogh and a couple of Toulouse-Lautrec sketches. Speaking of Belgians, there are also some nice pieces by Guillaume van Strydonck (1861-1937) and Félicien Rops (1833-98) and a dozen by James Ensor (1860-1949) – not especially weird by his standards, and so not actually that interesting. He’s really not one of my favourite artists, but I do quite enjoy Rops, especially after visiting the Musée Rops in Namur a week or two later.
I stayed in the excellent HI hostel, right next to the art museum; and I greatly enjoyed the first of quite a few Belgian beers that I was to sample over the next week – see my previous post. This was an amber beer from the St Martin abbey brewery, now known as Brunehaut, and as the first it lingered in my mind as a special experience. Other great beers are available locally, such as Cazeau, Dubuisson and Dupont, and to show that I’m not obsessive I also very much enjoyed the Eva Cosy tearooms and Un Thé Sous Le Figuier, an unpretentious little restaurant. I’d like to linger a little longer next time!