Before I reached Liège I heard a lot of fuss about the Grand Curtius, a project to link a group of the city’s museums and to create a strong cultural hub, but I have to say I wasn’t that impressed. The €59 million project opened in 2009 (10am-6pm except Tuesdays; €9; www.grandcurtiusliege.be), but it’s not very well organised, with lots of dead-ends and poor signage, and there’s nothing particularly amazing to see anyway. The bright-red and remarkably tall mansion (built for the merchant Jean de Curte between 1597 and 1610, in Mosan Renaissance style) overlooks the Meuse, but it’s still basically empty (I saw a few grand fireplaces and a temporary show of contemporary art there) and the entrance to the complex is on the far side on Féronstrée – glazed walkways (see below) lead from the ticketing area to the four supposedly unified museums, of archeology, weaponry, decorative arts, and religious art and Mosan art. There’s information in four languages in the introductory section but after that it’s French only.
There is an excellent collection of glasswork, from its origins 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt via medieval stained glass and Bohemian crystal to wonderful Art Nouveau and Deco creations; the weaponry collection includes some very odd-looking modern guns (all composites and electronics) made in nearby Herstal. Incidentally, Herstal is one of the possible birthplaces (c742) of Charlemagne, but I saw no mention of this. We are however promised an exhibition soon on Georges Nagelmackers, born in Liège in 1845, who invented the sleeper carriage in 1867 and developed it into a Europe-wide empire of trains such as the legendary Venice-Orient Express.
Your ticket also includes the Archéoorum (archeoforumdeliege.be), under the Place St-Lambert, where you can poke around among the foundations of Gallo-Roman buildings and the first cathedral; but I’d still say Le Grand Curtius is a great deal of fuss about not very much, and is also overpriced.
Nearby, at Féronstrée 114, the Musée d’Ansembourg (Thurs-Sun 10am-6pm; €5) is in an splendid townhouse, built for a banker in about 1740, that still has its original interiors, with fine plasterwork and wood carving, and a display of furniture, paintings, tapestries, clocks and chandeliers from the period of its construction, all in authentically liégeois style.
I was much more impressed by the Boverie (Tues-Fri 9.30am-6pm, Sat/Sun 10am-6pm; en.laboverie.com), a new and expanded incarnation of Liège’s Palais des Beaux Arts (built in 1905 for the Exposition Universelle) that lies on a new axis from Liège-Guillemins (the stunning new station by Santiago Calatrava with its soaring birds-wing roof – see above and below) via a new foot/cycle bridge and the Boverie park (at the southern tip of the Outremeuse island) to the Mediacité centre (designed by Ron Arad, but basically a shopping centre with cinemas in the run-down Longdoz district). Opened in May 2016, the new Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège (BAL) brings together the collections of the former Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, the Musée de l’Art Wallon and the Cabinet des Estampes et des Dessins, as well as a new space for international touring exhibitions. Visiting the permanent collection costs €5 (free on the first Sunday of each month), while temporary exhibitions cost between €12 and €17. The permanent collection, on the lower level, starts (chronologically speaking) with a portrait by the Köln painter Bartholomäus Bruyn (1493–1555), a fairly average portrait by Anthonis Mor (c1562) of Lambert Lombard, a real Renaissance man who was court painter to Prince-Bishop Érard de la Marck, a still life by Pieter Claesz, portraits of a man and a woman (1669) by Nicolas Maes, a portrait of the sculptor Jean Del Cour (1685) by his brother Jean-Gilles Del Cour and a portrait of Napoleon (1804) by Ingres. From the late 19th century come a Monet of the port of Le Havre, a lovely painting by Alfred Stevens (La Parisienne japonaise, c1873) and Meunier’s big view of the Seraing ironworks (c1880), as well as a Rodin sculpture.
In the 20th century it was city policy to build a good contemporary collection, and they had an extraordinary stroke of luck when the Nazis sold off the paintings in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition, showing what was to them unacceptably modernist (and Jewish) art – nine paintings were bought at a sale in Luzern in 1939, by Chagall, Gauguin, Kokoschka, Laurencin, Liebermann, Marc, Pascin, Picasso and Ensor (who I could do without, frankly). How they then survived the German occupation is another matter that I haven’t investigated. In fact the city had spent less than a fifth of their available funds, so they also went to Paris to buy Post-impressionist works by Signac, Utrillo, Vlaminck, van Dongen, Guillaumin and Ensor again (but he was Belgian, so hard to avoid, I suppose). You’ll also see Post-impressionist paintings by Derain, Marquet and the Belgian Theo van Rhysselberghe, and also Magritte (another Belgian), Léger, de Stäel, Vasarely, Arp, Tàpies, Ben Nicholson and the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle.
Finally, the Galerie Noire (also on the lower level) displays prints and drawings by Millet, Delacroix, van Gogh, Jean & Jean-Gilles Del Cour, Meunier, Reps, Ensor, Marc, Matisse (a Tête de Jeune Fille from 1947), Sonia Delaunay-Terk and (being Belgium) a selection of comic strips, all in the usual low-light environment.
By the way, there’s a café called Madame Boverie, and the park, with wild rabbits hopping about, is popular for picnics.
Another exciting new project is La Cité Miroir (the last R is placed backwards), a new exhibition centre opened in 2014 in a former municipal swimming pool (a fine modernist building opened in 1939) at Place Xavier Neujean 22 (Mon-Fri 9am-6pm (from 10am in summer), Sat/Sun 10am-6pm (closed Sun in summer), citemiroir.be). The main hall (see below) makes a fine performance space, and usually houses a photo exhibition too, and a couple of permanent exhibitons (€5 each), Plus Jamais Ça! (Never Again!) on the Holocaust, and Lutte, Histoires d’Émancipation on the struggle for a fairer, more equal society.
It’s also worth noting that the opera house (Opéra Royal de Wallonie) has been renovated, the Théâtre de Liège moved into new premises on the Place du 20-Août in 2013, and there’s a good arthouse cinema, the Sauvenière, at Place Xavier-Neujean 12.
The Tourist Office has moved from Féronstrée 92 to the Halle aux Viandes (the former meat market; daily 9am-5pm, to 6pm June-Sept; liege.be/tourisme) at 13 Quai de la Goffe (though not actually on the quai).
I stayed in the very friendly youth hostel in the cloisters of St Nicholas church (where detective writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret, went to church as a boy), in the traditionally working-class Outremeuse district, now also busy with immigrants (more African than Arab). There are some nice Art Nouveau apartment buildings here, and, a block east of the hostel, the rather bizarre Tchantchès statue – Tchantchès (from the Flemish for ‘little Jean’, Jantches) is a folkloric figure, derived from a comic puppet who appeared between the acts in the early 19th-century marionnette theatre and is now a symbol of Liège and in particular the Outremeuse district. The bronze statue was erected in 1936, and giant puppets representing him and his gal Nanesse are now mainstays of street parades and festivals here.
The pedestrianised central area known as Le Carré is famed for its lively bars, but I didn’t find it very attractive. There are some nice cafés in cultural centres etc, but they and the few veggie places seem to close quite early, leaving just loud bars and formal restaurants. Opposite the youth hostel, La Cène (Rue Henri de Dinant 17; lacene.be) is a lively bistro, also serving Italian and Lebanese dishes.
On the transport front, a tramway (keskistram.be) is under construction along the left bank of the Meuse, to open in 2018 with luck. The 12.5km line will link the Standard Liège stadium in the west to Liège-Guillemins station and Coronmeuse in the centre, with a short branch to Bressoux station across the Meuse. There are already bus-only lanes in the centre of town, using a tunnel optimistically built for a metro in the 1970s.
The concept of Benelux (the union of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) doesn’t seem to have reached the SNCB, Belgium’s national railways. The ticket machines at Liège-Guillemins (2 of the 3 were out of action anyway) don’t sell tickets to Luxembourg, so you have to queue at the ticket desk – as a Belgian train runs through to Luxembourg every hour this seems bizarre; there’s no real cycle space on these IC trains either. The short hop north from Antwerp to the Netherlands is equally problematic in my experience.