Liège 2, museums – fuss and Boverie

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.

The Grand Curtius

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.

Liège-Guillemins station

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.

Liège-Guillemins station

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.

La Cité Miroir

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.

Some practicalities

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.

Liège 1 – history and churches

Liège reminds me a bit of Hull – I doubt if anyone has said that before, but they’re both honest workaday cities, a bit rough at the edges but with hidden jewels. There’s a hodgepodge of architectural styles in Liège, with glimpses of medieval stonework mixed in with later stuff.

At the meeting of three rivers, this site was occupied 100,000 years ago, and the Romans established a settlement on the site of the present Place St Lambert. This became the site of the country residence of the bishop of Maastricht when Bishop Lambert was killed in about 700 (696 or 705 are also possibilities) on what is now Place St Lambert, in front of the present Palais of Justice (close to Liège-Palais station), because he refused to bless the cup of Alpaïde, mistress of Pépin II, Duke of the Franks (and mother of Charles Martel). Lambert was buried in Maastricht but brought back here  in 709 (or 718) by his successor St Hubert; the martyrdom site drew pilgrims and in about 800 the seat of the bishopric of Tongeren-Maastricht was moved here. In 980 the Holy Roman Emperor gave Bishop Notger (972-1008) and his successors full temporal power as prince-bishop, ruling a quarter of present-day Belgium. They implemented a ‘politique de grands travaux’ reminiscent of President Mitterand’s in Paris, building a cathedral, a palace, the churches of St Jean-Baptiste and Sainte-Croix, then after Notger’s death the Collégiale St Barthélemy and the Abbey of St Jacques, and in 1032 an arched bridge across the Meuse.

The Prince-Bishops held power here until 1795, as part of the Holy Roman Empire (although the trade guilds were involved in running the city from the 14th century), with their palace (now the Palais de Justice, with a 16th-century interior court, an 18th-century neo-Classical façade and a 19th-century neo-Gothic west wing) facing the cathedral. Squeezed between warring nations, they established a principle of neutrality from 1492, recognised by the Spanish Netherlands (later Belgium, more or less) in 1654 and the United Provinces (later the Netherlands) in 1673. A month after the fall of the Bastille in Paris, on 18 August 1789, a revolution here overthrew the Prince-Bishop and the area became part of France as the département of the Ourthe from 1795. In this period of evolutionary turmoil the cathedral was demolished (although it took 15 years, block by block). In 1815 Liège became part of the Netherlands and in 1830 part of Belgium, where it remains; the 19th century brought industrialisation (notably glass- and gun-making) and the development of new suburbs on drained land; the dry loop of the river around the old town is still very obvious.

The present cathedral, to the south in the current city centre, was originally the collegiate church of St Paul, founded in the 960s and rebuilt between 1240 and 1439; the belltower was added after 1812, apparently by request of Napoléon Bonaparte – something of a turnaround from the cathedral-demolishing fervour of the earlier French Revolution. Architecturally, it does feel like a real cathedral but without being anything amazing – the main attraction is the Baroque sculptures of Jean Del Cour (1631-1707), born near Liège, who studied with Bernini in Rome and then spent his career working for the church back in Liège. Highlights here are the tortured figures of John the Baptist (1682) and Christ in the Tomb (1696). There’s also striking stained glass installed in 2013-6, with 14 nave windows by Gottfried Honegger (1917-2016) (Zurich) and five in the aisle by the Korean Dominican priest Kim en Joong (b 1940), as well as a window in the south transept dating from 1530. Also worth seeing are a painting of the Descent from the Cross by Gérard Seghers (1591-1651) at the east end of the south aisle, and a mural of the Crucifixion (c1558). And don’t miss the reliquary of St Lambert – his remains were transferred here in 1805 and this huge silver casket was produced in 1896.

Jean del Cour’s Christ in the Tomb (1696)

There’s more fine silverwork and other treasures in the Trésor (2-5pm Tues-Sun, €6; tresordeliege.be), off the cloister, which reopened in 2016 after refurbishment. Perhaps the finest piece there is the reliquary of Saint Lambert, made in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle) by the silversmith Hans von Reutlingen in around 1512, which is the largest late-Gothic reliquary-bust remaining in Europe.

Another of the town’s collegiate churches is St Jacques (Mon-Fri 9am-noon, Sat 10am-noon, 3-5.30pm, Sun 10am-noon), founded in 1015 by Notger’s successor, Prince-Bishop Balderic. It still has its Romanesque nave (c1170), but the nave was rebuilt in Flamboyant Gothic style in 1514-38; the choir dates from 1417 below window level and 1514-38 above. Its most striking architectural feature, however, is the porch by which you enter, built in Italian Renaissance-style in 1558-68; the sandstone sculpture of the Coronation of Virgin above the inner door dates from c1390. It’s another cathedral-scale space which makes a fine setting for more of Del Cour’s sculptures, notably a row of saints along the nave columns and a plaster copy of his Immaculate Conception (1692; the original is in the abbey of Floreffe). St-Jacques also boasts some of Belgium’s finest stained-glass, notably the five windows of the apse, completed between 1525 and 1531.

The porch of the church of St Jacques

The Place du Marché, immediately east of the Palais de Justice and squeezed between the huge dome of the church of Saint-André and the Hôtel de Ville (1714-8), is lined with 17th-century houses, most now housing cafés that spill out across the square. In the centre, the column known as Le Perron is the symbol of Liège, with a sculpture of the Three Graces by Del Cour on top (and rather hard to make out).

About 400m further east along Féronstrée is the collegiate church of Saint-Barthélemy (Mon-Sat 10am-noon, 2-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; €2), consecrated in 1015, which is home to one of the masterpieces of Mosan art, a brass font made between 1107 and 1118 for Liège’s parish church of Notre-Dame. Mosan refers to the style of Romanesque art produced between the 11th and 13th centuries in the Meuse valley straddling present-day Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands (more or less the diocese of Liège) – this was the heartland of the Carolingian Empire (or Holy Roman Empire), so the style contains more classical and Mediterranean elements than the more familiar Romanesque style of France, Spain and England. It’s seen in metalwork and stone-carving, and also in architecture, enamels and illuminated manuscripts. There’s a useful free video about the font and also the huge restoration (and excavation) of the church in 1999-2006.

There’s more on Liège’s museums and art in my next post.