Belgium: The Province of Liege
I had been waiting a long time to do this. Since 1988 to be precise. Standing before me is a counter filled with a vast array of chocolate. Silky, oh-so-impossibly-right, smooth Belgium chocolate. “I’ll take that one,” I say in such imperfect French that the woman wearing the perquisite tall, perennially creased white chef ’s hat looks back aghast, yet somewhat amused.
Like an addict in need of a fix, I don’t want to deal with the pleasantries. “I don’t need a box,” I say. “Just put it in my hand.”
Before the change can even arrive, I take the first bite. It’s a perfect dark with a bit of smoky peat flavor infused with a hint of ripe berries. It melts in my mouth and dribbles down my chin. I am in heaven, which today can be found in the city center of Namur, Belgium. Today is market day and the streets are buzzing. Tent shops line the main thoroughfare where cheap T-shirts are the norm with every saying in English and no national pride in site. Globalization in all its glory. It’s a pity really, but I am now more determined then ever to find what is unique in this marvelous country.
We’re visiting Belgium because of a house swap. We are staying in a beautifully restored brick barn in the tiny farming village of Bovenistier, while the family who lives here will be minding our house in Visalia. Round doors dominate the hamlet while traditional lace curtains line the windows of all but the most modern homes. We have decided to concentrate our sightseeing efforts within the region of Liege where our “adopted” house is located. Good choice because there is so much to do in the area. But first, we check out the solitary business in the village: Boulangerie Patisserie, the local bakery. As I open the door, we are immediately overtaken with the sweet scent of yeast, black rye and molasses. I point to a round loaf of bread crisscrossed with sweet sugar called Craquelin (which turns out to be the BEST bread ever,) five chocolate éclairs and a rice pie. I hurry home contemplating which goody to devour first. The creamiest, melt-in-your-mouth éclair I have ever tasted wins.
We are up at 5 a.m. courtesy of the local roosters outdoing one another with their piercingly early alarms. By nine, we are on the road to Huy. We take the road less traveled, traversing the ups and downs of rolling green hills. Small villages float past, their pointed steeples making the first and last impressions of places long forgotten while fields of wheat infested with orange poppies dominate the landscape. Enclosed brick farmyards with their protected homes appear as they must have 150 years ago, with hay suspended precariously out their rustic upper doors. These are the types of places that the word “quaint” was invented for.
Soon we arrive in Huy. Flanked by the Meuse River, the town is dominated by the Notre Dame Collegiate, as well as the Fort de Huy, which casts it’s shadow upon the entire city. It begins to pour as we make our way into this flamboyant, 14th century Gothic church whose first stone was laid March 15, 1311. The stillness and beauty of the place strip my lungs of air as I involuntarily hold my breath and take in the majestic archways and the gigantic rose windows. The painted vault, a rarity in Gothic churches, gives me a kink in my neck as I stand, head back, scanning the magnificent scene above me. Our steps echo as we weave in and out of ornate statues of Saint Christopher and Mary. Altars depicting “The Last Supper,” the birth of Jesus and the “Massacre of the Innocents” accentuate the quiet beauty of the place.
We head downstairs to the Treasury where some of Belgium’s greatest pieces of art are assembled. Most people consider the gold and silver shrines of St. Mengold and St. Donitian crafted by Godefroid de Huy (1176) to be the showpieces of collection, but I am enamored by the sculpture Vierge assise a l’Enfant (1250.) With all the precious metals and gems, this is one place that you can definitely be “blinded by the light.”
We then climb the hill to Fort Huy in a slight drizzle. Constructed between 1818 and 1823 on the site of the former Tchestra Castle, this fort was built for defense. Unfortunately, the fort was quickly overrun by the Nazi’s during WWII and soon became home to over 7,000 prisoners. The Fort now houses the Museum of the Resistance and Concentration Camps. It is a remarkable place which details the lives of those who fought against the Third Reich.
About six miles northeast of Huy stands the distinctly checkered and moated Chateau de Jehay. Dating from the 16th century, it houses a small but impressive art and archaeological collection featuring a rare ice-skate made of bone, rich historical tapestries and paintings by artists such as Murillo, Bruegel and Lely. We watch the film to gain perspective of the place, but perhaps the best thing to do at Chateau de Jehay is to stroll the grounds and partake in the impeccable gardens and statuary. If you have jet lag, this is just the place to wander and shake it off.
Another heritage site near Huy is Modave Castle. Originally built in the Middle Ages and now situated in the middle of a nature preserve, the castle was once owned by Maximilian- Henry of Bavaria and Cardinal von Furstenberg. Especially impressive are the family trees in 3-D, as well as the horses and their riders that appear to burst out of the ceilings.
South of Liege lies the fortified castle of Logne. For those who love the middle ages, this is a place that will infiltrate your dreams for years to come. It’s a bit of a climb, but worth the effort. With its remarkable and long history beginning with 5th century Germanic warriors allied to Rome, it’s a great place to explore subterranean passageways with a multilingual audio guide. Reconstruction drawings helped us identify the layout of the fortress, but we took the easy way out and let our kids learn about the castle on a guided treasure hunt as they scrambled over craggy rocks. The combination ticket also allowed us entrance to the museum that features objects found in the ancient well that illustrates daily life in the castle. Even more fascinating are the exhibits from the Merovingian cemetery. But what really captured our imaginations were the birds of prey hurdling through the air at fighter jet speeds and being able to interact with them after the show.
Closer to “home,” we spend an evening at a local restaurant, La Campagnarde. It serves the best food we’ve had anywhere on this trip. While the indoor grill crackles and spits, locals Jean-Marie and Dominique Kinable, who detect our “American accents,” sidle up to our table and make us feel right at home. We discuss travel, politics and nearby places to visit. Andre, the owner, sends us off with a flourish and a complimentary shot of crisp, cold apple liquor. A memorable evening, indeed.
Of course, no story about Liege Province would be complete without exploring the city of Liege itself. While the city, at first glance, appears somewhat stark, if you scratch the surface you will find a place chock-full of history. We found the best way to take stock of the city was by way of a guided boat tour on the Meuse. The one-hour tour leaves from the aquarium, highlighting the city’s history and rich architecture. Next stop, the Museum of Walloon Life housed in a former Franciscan monastery. We loved the architecture and the interactive exhibits of Walloon and puppet theatre was enchanting to young and old alike. But by far, the most popular place to blow off excess energy was the Montagne de Bueren, a 374-step staircase built in 1871 to allow soldiers to by-pass dangerous alleyways as they traveled through the center of town.
While we have enjoyed all the sites Liege has to offer, perhaps our favorite activity has been taking our daughter to the local gymnasium to work out. Here we have met the locals, shared stories and been amused as the 70-year-old instructor, who speaks no English, uses hand signals for Kellis to execute back-tucks off the balance beam. Just being with people, hearing the accents and trying to give each other a sense of who we are and where we are from is heartwarming. And that is the true beauty of travel. While the churches, great art and food of the region are fantastic, if you aren’t getting to know the people, you are missing something unique to the country itself. Happily, Liege Province lends itself to this type of local discovery and as we pack, we store not only our souvenirs but also our treasured memories of a place we never would have known had it not been for exchanging houses.