A Travellerspoint blog

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Liège and Maastricht

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My initial choice for a stop between Luxembourg and Brussels was Charleroi. It made sense because it was one of the largest cities in Belgium and fairly close to the direct route between the two capitals. The funny thing was that when I began my research according to the usual internet searches hardly anything came up. No travel blogs, no magazine articles, just some cursory lists of museums and buildings. At first this intrigued me as I thought we might have a chance to discover a cool city that had been overlooked by international travelers. A closer look at my resources soon revealed that in fact Charleroi is a decaying, poverty-stricken industrial city that is ignored by tourists for good reason. It's always possible that the city has some redeeming features and hidden gems that make it worth visiting but on our quick sweep through Belgium there were too many better candidates. Instead I chose Liège which seemed to have more than enough for one night including a highly regarded Sunday market.

The route to Liège took us through the Ardennes, a vast forested region renowned for natural beauty as well as the horrifically destructive battles that were fought there in both world wars. We only had time to stop in one of the famously beautiful villages of the region and I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne. The town seemed to have all the features emblematic of the Ardennes: a bucolic setting within a bend of the River Ourthe, a hilltop castle, brick and half-timbered houses. What my research didn't tell me is that the town is a massively over-developed tourist trap, a fact accentuated by our misfortune of arriving on a Saturday afternoon. The parking areas were so packed we had to find a spot on one of the roads leading out of town. A town square was completely filled with parked motorcycles and the streets were buzzing with stereotypical tourists with loud clothes and telephoto lenses. I suppose we weren't any better than they were but ideally we like to see the locals outnumbering the tourists when we travel. Here it wasn't close. Walking across the Ourthe into the old town was still quite enjoyable as we could see the reflections of a row of attractive townhouses distorted by tiny ripples in the glassy surface of the river.

The main street of the old town was lined with ice cream shops and inexpensive restaurants with insipid menus. The flagstone streets and the stone houses didn't look more than fifty years old. In general the stone facades looked more like artificial siding than the genuine article. It was a significant contrast from the authentic antiquity of the towns we had visited in France and Luxembourg. The town had a little bit of charm but overall it was an unconvincing reconstruction of what had been largely destroyed in the second world war. The main exception was the eerie ruin of the medieval castle that could be seen hovering above the town on a verdant hillside.

We had lunch in a butcher shop that doubled up as a bistro called Maison Bouillon & Fils. I thought it would be a good way to get to know the rich local cuisine but we didn't find much that appealed to us outside of the charcuterie which was somewhat uninspired in itself. Mei Ling referred to it afterwards as "that cold cut place". The restaurant was pretty but insubstantial, a description that applied equally to the town as a whole.

Although we don't usually do museums Ian was curious about the World War II museum with a large tank in front of it. I found it as depressing as anything else related to war. World War II probably takes the cake in terms of the worst suffering humans have managed to inflict on each other in any particular episode of history. I learned that La Roche-en-Ardenne suffered far more damage from American artillery than German during the war but there haven't been hard feelings about it. It was part of the operation to trap the German forces in the Ardennes and was considered a necessary evil.

After the museum Ian and I met up with the others who had been sitting on the main street having ice cream. Two hours in this town had been more than enough and we strolled back across the Ourthe towards the car. A line of bright red kayaks extended around the bend in the river. La Roche-en-Ardenne was certainly a charming place but it wasn't the kind of experience we look for when we travel. I expect we'll return to the Ardennes in a few years when we are road tripping through northern France and give it a more thorough evaluation.

I had taken note of a wildlife park close to town as a possible diversion for the kids but when I reviewed it again it seemed too small and limited to be worthwhile. Fortunately I came across something I'd missed previously, an amusement park for kids called Parc Chlorophylle. It took us about half an hour to get there on narrow roads passing through forested areas, allowing us to feel the natural atmosphere of the Ardennes more than the highway we had been on earlier. The park was a slightly confusing place with several different sections. At first it seemed to be just a large playground but eventually I realized that there was a long trail that led to several different interactive play areas, some of which were quite elaborate. It was probably the most fun the kids had had since the games at the Bastille in Grenoble.

After staying at Parc Chlorophylle until it closed we had a late and somewhat complicated arrival in Liège. Sometimes in Europe dealing with an Airbnb can feel like playing an escape game, albeit one in which the goal is to get into a hidden room rather than to escape from it. In order to reach our apartment we had to locate the parking garage in back of the building but we could not activate the gate without the key. I had to walk up the ramp, locate our personal garage and figure out the trick to lifting the door, retrieve the key and activate the gate, drive back up the ramp and maneuver the car into the narrow stall, and then clamber out via the ten inch gap that was created when the car door was pressed against the garage wall. After this harrowing experience we could now pass through the remaining doors between the garage and the elevator to the apartment.

Our building was in a blue collar mixed residential and commercial neighborhood called Longdoz across the river from the city center. The neighborhood's ethnic and immigrant character with a profusion of restaurants reminded me of Brooklyn or Queens from my home city of New York. We were so frazzled after the complicated arrival that we didn't consider attempting the walk to the center for dinner, especially considering the number of restaurants on our street. We eventually settled on a Vietnamese place that turned out to be average at best.

In the morning we packed up and went through the reverse of the complicated process we had gone through to park the car in the garage. I had designed our itinerary so that we would be in Liège on a Sunday morning for Marché de la Batte. There has been a market at the La Batte section of the western bank of the Meuse since 1561, which makes it the oldest market in Belgium as well as one of the largest. We were a little anxious that the disruptions of the COVID epidemic might have put an end to the market but as soon as we crossed over the Meuse from the river island of Outremeuse we could see a lengthy row of white canopies. Parking was already quite tight but fortunately we were early enough to find a spot a couple of blocks inland. On our walk to the market we passed the colorful Saint Bartholomew's church, an icon of Liege. The church is an exemplar of an obscure style of Byzantine-influenced architecture known as Ottonian after the medieval German emperor who favored it. In the square at the base of the church is a playful bronze sculpture by Mady Andrien depicting a group of small people heading to parts unknown under the watchful gaze of a cluster of giant bishops.

The market was stretched out for about a kilometer of the boulevard that ran alongside the Meuse. It was crowded but not packed and we were able to shop and converse with the merchants without feeling harried. There was a strong immigrant presence here and many North African food specialties. Extensive excavations on the inland side of the boulevard and endless construction barriers added to the gritty feel of the market. The stalls weren't as pretty as in the French markets where every item was always laid out perfectly but the quality was amazing, especially the plump, sweet cherries we couldn't get enough of. The other impressive feature of the market was its extraordinary length. It was over a kilometer from the Pont Saint-Léonard where we started to the Saucy footbridge where a final cluster of stalls filled a parking lot.

We walked out onto the footbridge for a look back at the market from above. In the other direction highrises lined the banks of the Meuse. We had crossed this river close to its source days earlier when driving from Langres to Nancy. Since then it had passed through the renowned French cities of Neufchâteau and Verdun before turning eastward at Namur in the Ardennes and now we were standing above it in Liège. The river would turn again to the north and pass through the Netherlands before eventually joining the Rhine as it emptied into the North Sea. I loved to familiarize myself with these rivers and the way they connected the different cities and societies of Western Europe throughout history.

We had no desire to return to the car through the market so we raised our hoods against an annoying but not unexpected drizzle and turned inland towards the city center. The streets of this older neighborhood contained an interesting mixture of classical apartment buildings in Germanic style and more modern edifices. Some of the most impressive buildings such as the Prince-Bishops' Palace and the Hotel de Ville house the municipal government.

The old town of Liège abuts a steep hill which was once topped by the fortress that defended the city. The most famous way to ascend the hill is via the Montagne de Bueren, a 384 step staircase that was built in the late nineteenth century and commemorates a futile battle fought four centuries earlier by locals against the Duke of Burgundy. I wasn't expecting the kids to be up to the climb but to my surprise they tore off ahead of us and maintained a pretty steady pace for most of the ascent, although they were exhausted for the last few flights. The stairs were adorned with inspirational messages such as "Thank you for visiting without screaming" in four languages. It was amazing to see the city recede below us every time I turned around. I'm not sure what I expected to find at the top but a solitary bench and a dull residential street didn't seem worthy of the climb. The fortress atop the hill was long ago demolished and replaced with a large hospital.

Between the staircase and Saint Bartholomew's several alleys called impasses course northward from Rue Hors-Château and dead end in courtyards at the foot of the hill. The entrances to the impasses were nothing more than doorways that led into fascinating narrow cobblestone paths that were heavily overgrown with ivy and other wall plants. The rural atmosphere was completely different from anything else we had seen in Liège.

To my regret we hadn't spent any time in the neighborhood of Outremeuse. Outremeuse once referred to the entire area on the right bank of the Meuse but a short canal known as La Dérivation resulted in the formation of a large river island that co-opted the name. The area was originally dominated by tanneries and mills but is now largely residential with some gritty areas and a growing reputation for hipness. The southern end of the island is occupied by Parc de la Boverie which contains a fine arts museum by the same name. A footbridge crosses over the park and then the Meuse to the Guillemins neighborhood of the left bank. Underneath the bridge enormous geese patrol the grass around a pond with a central island. We walked past the museum hoping to see the confluence of the Meuse with the Ourthe at the southern tip of the island but eventually our progress was stopped by the gated entrance to a boat club.

Liège had been a worthwhile overnight stop. Before moving onward to Brussels we would briefly cross into the Netherlands to visit Maastricht. The Dutch province of Limburg forms an odd southeastern projection of the Netherlands that seems as though it should be part of Belgium. The strange configuration of the border came about when the military garrison of Maastricht remained loyal to the Netherlands while the rest of the southern half of the country seceded to become Belgium. Even though the general population of Maastricht wished to join Belgium an arbitration by the Great Powers resulted in the city and surrounding areas remaining with the Netherlands. Once we arrived I amused myself by surprising everyone with the news that we were no longer in Belgium and making them guess which country we were now in. They had no clue but the kids were impressed when I reminded them they had now been in four different countries in four days.

In a departure from our usual routine I had scheduled a tour of the Waldeck Casemates, a network of tunnels that was once part of the city fortifications. Our tour wouldn't take place for a couple more hours but I thought it might be a good idea to identify the starting point ahead of time. My instructions indicated that the tour company office was located somewhere within the Waldeck city park. I tracked down the pin on Google Maps and it put us in front of a locked, unmarked red door set into a weird brick wall in the middle of the park. This seemed like it couldn't be right but we walked around the entire area and there was nothing resembling an office or a kiosk. Since our SIMs didn't allow us to make calls there was nothing to do but continue onward to the city center and hope that we would find our tour guide when we returned. The walk was longer than we expected but it took us through some interesting streets.

We were quite surprised by how crowded and energetic the pedestrianized center of the city was. I had never heard of Maastricht as a travel destination yet most people in the center were quite obviously tourists. It reminded me somewhat of the unexpected energy we had found in Metz and Trier. I had the feeling that many of the visitors were from neighboring regions of Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands on a weekend getaway.

There were two impressively large open squares in the old town. At the southwestern corner of Vrijthof were two enormous churches that I first thought were a single structure with diverse architectural elements, something like the Dom of Trier. The red Gothic belltower belongs to the church of St. John while its dignified Romanesque neighbor is the Basilica of Saint Servatius. Both churches were originally Catholic and performed complementary functions in medieval times, but during the reformation Saint John was claimed by the Protestants. Apparently the relationship between the two institutions has not always been harmonious but we didn't see any arrows being shot from one building to the other. Vrijthof felt rather barren but it is an important square for festivals and the annual Christmas market. At Markt the star attraction was Maastricht's seventeenth century city hall, a stone behemoth in Dutch Baroque style. True to its name Markt contained several large market stalls selling cheese, sausages, coffee, and snacks but these were clearly the daily tourist shops. The real market takes place every Wednesday and Friday morning.

We had to hurry back to the Waldeck Park to be in time for our Casemates tour. When we reached the brick wall there were several people standing in front of it, one of whom was obviously the tour guide. After providing us with some background he unlocked the red door in the wall which was the entrance to the casemates. I'd never heard the term casemates before and now we had encountered it in both Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The term has a somewhat obscure origin but may be derived from the Greek word chásmata, meaning gap. Casemates are fortification walls that contain spaces for gun emplacements or human movement. Maastricht was extensively fortified during the late Renaissance period as it occupied an important strategic position at the crossroads of the great European powers. Many of these walls and embattlements were destroyed over time but several long sections of casemates remain and were used as bomb shelters during World War II. As we explored the dark tunnels I tried to impress on the kids what it must have felt like to hide underground as bombs detonated overhead, never knowing how or when this terror and destruction would end. Of course they couldn't begin to conceive of it having never known anything except peace and security.

For a more complete picture of Maastricht we drove to the Wyck District, a historic neighborhood directly across the river from the city center. The area is renowned for its immaculate classical architecture and energetic street life with upscale boutiques, cafes, and galleries. The intersecting streets Wycker Brugstraat and Rechtstraat are the best for browsing and people-watching. At the end of Brugstraat the medieval stone St. Servatius Bridge allows pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the Meuse between Wyck and the city center. The bridge was undergoing some unsightly construction during our visit but it was still interesting to look out over the Meuse for the second time that day. We had now seen two fascinating cities in two different countries in the same day that were birthed from this storied river.

Over the last few days we had discovered some amazing cities off the beaten track in Western Europe, from Nancy to Maastricht. All of these cities were well-deserving of being visited and we had seen some stunning places whose existence we might otherwise never have been aware of. For the next week however we would be on a well-worn tourist path from Brussels to Amsterdam. Would we be able to find the souls of these legendary cities amid all the commercialism and hype as we did in Osaka and Los Angeles, or would we be met with the frustrating superficiality that we encountered in Paris and Vienna? It was time to drive onward to Brussels and find out.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:30 Archived in Belgium Tagged road_trip family ardennes meuse family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog la_roche montagne_de_bueren la_batte outremeuse

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