In association with the Belgian Tourist Office

Liège: The city that fought back

This thriving corner of Belgium was striken by war. By Henry Palmer

Just before 8am on 4 August 1914, German troops started to pound across the border towards the small town of Visé, about 20km north-east of Liège. The residents of Visé had blockaded the road with trees, rocks and cars and then destroyed the town's bridge over the River Meuse.

Their efforts delayed the troops sufficiently to allow time for the Belgian army to arrive on the left bank of the Meuse. A three-hour battle ensued before the enormously outnumbered Belgian soldiers were forced to withdraw. It was the first confrontation of the First World War.

The German army proceeded south, heading for the important industrial city of Liège. But they met with further fierce resistance. Around Liège was a 46km chain of 12 forts, built in the late-1880s: six large strongholds (Barchon, Fléron, Boncelles, Flémalle, Loncin and Pontisse) interspersed with six smaller ones (Evegnée, Liers, Lantin, Hollogne, Embourg and Chaudfontaine), each about 4km from the next. Under a barrage of firing, the Belgian soldiers stationed there managed to hold back the invading troops and protect the city for 11 days. The last fort, Boncelles to the south, was taken on 16 August. Thereafter Liège was occupied by the Germans for the rest of the war. The German Kaiser HQ would settle for the duration of the war in nearby Spa.

Today Visé is a cheerful place. Yet in August 1914 much of it was burned down by German troops, who subsequently rounded up 650 civilian men and marched them off to work in Germany. In the 1920s the town was carefully rebuilt. Indeed on the main shopping street, Rue du College, a plaque marks the 1,000th house reconstructed in the town. It was completed in 1922.

Further along Rue du College is Visé's museum and cultural centre ( museedevise.be), housed in a former convent and containing an absorbing section on both the world wars. Meanwhile the Basse Meuse tourist board ( basse-meuse.be) is working on a circular driving and bike route in the area. When unveiled next year it will take in sites of the First World War battles with information panels from which further historical details will be accessible through smartphone barcodes.

Moving south, seven of the First World War forts, along with a few constructed for the Second World War, can be visited today – although some are open only sporadically (see liegetourisme.be for details). The most dramatic, and the most regularly open, is Loncin ( fortdeloncin.be) on the outskirts of the village of Ans. It is a tremendously moving site: you arrive at a sleepy-looking suburb and stop outside a small white museum building at 15 Rue des Héros. It contains a wonderfully eclectic range: genuine uniforms, the remains of shells, models of the forts and more. Guided visits can be booked in advance.

Behind, hidden in earthworks, is a huge triangular fort. In 1914 it housed 550 men. Like the other forts of the First World War it was designed by the military engineer Henri Brialmont and equipped with long-range howitzers in retractable cupolas. It was envisaged that the heaviest artillery to fire on these defences would be 210mm guns, but thundering along with the German troops were super-guns: 420mm howitzers shot from a cannon nicknamed Big Bertha. On 15 August 1914, a shell landed on the vault of Loncin's powder room and half the fort exploded. Nevertheless, 14 survivors continued fighting as the fort was overrun.

Loncin still lies in this part-ruined state – and visitors are allowed entry to much of it. Adding to the mood here, tours around the inner fortifications take place to a soundtrack of intensive shelling. Outside, stairs lead over the debris to the triangular tip of the fort which was turned into a striking crypt in 1921.

In total contrast to this sombre, thought-provoking site, today the centre of Liège – about 6km away – is a vibrant destination, renowned for its shops and its café life. Wander the Carré district, a pedestrian area of much charm, lined with neat boutiques and chocolate shops. Enjoy the lively art scene at Musée Grand Curtius ( grandcurtiusliege.be), a treasure house of beautifully displayed archaeology, religious works, sculpture and more; at Bal (Beaux Arts de Liège, beauxartsliege.be) with its contemporary shows; and at the intriguing museum of Walloon life ( viewallonne.be), wonderfully set in a former monastery. Then make for the historic heart of town around Place du Marché, order a locally brewed Jupiler beer at one of the cluster of bars and cafes here, and take in the vibe.

Café commemoration

The bravery of the Belgium troops in the First World War became near legendary. In taking on the ferocious Germany army, they earned valuable time for the Allied forces. The French president sent a telegram to the Belgian king announcing that the city of Liège was to be awarded the Légion d'Honneur. And in the cafés of Paris, the dessert known as café viennois was renamed café Liègeois.

Staying there

Jala Hotel (00 32 4 230 7330; jalahotel.com) at 2 Rue Jaspar is a contemporary-chic outfit with 54 very generously sized rooms. Doubles from €150, room only.

Eating there

For an atmospheric, traditional meal head to Le Bistrot d'en Face (00 32 4223 1584; lebistrotdenface.be) on Rue de la Goffe opposite Liège's old butcher's guild. The menu offers a mix of fine French-style cuisine and a gastronomic twist on local specialities such as Boulets à la Liégeoise (meatballs cooked in Liège's apple and pear syrup). Or make for a local favourite: L'Enoteca (00 32 4222 2464; enoteca.be) in the Carré district at 5 Rue de la Casquette offers just one set menu based on what's available in the market that day.

 

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor