Tournai: Belgium’s treasure trove

Wonderful vistas and artworks give Tournai a real charm, says Harriet O’Brien


A magnificent triangle


A place of great cultural significance, Tournai developed along the banks of the River Escaut (also known as the Scheldt) which today is still used as a route for cargo transport.

In the course of its long and rich history, this neat little town has been ruled by the Romans, the Franks, the French, the English and the Austrians. During the 15th century it was recognised as one of the great art centres of Europe. In the 19th century it became closely associated with the textile, tanning and printing industries. Although badly damaged during the Second World War, it was beautifully restored during the 1940s and 50s, particularly around its glorious Grand-Place.

This wide plaza is where to begin a visit. The reason for its strange, triangular shape remains a mystery. The most plausible explanation is that the site was at the convergence of two ancient ways where an important Gallo-Roman burial place was established. You’ll see some of the town’s finest architecture here: the Cloth Hall, with its columned gables; the great church of St Quentin with its rounded turrets and the 17thcentury bailiff’s court.

Glorious landmarks

With its five towers piercing the skyline, Tournai’s gigantic cathedral is an iconic landmark. Its oldest elements date back to the 12th century, however for hundreds of year it was a work in progress, with a 14th-century porch, 17th-century stained glass and more. Its dimensions alone make it worthy of a visit – although ongoing conservation work may mean that some parts of the church are not accessible.

Step inside (admission is free to the main part of the building) to see the long nave, the glorious transept and, best of all, the treasury which is now a museum (closed Mondays; adults €2). The highlights here are two finely worked reliquaries from the 13th century. Contact the Tournai tourist office (see below) to book a guided tour of the conservation works.

Earn a fabulous view

Adjacent to the cathedral is the 72m-high belfry (see tourist office details below; closed Mondays; adults €2). The earliest such structure here was built in 1217.

After fire damage it was reconstructed in its current form in 1391. It’s one of the few bell towers in Belgium in which you can climb almost to the top – if you have the energy. Take the 257 steps to the viewing platform passing an old prison area (the belfry was used as a jail in the 18th century), an exhibition chamber, and a 43 bell-carillon on the way.

Walk along the water

Take a stroll along the newly renovated quayside of the River Escaut. This runs between Pont a Pont, the oldest bridge in Tournai, and Pont des Trous, or “bridge of holes”, a magnificent 13th-century water gate perforated with arrow slits – hence the name. In its newly reconditioned form the ancient walkway is dotted with cafés and restaurants, and has a long section shaded by plane trees and lined with benches.

Ancient houses

Head to Rue Barre Saint-Brice to marvel at the oldest houses in town, two Romanesque-style properties built in 1175. Teetering with age, they sport gables and narrow windows supported by stone columns.

Take in two towers

Tournai was briefly a British possession during Henry VIII’s reign. It was held by English troops for five years (1513-18), and a citadel was constructed to accommodate these foreign soldiers. Standing tall off Avenue du Rempart in the north of the town, a watchtower with 6m-thick walls remains from this structure. Further south, off Rue Perdue near the Grand- Place, there’s another striking piece of military architecture.

The Fort Rouge – so called because of its red roof – was built in the 12th century and was beautifully restored in the 1990s. The interior of this defensive tower now serves as a multimedia theatre.

Art Nouveau wonders

To reflect Tournai’s industrial wealth in the early years of the 20th century, a bold museum of art was commissioned in 1913. The Musée des Beaux-Arts (00 32 69 33 24 31; tournai.be/museebeaux-arts; closed Tuesdays; adults €5) stands adjacent to the town hall. Designed by Victor Horta, Belgium’s master of Art Nouveau, it is a splendid building that makes a great play of curves, light and space.

The central hall is a captivating area showing classical-style sculpture, wonderfully offset by the addition of pink flying hippo by Tom Frantzen. The permanent collection includes work by Monet, Manet and Van Gogh.

Celebration of stitches

For an insight into the inventive, go-ahead spirit of Tournai, visit the Musée de la Tapisserie et des Arts du Tissu (00 32 69 84 20 73; tournai.be/musee-tapisserie; closed Tuesdays; adults €5) at the neo-classical Place Reine Astrid.

Tapestry making developed into an important craft here in the 14th century, declined 200 years later, and was revived around the time of the Second World War with commissions for Forces murals. This museum offers a pageant of tapestries old and new, setting 15th-century works of kings and knights alongside modern, avant-garde creations.

Contemporary cuisine

Among the new restaurants in town is Le Lacet Bleu (00 32 69 21 56 79; lacetbleu.be) at 18 Rue Dorez. The menu at this stylish establishment offers traditional dishes based on seasonal ingredients and makes a great play of textures and spices with a number of exotic options. The three course set menu costs €35. Along the revived quayside of the River Escaut, Bistro des Traboules (00 32 69 22 80 74) at 33 Quai Notre Dame offers brasserie fare with a twist, like of duck hamburgers with cep capuccino. Expect to pay around €25 for two courses.

Seek a quiet retreat

Hotel d’Alcantara (00 32 69 21 26 48; hotelalcantara.be) at 2 Rue des Bouchers St Jacques is a charming place created from two historic townhouses. It offers 17 rooms (doubles from €97 including breakfast). For a more rural option, head to the village of Willemeau just a few kilometres south of Tournai. La Framboisine (00 32 69 64 87 03; laframboisine.net) at 733 Chaussée de Douai is a chic chambres d’hotes with a big garden and two double rooms (€65 including breakfast).

More information

Tournai Office du Tourisme (00 32 69 22 20 45; tournai.be) is at 14 Vieux Marché aux Poteries; open weekdays 8am to 6pm, weekends 10am to noon and 2pm to 5pm.



Suggested Topics
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: International Project Coordinator / Account Coordinator

    Circa £26,500 DOE: Guru Careers: An International Project Coordinator / Accoun...

    Guru Careers: Plumber / Maintenance Operator

    £25k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Plumber / Mainten...

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Day In a Page

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks