Friday, June 28, 2013

Liège - the daughter of Meuse

The city of Liège in the French-speaking region of Wallonia, in the southeast of Belgium, has just as long and illustrious history as Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels, but these days it seems to have ended up in the Belgian backwaters and is largely forgotten by tourist brochures and the beer fans who travel to Belgium from all corners of the world.

I won't claim to have done the city justice by staying there for only two days, but at least I got a feel for what it's like today and what it must have been like in former times. This post is a recount of my brief visit in May 2013, to explore the local beer scene and the city of Liège itself.

River Meuse, the mother of Liège, seen from Sainte-Walburge

La Naissance de Liège
A sculpture on the Pont des Arches bridge across river Meuse in Liège is called La Naissance de Liège or The Birth of Liège and shows a woman with a child in her arms. This is an allegory for Liège being the daughter of the river, which is rather obvious when you view the city from the vantage point of Mount Sainte-Walburge north of the city. From there, the Meuse can be seen flowing through the heart of Liège, fondling the shores and creating the island of Outremeuse along the way. River Meuse, by the way, is not only one of the major rivers in western Europe, with a length of 925 km, it's actually the oldest river in the world, having drained out in the North Sea for some 380 million years.

Like Bruges and Ghent in Flanders, Liège has had its share of famous, historical persons, the most powerful being none other than Charlemagne or Charles the Great, the king of the Franks and from 800-814 AD the mighty Holy Roman Emperor ruling all of western Europe. Like his father, Pepin the Short, Charlemagne was born in the village of Herstal, just outside modern Liège, in the 8th century, but his rule was felt all over Europe and was remembered for centuries after. All traces I could find of him in Liège today was the equestrian Charlemagne statue in Parc d'Avroy.

In 985, Liège became the capital of a prince-bishopric which basically means an area controlled by a bishop who had the powers of a prince to extract taxes and make laws for his minions. The first prince-bishop was a man called Notger who transformed the city into a major intellectual and ecclesiastical centre, which maintained its cultural importance during the Middle Ages.

In 1468, the independent and unruly city of Liège was laid siege to by Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy who, just to be on the safe side, enlisted the help of the French King Louis XI. The siege almost ended in a disaster for the Duke when a troop of 600 men, under the leadership of nobleman Vincent de Bueren, charged up the Sainte-Walburge hill with the plan to capture the King and Duke. However, this plan failed when the troops from the city started fighting the Burgundian soldiers instead of going straight into the camp to capture the leaders. This gave the Duke and the King time to rally their troops into a counter-offensive and beat back the attackers. The next day the Burgundians sacked Liège and put the city to the torch. According to legend the city burned for seven weeks. Today this brave but failed attack is remembered with a sense of pride by the people of Liège, who in 1880 named a new stairway Montagne de Bueren in honor of Vincent de Bueren.

The Montagne de Bueren stairway in Liège

During the Counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th century the diocese of Liège was split up and gradually lost its role as a regional power. But Liège remained in the hands of the Bavarian prince-bishops until the French Revolution broke out in July 1789, this inspired the people of Liège to start their own revolution, overthrowing the prince-bishop and establishing the Republic of Liège in August 1789. Though the republic fell to Austrian forces in 1791, this event had shook the system of prince-bishops so when French troops captured Liège (and Bavaria) in 1794, the city was more than ready to throw out its prince-bishops again. This time for good.

With the fall of Napoleon in 1815, France had to let go of Liège which was incorporated into the newly formed United Kingdoms of the Netherlands where it remained until the Belgian Revolution of 1830, which saw the formation of an independent Kingdom of Belgium. This signalled the start of a golden era for Liège, because Belgium was second only to Britain in joining the industrial revolution and it was in Wallonia, not the arable farm land of Flanders, that Belgian industry were located. Liège became one of continental Europe's first large-scale steel making centres, this required many workers so the population ballooned and the city grew out of bounds.

Walking around in Liège today, you'll notice that areas outside old town often have apartment buildings from the mid to late 19th century, many of them unkept for decades or even totally abandoned. The reason for this is that by the time of World War I the industry in Wallonia was already in decline. Today there's hardly any industry left, giving outlying areas of the city an "empty shell" feel.

Walking down the narrow Au Pérî street 

However, the spirit of Liège has started to stirr again, even if you still see lots of old and abandoned buildings. The brand new Liège-Guillemins railway station, a wonder of engineering based on a design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, opened in September 2009 and has become a tourist attraction in itself as well as an important hub on the high-speed railway network through Belgium.

Unlike Flanders, which is flat as a pancake, Liège is located in a hilly terrain which means there are steep hills to climb, if your are so inclined, rewarding you with great views of the city below and of the River Meuse. One of the most popular climbs is up the 374 steps of the 28% inclined Montagne de Bueren stairway, which leads up from the Hors-Château street to the Citadel on Sainte-Walburge. From the upper parts of the stairway you'll have a great view of Liège. The sweaty climb is worth it, trust me.

That Liège is about to "wake up" should be clear from the fact that it was one of two candidate cities for the 2017 World Expo, if it had been selected (it wasn't, the World Expo 2017 will be in Astana, Kazakhstan) it would surely have had an enormous impact on the largely rundown but historically rich city. Now, its modernization will take place more gradually than if the World Expo had come here, so if you want to visit Liège to get a sense of what this city was like in its 19th century heydays there's still time.

Getting there
Belgium has an extensive railway network so whether you come from Brussels, like I did, or Antwerp in the north, there are almost hourly train departures in the directon of Liège. I went by train from Bruxelles-Midi railway station to the new Liège-Guillemins station, which cost me less than an hour and €14. You really can't beat time or price.

If you insist on going by car, the European highway E40 passes by Brussels and goes straight to Liège, a drive of about 100 km or 1 hour. Liège even has an airport, but it's mainly a cargo airport (the 7th most important in Europe) though since 2005 it has also had a passenger terminal. But I would still recommend going by train.

Le Vaudrée II on 149 Rue Saint Gilles in Liège

The beer scene
As mentioned in the intro, Liège doesn't draw large crowds of beer tourists so you will be pretty much on your own with the regulars when you visit a pub or brasserie in the city.

Le Vaudrée II
Le Vaudrée is actually a chain of beer restaurants, originating in Liège but now found at 6 other locations in the Walloon Region of Belgium. The original Le Vaudrée was started by Camille Dumez in the mid 1980s, it can still be found in Rue du Val-Benoît on the southern outskirts of Liège. However, since 1990, there has been a second brasserie, creatively named Le Vaudrée II, on Rue Saint Gilles in the heart of old town Liège.

Even though the original Le Vaudrée currently has a higher rating at RateBeer and a few more beers on tap than the second location, I decided against going there because it was located 4 km from my hotel and in the opposite direction of old town. Fortunately, Le Vaudrée II was not a poor alternative.

Le Vaudrée II is located on 149 Rue Saint Gilles, just a 4-5 minutes walk from Liège Cathedral. It's open from early morning until well after midnight on every day of the week, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner accompanied by high quality Belgian beer. On tap, they serve 24 draft beers and on bottle more than 900 different types, so there was no chance I would get bored after one night! Among the more interesting draft beers, when I was there, they served Tripel Karmeliet, Gulden Draak 9000, St Feuillien Saison, Val-Dieu Brune and Mc Chouffe. On bottle I was intrigued by a series of beers from Brasserie Artisanale Millevertus, ranging from a nice Brune to a weird saffron beer. Another nice find was La Brasserie à Vapeur that makes a very funky saison called Vapeur en Folie.

In addition to the excellent beer selection, Le Vaudrée II also has a more than adéquat food menu offering a selection of cold and warm dishes, soups, fish, pork and beef, some of them even grilled on stone plates. The first night I had a tender beef with their own Vaudrée sauce (made with myrtle, white wine, cream, tomato, mushroom. Ardennes ham and tarragon!), which cost me €20 and tasted really delicious. The second night I tried the mixed grill plate, for a euro more, which was also good but more ordinary.

The bar with 24 beers on tap at Le Vaudrée II in Liège

The service at Le Vaudrée II was surprisingly fast and good, I hardly had time to sit down or finish a glass of beer before the bartender came over to ask me for my order. And, to my great relief, the bartender spoke a fairly decent English, allowing me to ask questions about the different beers. This is not typical for native French speaking regions in Europe so this is a great pluss in my book. So, if you find yourself in old town Liège, Le Vaudrée II is the place to go both for great beer and food.

Taverne Saint Paul
Tucked away around the corner from La Cathédrale St Paul de Liège, in the narrow but busy pedestrian street Rue Saint Paul, the 125 year old Taverne Saint Paul is something as unusual in Wallonia as a "brown café" so it was an obvious place to visit when in old town Liège.

Established in 1881, in the building of a former coaching inn, Taverne Saint Paul provides a respite from the daily hustle and bustle. Here time literarily stands still, exemplified by the clock inside the café which has been set deliberately wrong, so that customers have no way of knowing the correct time of day. In 2012, the 29 year old Maxime Piette took over the reins of the café promising not to change a bit, and that still seems to hold true as far as I could see.

Visitors to Taverne Saint Paul are greeted by a dark brown interior, on a sunny day it will seem almost dark in there, with well worn wooden furniture and walls covered with old memorabilia. Usually beer ads, but also old grandfather clocks and cigar boxes. The small bar sports 6 beer taps, which included Hoegaarden, Leffe Blond and Chimay Blanche, and also offer some 30 types of beer on bottle. It may not be the most inspiring selection, but I found the quiet and tranquil atmosphere intoxicating and stayed for longer than I had planned.

The bar at the 125 year old Taverne Saint Paul in Liège

L'Antre du Vaudrée
Just across the street from Le Vaudrée II, on 130 Rue Saint Gilles, you'll find the best beer shop in Liège, L'Antre du Vaudrée. As the name implies, this shop has the same owner as the Le Vaudrée chain of beer restaurants.

The shop is well stocked with beer from all parts of Belgium and like the restaurant across the street it offers an amazing 900 types of beer on bottle. The man behind the counter spoke reasonably well English, allowing me to ask questions about beers and breweries. When I had made my choices, based on what I had tasted at Le Vaudrée II, it turned out the shop was short in stock on one of them. But the fellow behind the counter was of the resourceful kind and solved his problem elegantly by running across the street to "borrow" a few bottles from the beer cellar of Le Vaudrée II!

Concluding remaks
Even though I only visited two beer establishments and a good beer shop, I found Liège to be a very good beer destination as it brings you really close to Belgian beer roots in an environment virtually free of tourists and RateBeerians (unlike in Brussels, Bruges or Ghent where you can't avoid them). So, even if this post may cause more "beer trotters" to visit Liège, I plan to make more trips to this old industrial city in eastern Belgium and the next time I will try to visit the original Le Vaudrée.

The new Liège-Guillemins railway station from 2009

For more photos from Liège see the following Flickr sets: Beer and the City.

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