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Summer city trips in Belgium #15: Tournai
It may be overlooked, but this Walloon city is a historical gem, with a gentle pace and healthy appetite for local brews and festivities. It’s also known for its artistic background, particularly in porcelain, tapestry, antiques.
The oldest city in Belgium after Tongeren and Arlon, Tournai is the only city to have been conquered by the English; Henry VIII captured it in 1513 before France reclaimed it in 1519. The Henry VIII Tower is a reminder of the British presence: the large circular monument sits incongruously in a square of fine bourgeois homes. Founded by the Romans as a transport link on the river Scheldt, Tournai flourished in the 11th century when it became the religious centre of Flanders and a key trade route.
Wander around the walled city with little risk of getting lost: signposts and the looming cathedral towers are all the navigational aid you’ll need. From the centre, cross the river where barges still ply their trade, and meander through ancient streets of Roman houses and handsome squares and townhouses. There are reminders that Tournai, like much of Hainaut, is still climbing out of a post-industrial slump; gentrification is not widespread and the city is a fascinating hotchpotch of medieval cobbles, run-down timbered houses, building sites and kebab shops.
The towering landmark of this eminent past is the Unesco-recognised Notre-Dame cathedral, with its five bell towers bisecting a Romanesque nave and gothic choir. The triangular Grand Place nearby has been fully restored since the 1940 bombardment and its majestic Cloth Hall remains from the once-prosperous medieval wool trade. Overlooking the square and adding to Sunday morning’s carillon peal is the 70-metre belfry, dating back to 1217. The romantic 13th-century Pont des Trous, a fortified water bridge, also remains. The museum quarter around the elegant and landscaped town hall includes the Musée des Beaux-Arts, designed by Victor Horta in an Art Nouveau style and in line for a contemporary extension. Outside Tournai, explore the little-known Wallonie Picarde region, full of castles, breweries and heritage sites.
Eat, drink & sleep
Overlooking the river are the former fish market and a row of bars that liven up at night. A favourite is La Vie des Belges, offering regional tapas and tipples. Sampling local beers is recommended, so look out for the following breweries: Brunehaut, Dupont, Dubuisson, Bon Secours, Saint-Feuillien, Saint-Martin and Le Tournay. North African eateries and brasseries abound; one gourmet option on the quayside for couscous and tagine is Un thé sous le figuier. For places to stay, the three-starred Cathedral Hotel has a prime location in Place Saint-Pierre; the boutique Alcantara Hotel, tucked behind the Grand Place, is quieter. For edible souvenirs, head to Quesnoy Patisserie by the station for Clovis cake (named after the Merovingian king), a confection of frangipane and apricot jam, or try apricot-flavoured iced biscuits called palets de dame, or the hard black sweets known as ballons de Tournai.