While staying with friends in Ghent, we decided to do a day trip somewhere on the weekend when they weren’t working. I had been visiting the main destinations of Flanders during the week, so we looked for places a little more offbeat. Ultimately we decided on the city of Tournai because it was the closest spot in Wallonia to Ghent and my friend also hadn’t been there before. This would be my only stop in Wallonia, the French speaking region, during my recent visit to Belgium.
As luck would have it, we picked a pretty rotten day for sightseeing. Belgium’s not particularly known for good weather but that day alternated between windy drizzle and heavy rain. Despite all that, we managed to see a fair bit of the city and enjoy our time there. Here’s what my friend and I managed do while visiting Tournai on a pretty miserable Belgian day.
First of all though, let me share a little on Tournai itself. The city of 70,000 people lies in the westernmost reaches of Wallonia, right against the French border. It’s in fact far closer to French cities Lille and Roubaix than it is any other major Belgian city. The city of Tournai also has quite the noteworthy history.
Tournai actually has the distinction of being the oldest city in Belgium. Surprisingly, its heritage stretches as far back as the 1st century BC. For much of its history the city of Tournai belonged to France, from the Merovingian kings to the Hundred Years War. In fact, it was the birthplace of Clovis I who would go onto create France and have Tournai as his capital. And yet the city’s glory days were during the late Middle Ages, where it prospered as a centre of trade and culture.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Most definitely the main draw for visitors, the Notre Dame Cathedral was also probably my biggest disappointment visiting Tournai. This architectural gem with its distinctive five towers ought to be the kind of sight that would enthral me, but instead was just a minor footnote.
You see, the Notre Dame Cathedral was undergoing major renovations and refurbishment, with scaffolding and even a crane destroying what would have been an impressive sight. It’s always a bit disappointing when you arrive somewhere only to find cranes and scaffolding ruining your view. No matter how much you understand their necessity, you always selfishly wish they could have just started the day after you left. This work on the cathedral is part of a greater revamp of the city’s historic quarter.
Disappointment aside, I was able to glean why this cathedral is worth visiting. For starters the fact that it is a UNESCO world heritage recognised building lends it some instant clout. The cathedral earned its place on the coveted list for the influence it had on other cathedrals built in northern France during the 12th century. Also interesting is the number of other churches that seem to have been built on this very spot over the centuries.
Beyond that, we were able to pop inside and admire the vibrant rose window that adorns the front of the building. Definitely somewhere I’d like to revisit to see in its full glory.
A staple in this part of the world, a visit wouldn’t be complete without entering the main square of Tournai, the Grand Place. This triangular public space is definitely one of the prettiest spots in the city, surrounded by most of Tournai’s main landmarks. There are also plenty of traditional buildings surrounding the square, many embellished with colourful banners.
The Grand Place centres on a statue to Christine de Lalaing, a governess who lead the defence of the city against Parma in 1581. One major landmark lining the Grand Place is the angular St Quentin Church. This holy building cuts quite the castle-like figure with its turrets, as it squeezes in between the houses on the square.
Yet another major landmark and perhaps the most beautiful of the Grand Place is the gilded Cloth Hall. While it could be easily mistaken for a town hall, this Halle aux Draps never served that purpose. The actual town hall lies a little further out by many of the city’s museums and a palatial abbey. Anyway, as its name suggests, the Cloth Hall hosted merchants that traded in cloth goods. Built in the early 17th century, it was only recently restored in 1998.
Pont des Trous Bridge
Of course, the Grand Place is not the only place worth visiting in Tournai. After cutting through the Parc du Jardin de la Reine, we arrived at the sightly Pont des Trous. This wonderfully medieval bridge’s name translates to “Bridge of Holes” and relates to a river lock located nearby. Built over the Scheldt River in the late 13th century, it’s a classic example of medieval military architecture.
As I mentioned at the top, the weather took a turn for the worse in the late morning. Looking to escape the rain, my friend and I followed a stream of people venturing inside the cloth hall and boy were we glad we did. We had only just stumbled upon the local beer festival!
This was the 7th annual Festival Brassicole de Tournai, with an array of brewers from brasseries in and around Tournai. For a small fee we purchased a glass and tokens to do some taste-testing. Despite the truly local nature of the festival, we weren’t the only English speakers there. We came across a table or two of Brits as we sampled the local fare.
As we were bouncing between brewers we got chatting to a really friendly proprietor of a local brewery. He was a brewer from the nearby village of, I kid you not, Silly. This lovely chap from the Brasserie de Silly was more than happy to tell us about the local brewing scene and his different beers. After we had dried off a bit and got a few beers in us, we continued on exploring the city.
With the weather cleared, we took the opportunity to visit the city’s acclaimed Belfry. As one of the Belfries of Belgium recognised by UNESCO for their historical significance, this is definitely one of the must-sees for those visiting Tournai. Dating back to 1188, Tournai’s belfry is the oldest in northern Europe.
As you wind your way up the 256 steps inside the tower, you can stop at several floors where you’ll find information about the belfry and its bells. For instance, the Belfry was the only building in the city centre to survive brutal bombing raids by the Germans in 1940. There are even descriptions of the individual bells and the roles each of them played. Once at the top of the Belfry, you’re treated to stellar views across the city from its narrow observation deck. Entry for the belfry costs 2.1€ for adults.
Information for Visiting Tournai
- If you’re planning on visiting Tournai for the day by train, you’re best doing it from Brussels. Otherwise you’re going to have to make a connecting train in Brussels anyway, which is still not too difficult mind;
- For those planning on staying in Tournai, there aren’t all that many accommodation options open to visitors. Given the limited choices, you’d be wise to book in advance;
- While in town, we ate at the Les 4 Saisons Brasserie which was quite nice as well as grabbing a tasty baguette from the Boulangerie two doors down on the Grand Place. Definitely recommend both!
Have you heard of or visited this low-key destination in Wallonia before? Where would you start when visiting Tournai yourself? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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