TONGEREN, about 20km southeast of Hasselt, is a small and amiable market town on the border of Belgium’s language divide. It’s also – and this is its main claim to fame – the oldest town in Belgium, built on the site of a Roman camp that guarded the road to Cologne. Its early history was plagued by misfortune – it was destroyed by the Franks and razed by the Vikings – but it did prosper during the Middle Ages in a modest sort of way as a dependency of the bishops of Liège. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a more relaxing town, quiet for most of the week except on Sunday mornings (from 7am), when the area around Leopoldwal and the Veemarkt is taken over by the stalls of a vast flea and antiques market, one of the country’s largest.
Shadowing the Grote Markt, the mostly Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady) towers over the town with an impressive, symmetrical elegance, its assorted gargoyles, elaborate pinnacles and intricate tracery belying its piecemeal construction: it’s the eleventh- to sixteenth-century outcome of an original fourth-century foundation, which was the first church north of the Alps to be dedicated to the Virgin. Still very much in use, the yawning interior, with its high, vaulted nave, has preserved an element of Catholic mystery, its holiest object a bedecked, medieval, walnut statue of Our Lady of Tongeren – “Mariabeeld” – which stands in the transept surrounded by candles and overhung by a gaudy canopy.
At the back of the church is the Schatkamer (Treasury), one of the region’s most interesting, crowded with reliquaries, monstrances and reliquary shrines from as early as the tenth century. Three artefacts stand out – a beautiful sixth-century Merovingian buckle; a pious, haunting eleventh-century Head of Christ; and an intricate, bejewelled, thirteenth-century Reliquary Shrine of the Martyrs of Trier, celebrating a large group of German Christians killed at the hands of the Romans in the third century AD.