KORTRIJK (Courtrai in French), just 8km from the French border, is the largest town in this part of West Flanders, a lively, busy sort of place with a couple of excellent hotels, several good places to eat and a smattering of distinguished medieval buildings. The town traces its origins back to a Roman settlement called Cortoriacum, but its salad days were in the Middle Ages when its burghers made a fortune producing linen and flax. The problem was its location: Kortrijk was just too close to France for comfort and time and again the town was embroiled in the wars that swept across Flanders, right up to the two German occupations of the last century.
Heavily bombed during World War II, Kortrijk’s Grote Markt is a comely but architecturally incoherent mixture of bits of the old and a lot of the new, surrounding the forlorn, turreted Belfort – all that remains of what was once a splendid medieval cloth hall. At the northwest corner of the Grote Markt stands the Stadhuis, a sedate edifice with modern statues of the counts of Flanders on the facade, above and beside two lines of ugly windows. Inside, through the side entrance on the left, things improve with two fine sixteenth-century chimney pieces. The first is in the old Schepenzaal (Aldermen’s Room) on the ground floor, a proud, intricate work decorated with municipal coats of arms and carvings of bishops, saints and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella of Spain; the other, upstairs in the Raadzaal (Council Chamber), is a more didactic affair, ornamented by three rows of precise statuettes representing, from top to bottom, the virtues, the vices (to either side of the Emperor Charles V), and the torments of hell.
On the other side of the Grote Markt rises the heavyweight tower of St-Maartenskerk, whose gleaming white-stone exterior, dating from the fifteenth century, has recently been cleaned of decades of grime. The outside of the church may be handsome, but the cavernous interior is a yawn and it won’t be long before you’re moving onto the neighbouring Begijnhof, founded in 1238 by a certain Joanna of Constantinople and preserving the cosy informality of its seventeenth-century houses.