For many, TOURNAI is Wallonia’s most interesting and enjoyable town, its ancient centre latticed by narrow cobbled streets and straddling the sluggish, canalized River Escaut (Scheldt in Dutch). Its pride and joy is its magnificent medieval cathedral, a seminal construction whose stirring amalgamation of Romanesque and early Gothic styles influenced the design of other churches far and wide. Most visitors zero in on the cathedral to the expense of everything else, but the town centre also holds lots of handsome eighteenth-century mansions in the French style – stately structures with double doors, stone lower and brick upper storeys, overhanging eaves, elongated chimneys and, often as not, fancy balconies and a central (horse-carriage) courtyard. Add to this several excellent restaurants, and the town’s proximity to the extravagant châteaux of Beloeil and Attre, and you’ve reason enough to stay a night or two, especially as tourism here remains distinctly low-key, with barely a tour bus in sight.
The city was founded by the Romans as a staging post on the trade route between Cologne and the coast of France. Later, it produced the French monarchy in the form of the Merovingians, a dynasty of Frankish kings who chose the place as their capital – Clovis, the most illustrious of the line, was born here in 465. It remained under French control for a large part of its subsequent history, and stayed loyal to its king during the Hundred Years’ War. Indeed, the constancy of its citizens was legendary: Joan of Arc addressed them in a letter as “kind, loyal Frenchmen”, and they returned the compliment by sending her a bag of gold. Incorporated into the Habsburg Netherlands in the 1520s, Tournai was retaken by Louis XIV in 1667, and although this period of French control only lasted fifty years or so, Louis left his mark on the town with the heavyweight stone quays that still flank the river, and in scores of handsome mansions. Sadly, much of central Tournai was damaged by German bombing at the beginning of World War II, but enough has survived to reward a thorough exploration.