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.Read More
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame
Dominating the skyline with its distinctive five towers is Tournai’s Romanesque/early Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame, built with the wealth of the flourishing wool and stone trades. Its mammoth proportions in combination with the local slate-coloured marble were much admired by contemporaries and the design was imitated all along the Escaut valley. The present cathedral is the third church on this site, most of it completed in the latter half of the twelfth century, although the choir was reconstructed in the middle of the thirteenth. It’s a bit of building site at the moment, and likely to be so for some time, having been damaged by storms in the late 1990s, but you should inspect the west facade, on place de l’Evêché, with its three tiers of sculptures filling out the back of the medieval portico, before entering the church either here or by the main entrance on the south side. Inside, the nave is part of the original structure, erected in 1171, as are the intricately carved capitals that distinguish the lowest set of columns, but the vaulted roof is eighteenth-century. The choir was the first manifestation of the Gothic style in Belgium, and its too-slender pillars had to be reinforced later at the base: the whole choir still leans slightly to one side due to the unstable soil beneath. In front of the choir, the Renaissance rood screen is a flamboyant marble extravaganza by Cornelis Floris, embellished by biblical events such as Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
The ample and majestic late twelfth-century transepts are the cathedral’s most impressive – and most beautiful – feature. Apsed and aisled to a very unusual plan, they impart a lovely diffuse light through their many windows, some of which (in the south transept) hold superb sixteenth-century stained glass depicting semi-mythical scenes from far back in Tournai’s history. Opposite, in the north transept, is an intriguing twelfth-century mural, a pockmarked cartoon strip relating the story of St Margaret, a shepherdess martyred on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian. Its characters are set against an exquisite blue background reminiscent of – and clearly influenced by – Byzantine church paintings. Take a look, too, at Rubens’ characteristically bold The Deliverance of Souls from Purgatory, which hangs, newly restored, beside the adjacent chapel.
Be sure also to see the trésor, whose three rooms kick off with a splendid wood-panelled, eighteenth-century meeting room and a chapel hung with a rare example of a medieval Arras tapestry, made up of fourteen panels depicting the lives of St Piat and of St Eleuthère, the first bishop of Tournai. Next door, have a look at the silver and gilded copper châsse de Notre-Dame, completed in 1205 by Nicolas de Verdun and festooned with relief figures clothed in fluidly carved robes, and a wonderful early sixteenth-century Ecce Homo by Quentin Matsys, showing Christ surrounded by monstrous faces. The treasury also once hosted a gem-studded Byzantine Cross, which was stolen in a high-profile armed raid a couple of years ago – hence the current heightened sense of security.