Weekend tickets are also 50% cheaper for those under 65 like myself, so Koos and I took advantage of being so close to the Belgian border by driving the 20kms from our getaway in Zeeland to Ghent and taking the train to Liège. Or Luik, as the Flemish call it, but since it is a French speaking city, I'll stick with Liège. By the way, for those who are not sure where it is, think of a slightly southward sloping line east of Brussels. This actually surprised me as I've always thought of Liège as being northern Belgium. I suppose that's because it's not very far from Maastricht, Holland's southernmost city, and I tend to forget just how far south that is. Anyhow, I've never been there before and for Koos it was a long time since his last visit, so it felt like a real adventure.
Our train was a fast one but it still took an hour and forty minutes to cover the 156 kilometres (according to Google maps). We left at around 09:25 and arrived at Liège-Guillemins station just after 11:00. Being quite new and famous for its architecture, the station buildings were something I was looking forward to seeing, but in a way, they were a little disappointing. I can only liken it to a highly photogenic person. The reality is not quite as impressive as the images made of it. All the same, I liked this snap I took with the train's red doors as a sort of focal point.
The Maas that ends in Rotterdam flows through Liège as the Meuse, and I have to say its environs here are much more beautiful. Liège is surrounded by thickly wooded hills that give a dreamy backdrop to this lovely river.
|Hills around Liège|
|The mighty Meuse|
|Pont de Fragnée|
The pictures of the moorings speak for themselves, but what might not be apparent is that the level of informality was almost the greatest part of their charm. Several of the boat dwellers have made tiny gardens on the banks with pots and plants overflowing with flowers, so while maintenance might not be high on their list of priorities, the permanence and homeliness of their moorings clearly was and is.
|Lifting bridge marking the end|
of the moorings
Just beyond this attractive lifting bridge, we dived into a side suburb in search of some coffee. It was now well past midday; it was hot; and we needed a drink. At the end of a quiet side street, we found a bar with tables on the terrace. These were full, so we stepped inside - a lucky decision as it turned out.
At the bar was an older gentleman with a more than passing resemblance to Father Christmas. We got chatting to him and with a mixture of French, Flemish and English, all admittedly a bit sloppy due to his somewhat inebriated state, he told us he was a local who had been customs and excise officer in his working life. We had a wonderful time with this spontaneous and colourful man. We discussed culture, language and the history of Liège with great aplomb and not much accuracy, but all in good fun. He claimed to speak the local dialect, Wallon, as well, but we didn't get a demonstration of this. Nevertheless, he, like many other Wallonians, said he preferred speaking English to Flemish, and he was audibly better at it.
He bought us a drink and we returned the favour. But then, remembering we only had a few hours, we made our apologies and got up to leave. He kissed my hand in true gallic style. I melted. And then he told us that if we came back we should ask for Père Noel - that's what everyone called him. Coincidence, we wondered? Then we looked at his beard. Probably not.
|Père Noel, deep in conversation with Koos|
In a way, this meeting was the highlight of our day and further confirmed our experience with French speakers in Wallonia. From our perspective, they have always been open, lively and friendly: ready to greet us in the streets, ready to chat and share a joke, they are a pleasure to mingle with. Our earlier encounter with the young man outside the station and then with Père Noel just underscored what we already believed.
Back out in the sunshine, we continued our walk along the lovely willow-lined canal until we reached the next bridge, from which we could see the Ourthe river running parallel to the canal. Realising we'd now walked quite a distance and that we'd have to do it all in reverse, we crossed over the bridge to see something of the real Ourthe. It was much wider than I expected, but not navigable, but there was a barrage a few hundred metres on, which we decided to make the end point of our walk. This was an interesting construction of dams and breakwaters, and I was fascinated by the way the seagulls were using the breakwater stones as sun loungers.
|Sun loungers for seagulls|
By now, it was getting close to mid afternoon, and we'd been warned that the weather would change. Sure enough, clouds started gathering, so we walked much more briskly back, this time along the river Ourthe, which was another lovely stretch, but more formal and less given over to nature than the canal. We didn't have long to linger, though, as the first drops of rain started as we hurried back over the Pont Fragnée.
At this point, we realized we'd seen nothing of the city centre. Under our umbrella, it didn't take long to conclude we'd like to come back anyway, so we agreed to give Liège proper a second visit at a later date to do it justice. We'd had a very special five or so hours doing what we loved in a wonderful and different setting.
A quick dash back to the station and we just made the four o'clock train. We didn't even have time to grab a cup of coffee much to my disgruntlement. Still, we'd timed it well. The rain battered the train carriages as we sped back across country, and we arrived in a damp, but lively Ghent sometime before six. The downpour had stopped and a vague watery sunlight peeked through the clouds. To finish off the day in proper style, Koos drove us to the banks of the old tidal Scheldt (Schelde). It used to run through the city, but its course is now blocked off because a new by-pass was cut. I'd read about it, but not known exactly where it was. These days, this now lonely stretch is heavily silted and quite overgrown, but at high tide, the water still flows up to the sealed lock. Yesterday evening, it was low tide, so the accumulated mud flats were exposed giving it a special sense of real wilderness.
|Mud flats on the tidal Scheldt looking towards the|
old Gentbrugge lock
This was, for me, a beautiful and fitting way to end our day out courtesy of the fabulous Belgian rail system. Thank you NMBS (Belgian Rail). I think we will most certainly be back.