Tournai is Belgium’s second oldest city and played a prominent role in its history over the centuries. It was founded by the Romans, grown by the Franks and constantly shuffled between the great European powers in later times. As a result, there’s plenty to visit and discover nowadays. Trot Op! went exploring and came back with eight unmissable sights in Tournai.
Did you know Tournai – just like Antwerp – is a city on the banks of the Scheldt river? There you go: another bit of general knowledge gained, whether you like it or not. Tournai has been around for a lot longer though. When Antwerp was still a dreary swamp full of hairy cavemen, Tournai had already grown into an important trading hub. It was founded around a military camp guarding the crossing of two Roman roads in the days of Julius Caesar. This makes Tournai the oldest city in Belgium after Tongeren.* In essence, this means that while people in Antwerp were keeping warm in damp huts isolated with their own shit (that’s how I imagine it anyways) folks in Turnacum were enjoying nude bacchanals in centrally heated Roman villas. There were water pipes and sewers running under the neatly paved city streets as well by the way. Those Gallo-Romans knew how to treat themselves.
Touring Tournai: 8 awesome sights for your next Belgian city trip
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, the city remained of great importance. In the early Middle Ages, under Clovis, it became the first capital of the Frankish Empire – before Paris – and afterwards it remained the episcopal seat of the County of Flanders for many centuries. Tournai is also the only Belgian city that ever fell under the English crown. This lasted a mere six years, but from 1513 to 1519 two delegates were sent to the English House of Commons every year. At least they got to travel a bit. Afterwards, the Habsburgs, the Spaniards, the Dutch and the French took turns ruling the place. Nearly everyone was allowed a visit at some point over the years, and this of course – just like in your mom’s bedroom – left a lot of traces. Traces that can still be seen today. Let’s start by having a look at them.
*Apparently, after recent excavations in Tournai, there is still some historical argument about which city exactly is the oldest, but I couldn’t find a definitive answer online. Look it up for yourself if you want to know.
1. Admire Tournai’s Cathedral and its architectural heritage
As described so eloquently above, Tournai has had quite the history. One of the more visible consequences of this, is that it’s one of the most important monument cities in the country today. If you want to explore the city centre, best visit the Tourist Office first. They’ll give you the whole story in a nutshell through a brand new 20 minute video. Moreover, they can help you on your way with various thematic walks as well. Opposite the entrance you’ll see the biggest architectural highlight of Tournai: the immense Cathedral of Our Lady. It’s Romanesque, old, sports five iconic towers and is the only Belgian cathedral recognised as UNESCO World Heritage.
“Tournai has had quite the history. One of the more visible consequences of this, is that it’s one of the most important monument cities in the country today.”
Next to the cathedral is the oldest belfry in the country. Climb it for a beautiful view over the Grand Place, the gilded Cloth Hall and the even older Church of Saint Quentin. The more perceptive visitor will have realised by now, that it’s not all too ugly here. Unfortunately, both the Cathedral and the Cloth Hall are in scaffolding, and this will remain so for some time to come. In 1999, the church was hit by – I’m not making this up – a tornado, after which one of the towers was on the verge of collapse. Restoration is still ongoing, but a visit is worth your time nonetheless.
2. Enjoy Manet in Tournai’s Museum of Fine Arts
There are many museums to visit in Tournai, but the Museum of Fine Arts is probably the most special – and this is partly due to the building itself. This is the only museum ever designed by the great Victor Horta. The result is a unique structure with a central hall and four side corridors – inspired by Bentham’s panopticon prisons. This allows the attendants to keep an eye on everything from one central spot. This is a good thing: the collection is so valuable they don’t want any climate pirates putting their sticky fingers on one of the paintings. The museum exhibits works by Ensor, Monet, Jordaens, Van Gogh and Van der Weyden, and also owns the only two paintings by Edouard Manet in the whole of Belgium. Not the largest collection, but one that will stay with you. The museum is getting a major makeover as we speak.
3. The Tournai Natural History Museum: immerse yourself in yesteryear’s charm
The Natural History Museum is another one of Tournai’s top attractions, albeit for very different reasons. Founded in 1828, it’s the oldest Belgian museum in its genre. It comes with a charming and somewhat endearing collection: an absolute mountain of stuffed animals and skeletons. You’ll find everything from small birds to adult hippos and elephants – including the first one to ever arrive in Belgium. Many of the specimen are very old and thus quite ridiculously taxidermized (just look at the pics) but as far as I’m concerned, this is part of the experience: a nice old-fashioned museum as I remember them from my childhood. In a second wing you’ll find the vivarium, where you can see live fish, insects and reptiles, and in summer you can walk through a butterfly garden. Wonderful museum to browse around in for a while, at an almost negligible entrance fee.
4. Vitrine Frêche: the most alternative shop in Tournai
On my second day in Tournai, I was aimlessly walking through some shopping streets, until I suddenly stumbled upon a façade full of artificial flowers. This turned out to be the entrance to Vitrine Frêche: a project by Bertrand Bostalle, who wanted to use empty retail spaces to exhibit and sell the work of local artists. This turned out to be a great success, and after a while the place evolved into a bizarre space full of modern art, and now houses an organic library, a bar and a stage for local bands and artists. Lovely space full of wild and provocative art, and a nice alternative to your conventional shopping experience. Sidenote: because Bertrand thought the gas bill was getting a bit wild as well this winter, only the library is open this Winter, and only on Saturday mornings. As from April, the whole thing should be up and running again.
5. La Rez’: an artist collective in a crumbling mansion
Speaking of wild art: Betrand directed me to a vacant building outside the historic centre, where a dozen students from the art academy were allowed to set up their studios for the next few years. La Rez’ is a dilapidated mansion with walls full of crumbling plaster, and serves perfectly as a backdrop for the often daring art that is made here. I was lucky they had an open house for the weekend, but the students ensured me that if someone wanted to visit another time, all they needed to do was knock the door and wait for someone to open. La Rez’ is a breeding ground for free spirits, and some of the works are actually quite impressive. I would have never discovered this place on my own, and now you know it as well. You’ll find the entrance at 18, Place Verte.
6. Browse the Tournai Folklore Museum
Perhaps a little less famous, but no less interesting is the Musée de Folklore et des Imaginaires. It’s housed in two beautiful 17th century buildings and showcases life in Tournai in every aspect. This is mainly achieved by throwing an overwhelming amount of random objects and exhibits at you. You’ll learn everything about the traditional crafts and the fate of the local orphans (they were turned into stew), meet the city’s most famous dwarf, walk past the oldest frietkot in Belgium and bathe in the glory of the empêche-pipi: an iron construction to prevent public urination (the orphans bit wasn’t true by the way). On the upper floor you can see at a huge model of Tournai as it looked during the reign of Louis XVI. This colourful collection of city treasures works even better if you don’t read any of the info – quite the trip.
7. Be the master of puppets in Maison de la Marionette
The last museum I decided to visit in Tournai was Maison de la Marionette. There are more than 2,500 dolls on display there, from beautifully finished marionettes to the hand puppets we all used to have as kids – I recognized the little red devil and the big bad wolf. Dolls from many other cultures are also exhibited. In one of the rooms you can even use some cut out figures and create your own Indonesian shadow play from behind an backlit canvas. You’ll be done with the place in half an hour – it is not the largest museum in the world – but if you’re looking for something completely different this is it. And because less than half of the dolls look like they’ll eat your face while you sleep, you can even take your kids here without them crying like the babies they are. If you want to visit even more museums, take a look at TAMAT: the Museum of Tapestries and Textile Art – an industry responsible for much of Tournai’s riches. I have to admit I skipped that one though, since I was aching for a drink. www.maisondelamarionnette.be
8. Drink stylish cocktails in Arthur’s Bar
A nice cold beer usually makes me happy enough, but since I was only in Tournai for one night, I decided to get fancy. When I drink cocktails, they have to be good though. Nothing is more annoying than spending 15 bucks on something you could have mixed together from the leftover bottles you have at home. Tournai luckily has at least one very good cocktail bar. Arthur’s Bar is a tiny and brand new cocktail place close to the grand place. All the classics are available, but through a few multiple choice questions on the menu, they’ll make you a drink specifically catered to your taste. Arthur himself is a good-natured dude, who talks about his creations with passion. Highly recommended for those not looking for an early night.
Hotels in Tournai & practical information
For more information on Tournai or other Walloon destinations, visit Wallonia Belgium Tourism’s official website. www.visitwallonia.be
Trot Op! stayed at Hotel Alacantra, near the Grand Place. www.hotelalcantara.be
Did I miss your favorite sight in Tournai? Want to add a couple of suggestions? Want to write me a poem? Please go crazy in the comments below.
Fancy some other Walloon trips? Read all about Waterloo, Mons, Gaume, Viroinvalle, Charleroi, Liège and Spa. Prefer to look a little further? Then click here to read my posts on Swaziland, Interlaken or Crete.