Monday, March 26, 2012

How do I describe you, Liege?

We decided it was time for another French lesson so Saturday was spent in Liege. It's an easy 40-minute drive from our house so we had plenty of time to spend in the bustling port-city. The weather was perfectly sunny with a constant cool breeze. 

We began at the Cathedrale Saint-Paul, conveniently located directly in front of us when we emerged from the parking garage. Construction began in the 13th century and continued over six centuries. The vaulting in the nave was beautiful and we wandered in during Mass. Hearing the parishioners' voices ringing through the church added an extra depth to our sightseeing. 

Our next destination was the Place Saint-Lambert, the central square of Liege. It was a 15-minute walk and we were excited to get our first good looks at the city. All of the cafes were crowded and it was such a pleasure to see so many people outside enjoying the spring day. The buildings were all interesting and  it was nice to catch glimpses of the River Meuse.

The Place Saint-Lambert wasn't exactly what I expected from a central square. I suppose I have become accustomed to seeing ancient squares surrounded by structures with beautiful facades, and perhaps a church. This square looked modern in comparison. The Palais des Princes-Eveques (Palace of the Prince-Bishops) is the focal point of the square. It was built mainly in the 18th century, which makes it seem practically brand-new in the scheme of things European.
Palais des Princes-Eveques
Place Saint-Lambert

We were getting hungry by the time we made it to the square so we consulted our travel book for suggestions. We decided on a cafe that touted traditional Liege dishes. City maps are prominently displayed throughout the city so we stopped to locate the street. We were squinting to read the tiny names and suddenly a savior appeared and asked what we were trying to find. I told her the name of the cafe and then asked her if it was good. She replied, "Well, yes. It is typical for Liege so you should try it." Of course, she had never eaten there herself but we took her advice to heart and she pointed us in the right direction.

Un boulet avec frites.
We found ourselves at Cafe-Lequet. It is recommended by almost any travel guide you can consult for Liege. It was an authentic brasserie beside the River Meuse. We shared a table with another couple and they decided to help us after they watched us struggle for several minutes. The man suggested we have un boulet avec frites. We thanked him heartily and gave our order to the gruff waitress who did not waste time attempting to speak to us in anything other than brusque French.

Our food arrived soon after we ordered Belgian beers. We immediately realized that our fellow diner's suggestion was a good one. Almost everyone was eating the same dish. It was amazing! It's a juicy meatball with a rich gravy that has hints of sweetness and lots of flavor. The pommes frites were also good-- exactly what I have come to expect from a Belgian restaurant. If you are ever in Liege, you should certainly have lunch at Cafe-Lequet. 

Another item on our list to try was peket. It's a fruit-flavored gin that is another specialty of the Walloon region. We decided to be extra-touristy and go to La Maison du Peket situated in front of City Hall. We ordered ginger and raspberry-flavored drinks. They were very refreshing and I'm not sure they were at all alcoholic but it was a nice pit-stop and maybe the perfect drink for a warm afternoon.

I'm glad we stopped for refreshments before our next adventure. We wanted to see panoramic views of the city so we made our way to the old Citadelle. This activity is not for the faint of heart. We began a gradual climb through a neighborhood, thinking at first that it wasn't so bad. Every time we turned a corner, we imagined the steps ending but they continued twisting farther and farther. Finally we reached what we thought must be the top. The view was incredible!

After catching our breaths and admiring the scene, we walked back toward the street and looked to the right. It quickly became clear that we had more steps to climb to reach the Citadelle.

Old Citadelle in the distance = More steps to the top.
We swigged some water and prepared for the next ascent, which actually wasn't too bad compared to the long and winding route we had already taken. It was absolutely stunning at the top and this is another thing you should do if you find yourself in Liege. 

Liege, from above.
We walked around the wooded trails at the top for a while. The remains of the old Citadelle were around us and there was also a World War II monument. We could see the River Meuse meandering through the city form our bird's eye view. 

We went down by way of the staircase we originally came upon. It was 373 steps to the bottom and we definitely felt a sense of accomplishment when we turned back to see where we had been.

In the end, Liege is difficult for me to describe. I think it's a nice city but I wouldn't call it charming, like Delft or Tongeren. Some areas are very gritty. The cobblestone reeks of urine, prostitutes roam the streets, drug addicts meander aimlessly, and shifty men conceal themselves in alcoves along the way. Single women are advised to take cabs after 10pm and I can understand why. I never felt threatened, but I did feel uneasy in some places. Not even the Red Light District in Amsterdam has the same effect. 

With that said, our lunch at Cafe-Lequet was one of the best we've had during our travels. People were generally friendly and it was nice to hear French since it is a familiar language for me. There are still many places for us to explore in Liege. We did not make it to the Eglise Saint-Jacques, reportedly the best church in Liege. We also didn't go to the Outremeuse, the opposite bank of the river. There are many museums to lose yourself inside and we will surely go to some of them during our next visit. 

Even though we spent a lot of time at the old Citadelle, I am glad we saw this city from that vantage point. Some of the streets might feel a little scary but any unpleasant first impressions of Liege are forgotten when standing above the city that looks so serene from the top.


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