IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 29 > Maastricht - Liège - Tournai (Beffroi)

Maastricht - Liège

There was no urgent need to get up this morning, until I remembered the luxury breakfast which awaited downstairs. In my semi-dazed state, this luring prospect held the same appeal as two nymphomaniacs on a Twister mat beckoning me to take the next turn. I was down the stairs in a flash and making the most of the early feast. My Belgian border-trotting European-wannabe American room-mate was too stoned to contemplate the food experience, but he was keen to take my book from me when I had finished it. That same novel about Spain which I had struggled to complete for the previous month was still niggling me with its final two chapters.

I wasn't a particularly fast reader. Library users hated the likes of me, I would renew a book for weeks on end and deny them their own window of reading opportunity. If they put in a demand for it I'd just wait until I had finished and pay the fine - usually a pittance. This tactic once backfired slightly when I moved house, and Manchester Central Library sent a reminder for four music books which I had borrowed, but to my old address. Seven months later I stumbled across them stashed at my parents' house. They'd been completely forgotten about and I faced a grand fine totalling seven pounds and twenty-eight pence. That would teach me.

With another grey day awaiting outside I was happy enough to lay in the cosy room by the radiator, listening to the patter of rain at the window and finally finishing the last two episodes of the novel. But it wasn't that simple. There was less than an hour remaining until the dastardly deadline that cursed all guests checking out of a hostel. Residents were entitled to linger around when booked in for another night, but on the day of departure were given a big sod off signal in the morning. I couldn't quite understand why this was always the case, but it meant that I had to find time for a shower, to pack all my belongings which were strewn across and under the bed, and attempt to absorb the final flings of my book in order to offload it onto the other guy and lighten my rucksack. Life wasn't exactly tough as a hosteller, I should have stopped grumbling by now.

I achieved each of my tasks, but before leaving the hostel, I failed to contact anywhere else to stay for the end of the day. Again, nobody would answer the phone at all the places I tried. This left me with an open plan for the day and a number of possible train journeys and destinations. I needed to go west, and reach somewhere that would leave me with a clear run back to Dieppe and England on the last day. So far on my travels, the one country on my Interrail ticket that I had not spent a night in was Belgium, and it looked as though that fact would remain true to the end. My best bets were to stop in either Lille or Arras, both of which lay across two borders into the eastern edge of France. Rail services to Lille via a connecting train to Liège ran hourly from Maastricht, and I hopped on the bus to the station, worried that I was cutting it a bit fine if I hoped not to spend another sixty minutes pacing the concourse.

When I reached the station I could see my train rolling in. I leapt off the bus with the determination of a fare dodger, and ran with the enthusiasm of a baddie in a cop drama around the bleak buildings and over the footbridge. I jumped the final flight of five stairs and my feet painfully hit the correct platform as the train doors began to slide shut. There were times when it paid to be so thin, and I squeezed through them as the gap closed to less than a foot. I felt that I deserved a round of applause from the passengers in the carriage, but all I got were some mildly nonplussed expressions as I stood hunched over, panting and feeling like a pickpocket had got to my lungs during the rush. The train pulled away instantly and I wondered if it had really been worth the fuss. What difference would an hour make?

Liège - Tournai (Beffroi)

I arrived at Liège, and when I checked my timetables I realized that the saved hour would have an impact after all. It meant that I wouldn't actually be travelling to Lille. What a clever move that had been. At least, the connecting train which I was about to board only went as far as the Belgian town of Tournai, from where I would face a third service onwards to Lille after a further hour's wait. Ah well, the excitement of changing trains and exploring new platforms, it was an experience which couldn't be.......glamorized. Having spent four weeks on the rails there was little the average platform was going to offer me that I hadn't seen before. Hanging flower baskets - ha! I'd been there, done that, one or two dripped on my t-shirt, they weren't going to enchant me anymore. And now I had no book for company either, what would I do?

At least there was one thing I could rely on to cheer me up on a station abroad - the often absurd tannoy announcements, which were preluded by a really nauseous or grossly distorted little tune depending on which country I was in. Aside from the ghastly jingle on the Paris Metro though, the French ones rather pleased me. They comprised three ascending notes, trailing off with a mysterious arpeggio that always had me dreaming of a little fantasy world with a strange French lover. I just had to spend more time in France, even the wispy-voiced female station announcers sounded romantic and had me going all gooey.

But I wasn't there yet. The InterCity service to Tournai thrashed its way across the Belgian landscape, leaving the last traces of rain behind. A girl in the seat behind me - prattling on her mobile phone - panicked and groped me for my attention, demanding 'un stylo, un stylo.' I was now familiar with that phrase after the attentions of so many French-speaking children in the Moroccan medina. I fumbled for my pen; the faithful, furry-nibbed felt pen that had been my calligraphic companion throughout the holiday. I heard the girl scribbling furiously, yakking away and frantically writing a fair few pages with it. She ended the call, and then.......nothing; no audible confirmation that the pen still existed. I sat seething. This was no ordinary pen, it was my super pen, my pen-friend! Until the last few seconds of the journey when we approached the platform at Tournai, I had considered all the ways I could confront her, in French, about my missing article. At that final moment I felt a tap on my head and she handed it back to me, but in a mightily bruised state that caused the crushed, inkless nib to proffer little more writing capabilities than a wet blackberry held at gunpoint.

From the station, Tournai looked quite average. In knowing that my passage to Lille would be routed via here, and that there was a youth hostel in the town, I had done some reading up on the place during my train journey. Its singlemost remarkable feature was deemed to be the cathedral, and I could immediately see its towers looming above the skyline as the train rolled in. There were sixty minutes to kill during my changeover, and I sat myself down on an old wooden bench in a quiet, dimly lit station building.

The all day breakfast deal advertised at the snack kiosk sounded too good to be true: a croissant, pain au chocolat and hot drink for around the same cost as any one of those items sold separately on their standard menu. There was no logic to this, unless one understood the most obvious theory that the standard price of any single item was exorbitant. Nonetheless, it was a winner, with the black coffee being some of the best I'd sampled in weeks, and I must have been through at least one hundred cups. I devoured the lot in about fifty-seven seconds, which still left me with nearly an hour to study the early twentieth century ceiling design and wall coverings of a Belgian railway station. In my inevitable restlessness, a short peep outside the entrance necessitated a pointless stroll across the square opposite, and then another sighting of the cathedral spires urged me to take a closer look. I was being drawn into the city by some kind of magnetic force.

The Grand Place with its attractive street frontages and fountains

The cathedral held a deceptive quality; one of those buildings with illusory dimensions and scale, which was much larger and a lot further away than I thought. By the time I was standing outside it, I faced an immediate brisk return trot if I wanted to catch my train. There were other rail services to Lille throughout the afternoon and evening, and I felt that fate had brought me here for some purpose so I decided to explore some more. Around the corner lay the Grand Place (above), which was most attractive and an unexpected pleasure to find myself in. I had never heard of Tournai before, and I started to wonder why. It was a delightful place with several charming churches and many other fine buildings. For all the glory awarded to Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and other Belgian cities, this was a forgotten retreat in the far west of the country which never seemed to get a mention.

Just as I was admiring the fountain display in the main square, a rather sour segment of the region's affairs was presented to me. A small band of protestors marched through the street drumming and chanting - a bit of excitement for an average Friday afternoon. They gathered in the square and began performing a mock beheading ceremony (below), staged for very few passers by except myself.

A protest group performing a mock beheading ceremony in the main square

A girl came over to dish out some leaflets and provide more information. There was a lot of fuss surrounding a place called La Houppe, the neighbouring woods and a company called Fort-Labiau which had been engaged in some controversial and possibly illegal activities at the site, allegedly causing environmental damage. A protest camp was occupying the woods and demanding immediate action be taken, but the bitter twist in the saga was the apparently widespread knowledge that the man responsible, Mr Fort, paid large sums of money to the authorities. The suggestion was one of regional governors hypocritically lining their pockets and turning a blind eye to the law-breaking antics of Mr Fort. I wasn't sure what support I could give to the protestors' cause, but I promised that I would highlight their plight should I ever decide to write a report about my travels, the chances of which were decidedly slim. After all, why would anybody want to read about me?

Another view of the Grand Place, looking towards the mighty cathedral and belfry

I gave the group my attention for some time, but after a while I felt a bit of a ninny standing in the middle of the square alone, and they seemed intent on becoming resident all afternoon, playing the same monotonous executioner's drum beat whilst a man with an axe stood motionless over a hunched victim on the ground.

I wandered and admired the views around the square which was, ingeniously, triangular. From every angle it looked perfect, and had a charming, unspoilt character (above). The Romanesque cathedral looked magnificent, although it was undergoing extensive restoration and a quick peek inside the visitor entrance revealed an interior almost wholly hidden behind scaffolding. This was a shame as it would have been a fantastic place to explore, but complementing this giant edifice a short distance away was another glorious monument - the belfry. Clad in beautiful grey-blue stone, it watched over the central square (above and below) and from its commanding position, guarded the town from any invasions of bad architecture.

The beautiful blueish stone construction of the belfry, the oldest in Belgium

Looking down at the three-sided Grand Place from the top of the belfry

The belfry, known locally and in French as le beffroi, was now a tourist attraction, and for a small fee I could climb to the top, which seemed an ideal way to get a better view of Tournai. A tight spiral staircase took me up through several levels, which featured exhibits, a movie room and close-up views of the workings of the bells. I loved climbing up towers and high buildings. There was the thrill of what mysterious chambers may lie ahead, and always a sense of achievement having reached the top. After the two previous days spent delving underground, I was now giving my body some suitable vertical balance.

Past the first lower-level exterior balcony, I continued the climb up a narrowing tube, admiring the mighty bell which must have been raised up by counter-balancing forty-five unlucky sheep. Had they installed the animals at the top by mistake then the Sunday morning chorus might have been far more entertaining. The balcony at the summit provided good views across the three-sided square (left).

My only gripe when climbing church buildings was that they never allowed people access to that last little bit running up the narrowest section of spire, the roped off ladder or winding steps which were the exclusive domain of window cleaners, lightning conductor installers and pigeons.

The views were magnificent, and incorporated the neighbouring cathedral (right) which impressed from all angles, and panoramas on all four sides, encompassing endless miles of greenery and the tops of many buildings around Belgium and France. Above me were numerous decorative gold figures and ornaments, elaborately perched upon spikes (below). I stood holding onto my hat in the blustery wind (bottom picture), trying to soak up as much of the view into my mind as possible, unwilling to go back down and rejoin the public ant population I could see milling around below. The belfry was the oldest preserved example in Belgium, dating from the late twelfth century. It was once a watchtower to protect against invasion, standing at the centre of Tournai's heavy fortifications. It survived, incredibly, the bombings during World War II which destroyed much of Tournai and flattened virtually all the surrounding buildings, leaving it as a peculiar lone monument in a vast empty space. The belfry, and the city around it, held a fascinating history.

A view from the belfry of the huge Romanesque cathedral
Various gold ornamental figures adorning the top of the belfry

Holding onto my hat in the wind as I stood looking out from the top of the belfry

So this was it, my last night away from home and it looked destined to be spent, unexpectedly, in Tournai. Was I supposed to have a grand party, some big finale with balloons, streamers, plenty of booze and rock 'n' roll? I couldn't quite see it happening here. The city was lovely but rather sedate, and I didn't want to feel any undue pressure to have a lavish time, which seemed near impossible under the circumstances. Unless I hit lucky with some lively residents at the hostel, there wasn't much on offer party-wise. I had seen a banner hung across the road announcing a pyjama party, but later investigation uncovered that this was just a gimmick cinema event. I had no pyjamas anyway. The most I could manage was a hostellers' sheet liner party, which if universally adopted would shock the residents of Tournai into thinking the Ku-Klux-Klan had come to town.

The hostel hadn't even been open when I checked it out earlier, and I had no guarantee that I would get a place there if some large group had made a booking. Whilst standing atop the belfry, I had the perfect observation post from which to do some supermarket-spotting, and at the very least I would ensure that I had a feast for the evening. I bought some stuffed marinated olives, a luxury salad, a bottle of wine, cakes and various other goodies.

When I returned to the hostel, I was greeted by a friendly man who showed me around the large, plush building. It was a hostel quite unlike any other, occupying a richly decorated set of chambers which appeared to have once been home to a council or other important department. My only disappointment was that once again, there was barely anybody in it. Friday night, my final night, and the place was dead.

I hadn't expected anything else really. Birthdays, Christmases and New Years were the bane of my life. I could never stand any such occasions which were trumped up to be big and meaningful, but invariably turned out to be a disappointment. So I hadn't hoped for anything special to occur on my last night away. Avoiding the high season, which had barely got underway in this first week of July, was generally a boon, but it did have its down sides in the less touristy locations, where prospects of social activities were sometimes slim.

Having settled as the only guest in room 201, which also confirmed that I was probably the only occupant of the second floor, I took my meal down to the dining room in the basement. It doubled up as a kitchen and nightclub, complete with glitter ball and disco lights, but it was dead and gloomy this evening. It could have been easy to have let my spirits go down, but instead I chose to let the beer go down, and I joined the friendly man who had welcomed me into the hostel for a few drinks at the bar, which doubled as the reception.

He was a bit of an eccentric; a forty-seven-year-old rock music fan with thinning grey hair, who had a penchant for English bands. I had heard Arthur Brown's 'Fire' blaring out of the speakers earlier, and we had a chat about his Crazy World and the Hammond organ groovers of previous decades. He stood behind the bar welcoming a small trickle of guests and headbutting to an assortment of CDs, playing me endless highlights and lowlights from his collection, which unfortunately ventured into Genesis territory amongst other horrors. He was a laugh though, and I had another opportunity to practise my French, which he assured me was unnecessary because English was 'the best language in the world.' He spoke it very well, but I was determined to have one last fling at another lingo before going home, so we changed places and spoke opposite languages. Perhaps English was a beautiful language, but I would feel forever inadequate speaking it on its own.

I relaxed over a couple of drinks, but unfortunately he had to lock the bar early and cash up, just as I was getting comfortable on the bar stool. The hostel was still lifeless, and I didn't know where the new arrivals had vanished to. The place had the potential to be a swinging little venue if a good crowd of people were booked in on a summer weekend, and the cheery barman-receptionist was such a refreshing change from the many moody miseries who had inhabited several of the other hostels thus far.

Alas, it wasn't to be my night, and I retired to the dormitory with my bottle of wine. Over the next three hours I gulped it down glass after glass whilst studying my European travel guide, little use that it would be from here on. I checked and double checked the rail timetable, carefully constructing a plan for tomorrow which would take me to Dieppe in four stages. I had phoned the ferry company, Transmanche, earlier in the day to check on sailings back to Newhaven. It was the weekend of the Armada display through Rouen, and I had been advised when booking my ticket the previous month that services may be disrupted by flotillas of historic vessels around Dieppe harbour. Damned pirates, how dare they scupper my plans! Fortunately, I was told there would be a departure in the evening, so I had all day to take my time travelling to the port.

I could afford a lie-in tomorrow morning, which I felt sure I would need because the bottle of wine had knocked me out. I had been sick through alcohol over one hundred times during my life, often violently, but for some reason I would never learn my lesson and would come back begging for more. I stood no chance of seeing the night through uninterrupted by mad vomit dashes to the toilets. It would be one final, lasting reminder of the joys of Interrailing.

HOSTEL REPORT: Tournai - 7500 Tournai, Rue Saint-Martin 64
This hostel occupied some kind of former council chambers or other important facility in a plush building, with dark wood panelling in the rooms and corridors, and a fantastic study room near the main entrance. The man I met at reception was very welcoming, and the small bar inside was very civilized and well stocked with inexpensive Belgian beers. The rooms upstairs were large and basic, but perfectly acceptable, with my own containing sinks. There were kitchen facilities downstairs in the disco-dining area which was empty during my stay, and the breakfast was fair but nothing special. The location was very central, only a couple of minutes' walk from the Grand Place, but a healthy distance from the rail station. All round there were very minor issues which could have been improved upon, such as the slightly stale odour in the rooms and toilets and the frustrating closure during part of the daytimes, but it was otherwise an excellent hostel worth checking out. Score: 8/10

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