"In the footsteps (or wagon ruts) of Victor Hugo" Top 5 Page for this destination Liège by Nemorino
Liège Travel Guide: 225 reviews and 780 photos
Victor Hugo’s first visit to Liège was in 1840, when he was thirty-eight years old. He was travelling by stagecoach, known in French as a diligence, and was on his way from Paris to the Rhine Valley in Germany. In his book Le Rhin he described his approach to Liège from the Southwest, coming down the valley of the Meuse River:
But then evening comes, the wind dies down, the meadows, bushes and trees are silent, you can hear nothing but the sound of the water. The insides of the houses are lit dimly; objects disappear like smoke. In the stagecoach the travelers yawn as though it were a yawning contest, saying: We will be in Liège in an hour. At that moment that the landscape suddenly takes on an extraordinary appearance. There, in the forests at the foot of the brown, fuzzy hills to the west, two round eyes of fire burst and blaze like the eyes of a tiger. Here, beside the road, a terrifying flame shoots up eighty feet high in the landscape, assaulting the rocks, forests and ravines with sinister illuminations. Further on, at the entrance to this valley hidden in the shadows, a huge mouth full of embers opens and shuts brusquely, releasing horrible hiccups and a tongue of flame.
These are the factories that are lighting up.
Beyond the town called Petite-Flemalle, the scene becomes indescribable and truly magnificent. The whole valley seems to be studded with erupting craters. Some of them disgorge turbulent clouds of scarlet sparkling steam from behind the bushes; others dismally outline the black silhouette of the villages against a red background. In other places flames appear through the gaps in a group of buildings. One would think an enemy army has just crossed the country and ransacked twenty villages, leaving them in the gloomy night in various stages of destruction, some burned to the ground, some giving off smoke, some still in flames.
This warlike spectacle was actually produced by peace. This horrifying appearance of appalling devastation was made by industry. You are simply looking at the blast furnaces of Mr. Cockerill.
A fierce and violent noise arises out of this chaos of workers. I had the curiosity to get out of the stagecoach and approach one of these disturbing and mysterious places. There, I truly admired the industry. It is a beautiful and prodigious spectacle, which at night seems to enhance the solemn sadness of the hour with a touch of the supernatural. The wheels, saws, furnaces, rolling mills, cylinders, pendulums, all those monsters of copper, tin and brass that we call machines and whose steam is alive with a frightening and terrible roar, hissing, whistling, moaning, protesting, sniffing, barking, yelping, tearing the bronze, twisting the iron, chewing the granite, and at times, surrounded and harassed by smoky black workers, screaming with pain in the ardent atmosphere of the factory, like hydras and dragons tormented by demons in hell.
(From Letter VII of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo, my translation.)
I have translated some more of Victor Hugo’s observations from the year 1840 for my tips on the Théâtre Royal de Liège, the Palace of the Prince Bishops and the Museum of Public Transport, telling of Hugo’s travels by stagecoach.
From the same book I have also translated a few passages for two of the tips on my Bacharach page: Victor Hugo on the Rhine and his encounter with three young girls in the tip Victor Hugo at Fürstenberg and Falkenburg.
This part of Belgium, the French-speaking Wallonia, was the rich half of the country in the nineteenth century, in fact for decades it was the leading industrial region of continental Europe.
French was Belgium’s only official language at that time and the prosperous French-speaking Walloons tended to look down their noses at their poor Dutch-speaking compatriots in Flanders, just a short stagecoach ride to the north.
Now, in the twenty-first century, the situation has reversed. Flanders is now booming with innovative high-tech industries and the French-speaking Wallonia has fallen far behind. The big political issue in Belgium these days is whether or not to divide the country, as some Flemish politicians would like to do, so that Flanders would no longer have to subsidize the poor once-proud Wallonians.
John Cockerill, mentioned by Victor Hugo as “Mr. Cockerill”, turns out to have been a British industrialist (born 1790, died 1840) who spent most of his adult life in Belgium, where he developed a vast complex of mines and factories near Liège. Since John Cockerill’s death, his company has been through numerous crises and mergers. It is now part of the global ArcelorMittal steel company, which still (or again) has factories in the Liège region employing nearly three thousand people.
I went to Liège a hundred and seventy-one years after Victor Hugo’s first visit. I came on a TGV train from Cologne via Aachen and arrived at the new Liège-Guillemins high-speed train station, which was designed for the city by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and inaugurated in September 2009.
The city’s tourist office describes this new station as a “monumental, organic, aerial and transparent structure” which has “transformed the urban skyline and become a symbol of the city’s renewal.”
If you would like to read the tips in my order, you can start here:
The Royal Theater, home of the Royal Opera of the Wallonia, is currently (as of 2011) being reconstructed and enlarged.... more travel advice
The opera tent is actually a group of tents, of which the front ones serve as a roomy and elegant foyer. On my Kassel... more travel advice
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