Not far from the House of Rubens and the graceful pavilion of the City of Brussels, stands the pretty Mosan castel on the Solbosch plain, which houses the interesting exhibition of the City of Liège. The architecture is firm and fine, gracious and discreet, and the great Walloon city could not be more worthily represented. It plays an eminent role at the Exhibition as it does in the country.
Liège, in fact, the real capital of Wallonia, is of considerable importance in the development of modern Belgium. Its powerful metallurgical industry has contributed greatly to the economic greatness of the country and the Walloon intellectual movement, of which it is the centre, provides a useful counterweight to the Fleming movement. In bilingual Belgium, Liege is a necessary citadel of French culture.
However, although the old Walloon city has participated brilliantly in the common life of the new Belgium, it has lost nothing of its particularist character. Like the people of Antwerp and Ghent, the people of Liège are of their city before they are Belgians, and nowhere, not even in Ghent, is it possible to feel the extent to which the past of the communal and feudal Netherlands is being revived in Belgium in the industrial and administrative present.
In Liege, as in Ghent, as in Brussels, as in Antwerp, the long and tragic history of the country has left more than one trace in the social organism of today, and the past is still alive in this active and joyful city. No one certainly misses the autonomy, but municipal life is extremely intense and if the large industrial families repeat in some ways the pride and "contempt for the common man" that the old lineages professed, the political meetings held in the socialist La Populaire room easily evoke the tumultuous assemblies of the trades in the courtyard of the episcopal palace.
The people of Liège have retained their love of eloquence, and their verve, their wit, and their handling of local jokes always ensure that their tribunes enjoy the greatest popularity. The people of Liège, moreover, owe to the firearms industry, which is three centuries old, an independence of manner that is unknown to the workers of big industry. The Liège gunsmith works at home, in a small workshop that he sets up as he pleases. Every week, he comes to the factory to collect a certain number of parts to be roughened and finished, because nowhere is the division of labour pushed so far. One worker makes the rifle stocks, another polishes them; this one finishes the parts of the inner mechanism, this other one straightens the barrels, always more or less deformed by drilling, or chisels ornaments on the steel. At the factory itself, only the assembly is done, and if this organisation has all the disadvantages of piecework, it at least has the advantage of keeping intact the working family, so often disorganised by centralised industry, and of preserving for the people their habits, their traditions, their originality of spirit. The essential trait of this Liège spirit is gaiety, a solid gaiety, a gaiety that nothing can kill and which explains the vivacious energy of this city, so often ruined by the people of war, and which always awoke stronger and more valiant. In the bourgeoisie, this is too often translated into a carefree flâneuse that lingers in projects and indulges in the vain talk of café life. Among the people, it is a cheerful and valiant good humour, a kindly resignation to the hardships of life, a propensity to laughter, to joy, to the noisy revelry of the fairs. And these fairs do not necessarily result in endless Flemish drinking. Of course, it is appropriate to eat pie, drink 'péquet' and 'saison' (popular beer). But the main thing is the dancing and the show. The dance is the Cramignon, a sort of sung round or farandole for which there are special tunes based on very old Walloon lyrics often imbued with the most charming poetry. The show is the popular Guignol, a Guignol that is perhaps closer to the one in Lyon than to the one in Antwerp. Old traditional dramas are performed: Geneviève de Brabant, Charlemagne and The Four Aymon Sons, or The Mystery of the Passion. But in the midst of these noble adventures, the good Liège man Tchantchet always intervenes, commenting on the drama in the manner of a Shakespearean clown and linking it with local and contemporary incidents through satirical remarks. The people of Liège also had their favourite sports, which were wrestling and canoeing. Also, on summer Sundays, the banks of the Meuse and especially of the Ourthe, less spoiled by industry, are animated by a popular gaiety reminiscent of the beautiful Sundays of the Parisian suburbs. All the villages around Liège have their own special festivals, some of them very old, others of recent foundation. Kinkampois crowns a rosière, Esneux has its festival of trees, Chaud-fontaine its baths and its guinguettes. There is not a hamlet in the suburbs that does not have its famous cabaret, its balls, its arbours, and if the summer is good, all this comes alive with a communicative gaiety that makes people take up the hard work of the week more valiantly.
This active gaiety is reflected in the city's décor. Of the old Liège, of the city as it was in the Middle Ages, nothing or almost nothing remains, except for the Notger tower and a few churches - even the oldest of which have been so extensively altered that it is difficult to distinguish what remains of the original temples. Indeed, Liége was almost completely demolished during the sacking of the city by the troops of Charles the Bold. The city of today dates back to the reign of Erard de la Marck, who built the magnificent episcopal palace that now serves as the Palais de Justice, and Liège, from an architectural point of view, can hardly be compared to the great Flemish cities.
But what gives it its charm, a charm that is very particular to it, are the old hotels, the old houses, the fountains, the picturesque corners that abound. Here, it is a patrician residence built in the past by Lambert Lombard and transformed into a commercial house. There, it is a steep alleyway that climbs between the gardens and leads to a modern, busy and noisy street. On the other hand, there is the Ansambourg hotel, a veritable museum of aristocratic life in Liege in the 18th century. Finally, there is the curious Curtius house, which has been turned into an archaeological museum and which stands with its square tower and old slate roof at the end of the quai de la Batte. This is the heart of old Liege. On market days, the whole of the Quai de la Batte comes alive with a swarming of horse-drawn carriages, market gardeners, birdwatchers, porters, hawkers shouting, hawking, mingling jibes with jibes and moving about in a hustle and bustle of trestles. It is the same animation that one finds on the Place Verte, the true Forum of the city, where the Delcour fountain more or less vaguely recalls the ancient Perron, the Palladium of communal liberties.
The whole city is extremely lively. The people of Liège live much more in the street than those of other Belgian cities. In the summer, when the working day is over, everyone goes out, walks and strolls around the squares, along the Boulevard de la Sauvenière or in the cafés of the "Carré", a vast quadrilateral formed by the busiest and most commercial streets of the city. Chattering groups form, the cafe terraces are full of customers, lively children shout at the top of their voices the headlines of the local newspapers and one has the illusion of the teeming, smiling and gesticulating life of a large French city.
Liège, moreover, is admirably fitted out for this active and sociable urban life. The major works carried out in the second half of the 19th century, without altering the character of the city too much, have made it healthier and more convenient. The arms of the Meuse and the small canals that separated the old "vinaves" (neighbourhoods, districts constituting administrative and political districts in the Middle Ages) have been filled in and replaced by wide, airy streets, and this succession of squares very close to each other and of very different character: the Place de la Cathédrale, the Place du Théâtre, the Place Saint-Lambert, the Place Verte, the Place du Marché, provides a whole series of charming urban landscapes. On the other hand, wide boulevards and vast squares have brightened up and coloured the new districts that extend towards the Guillemins station. Finally, the noble perspectives of the Meuse and the series of large forts that cross it from the Fragnée bridge, built during the Universal Exhibition of 1905, to the Saint-Léonard bridge, via the Arches bridge, the first foundations of which are said to date back to the 5th century, complete the appearance of a large, airy and clear city, combining in its physiognomy the memories of a very noble past with the hopes, needs and aspirations of a very modern city.
And indeed, the exhibition of the city of Liège in Brussels is indeed the exhibition of a great modern city, eager to keep abreast of all the progress of municipal life. It is true that it bears the imprint of a fair respect for the past, and what one senses above all is the lively activity, the intellectual movement that the university maintains in Liège and that the municipal administration prepares for by means of useful educational institutions. Public works show the ever-increasing prosperity of the city. Everything in this very elegantly laid-out pavilion attests to the importance of the great Walloon commune, which provides us with one of the essential aspects of contemporary Belgium. The inhabitants of Liège will be moved by the good air of their native town, the memory of which they will never lose; the foreigner will immediately feel sympathy for a town whose beauty is expressed in engravings, photographs and plans, and whose activities are described in documents and statistics. What better can an exhibition do?
© Exposition Universelle de Bruxelles 1910