Dominating Tournai’s skyline are the five towers of the magnificent medieval cathedral, one of two city attractions listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other is the Belfry, see below).
1. Shrine of Our Lady (by Nicholas of Verdun)
This beautiful early-thirteenth-century reliquary is one of the artistic masterpieces that can be seen in Belgium. It is housed in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Tournai. Other important works of art in the cathedral include the reliquary of St. Eleutherius, made in 1247, a Byzantine reliquary from the sixth or seventh century, an ivory Madonna from around 1300 and Gobelins tapestries.
Tournai cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady, and veneration of Our Lady grew enormously after 1090, when Bishop Radboud had the relics of Our Lady carried around the city in a procession during an outbreak of plague. A few days later, the outbreak miraculously ended and the city was saved. The procession then became an annual event.
About a hundred years later, towards the end of the twelfth century, Bishop Stefanus ordered a new shrine for the relics of Our Lady. An inscription (which is probably not original) on the bottom of the shrine names Nicholas of Verdun as the sculptor, and he probably carved it between 1200 and 1205. It is an astonishing artistic breakthrough to the Gothic style, with more expression in the faces and postures of the figures on the shrine.
2. Belfry tower
After visiting the cathedral, it’s just a short walk to the belfry tower, built in 1187, thus making it the oldest belfry in Belgium. It is 72m tall, and from the top visitors have splendid views of this special city.
Most medieval cities in Belgium have belfry towers. They contained city treasuries, strongrooms in which important civic documents were stored. They also served as watchtowers for the city’s defenders. Around the Grand'Place (market square) are many beautiful facades, most of which were renovated after the Second World War. One of these facades is on the medieval Cloth Hall which was the centre of Tournai’s lucrative cloth trade.
Tournai boasts several medieval churches, including St Quentin’s church, St James’s church (St-Jacques) and St. Margaret’s church, to name but three. King Henry VIII’s tower.
Tournai has the privilege of being the only city in Belgium which was once English.King Henry VIII of England was also a claimant to the French throne. In 1513, he landed at Calais with his army, in alliance with the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian, who harboured even greater designs than Henry on the French throne. Maximilian persuaded Henry not to go south but to beseige Tournai first.
The city fell to Henry’s army and he set about rebuilding and improving its defences, starting in the du Bruille district. At that time, the city was surrounded by strong walls (on the site of the modern-day boulevards), cut into two more-or-less equal parts by the Scheldt. Henry began by breaching the enclosing walls to build an enormous tower, connected by ramparts to the Scheldt, along the 'Place Verte'. A deep moat was dug around the fortress so that the whole district was surrounded by water. The fortress became known as the 'château' (castle) and its keep was known as the “Great” or “Henry VIII” tower. The English garrison included look-outs and the highly-reputed archers, who were devastatingly accurate at ranges up to 200m.
In 1518, King Francis I of France gained control of Tournai, making it part of France, to the joy of its inhabitants, who presented many lavish gifts to the King's envoys, despite an economic depression at the time.
Tournai was to suffer many vicissitudes until 1830, but there were also periods when its artists, tapestry-weavers, goldsmiths and porcelain manufacturers brought it celebrity. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the city walls were demolished, along with many historic buildings, as the city expanded into new suburbs, including the railway station district. Of the 60 mediaeval towers and 18 mediaeval gates around the city walls, only the Marvis Tower, the Great Tower and the Pont des Trous remain. The Great Tower was scheduled to disappear too: explosive charges were in place when a last-minute order arrived from the Minister postponing the demolition.
Other museums of interest:
· Palace of Fine Arts (building designed by Victor Horta)
The museum takes a global approach to painting from the fifteenth century to today, and includes paintings by R. Campin, R. Van der Weyden, Brueghel, Rubens, Jordaens, Manet, Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, R. Van der Weyden, and other local artists, plus sculptures by G. Charlier and Grard, among others.
· Military History & Weapons Museum
On display here is a wide range of weapons, plus military and civilian artefacts, including shoulder arms, hand weapons, military headgear, daggers, swords, mortars and guns, together with military decorations, WW2 Resistance memorabilia, flags and model soldiers in dress uniforms from different countries.
· Museum of Archeology
Here, two million years of human history are presented, covering the environment and origins of mankind. Displays and scale models show the different steps of human evolution, techniques for making flint tools, the advent of agriculture, the first pieces of pottery, and how the discovery of metal-working techniques led to the manufacture of more efficient weapons. The museum is divided into three main sections: Quaternary: prehistory & protohistory, Gallo-Roman and Merovingian.
· Folklore Museum
Originally opened in 1932, the creation of Walter Ravez, its first curator, the museum recreates old-fashioned daily life in Tournai and the surrounding area. Destroyed by German bombs in 1940, the museum re-opened in 1950.
· Museum of Tapestry and Textile Art
This museum is located in a Neo-Classical townhouse designed by the talented architect Bruno Renard. In addition to a permanent exhibition of tapestries, there is a tapestry-restoration workshop and a tapestry-weaving atelier, as well as a textile art research centre.
· Museum of History and Decorative Arts
This museum is located in a house in the rue St-Martin and has on display a large collection of Tournai porcelain, including masterpieces from the famous Tournai factory made in the eighteenth century.
· Natural History Museum and Vivarium
Founded in 1828 by a group of local science-lovers to promote zoology, the museum moved to its present site in the Town Hall courtyard in 1839. Its interior was designed by Bruno Renard. Four dioramas recreate typical Tournai habitats: the Scheldt marshes, the limestone quarries, the Hainaut meadows and the Bonsecours forest. There are other displays of Belgian and European plants and animals.
Cathedral of Our Lady (Notre-Dame) - 12th/13th century
St-Brice church & St-James (St-Jacques) church - 13th century
Pont des Trous (mediaeval city bridge).
Flower market on Good Friday