Text and photo:
Source: Croatian Traveller
Although it takes a backseat to some other Belgian cities like Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges or Gent, the “devilish” Liège is everything but ordinary. Called the hot or fiery city (La cité ardente), after the novel of Belgian statesman and author Henri Carton de Wiart in 1904, Liège still carries this swaggering title even today (and perhaps even more justified) with an indolent lack of affectation. Despite its historical and cultural landmarks, if you treat yourself to a somewhat longer stay, this atypical tourist town will win you over primarily with its unrestrained laid back atmosphere. The local legend has it that it all started on 25 August 760 when Tchantchès was born between two cobble stones on the bank of river Meuse. This funny looking folklore drunkard is a a personification of well-spirited and very stubborn people of Liège.
The people who found Tchantchès were surprised by his merry nature and the first sentence he ever uttered: “Give me a glass of pèkèt!” (local version of gin). From his early age, young Tchantchès was fed by biscuits dipped in gin and smoked herring fish, causing him to live the rest of his life with an unquenchable thirst (for alcohol). Embodied in a puppet of the folk theater, Tchantchès is today an integral part of the local tradition and an ideal example of a typical Liégeois (inhabitant of Liège): a stubborn and independent lover of rowdy fun and good jokes, hater of bragging and luxury, always ready to help and fight for justice.
In Liège, the center of education in Belgium, the “duty of preserving the tradition” was mostly assumed by the students, 42,000 of them, both local and foreign. Their “nightly activities” are mostly connected to the Carré district, the never tired and vibrating series of streets filled with bars, pubs, night clubs and restaurants, located on the west bank of river Meuse. But if you wish to meet the most original face of the student scene in Liège, you should visit it in October or November. That is when, according to the centuries old tradition, the ritual student initiation ceremonies known as the Les Baptêmes (Christenings) take place.
It is an institutional custom carried from generation to generation, and it marks the acceptance of the freshmen or “the blues” to the university, and their acceptance into “maturity” and the new environment. Although it is not obligatory, the goal of the “christening” is, as they say, to create a “big student family”: building team spirit, mutual respect, helping each other and creating firm bonds. Those who consciously reject it become exposed to the disgraceful reputation of being socially marginalized as “chroniclers” or “fossils”.
In order to keep it in the true spirit of Liège, numerous activities preceding the act of christening include various competitions, tests, challenges and tasks, intended at “firming up the freshmen, to help them conquer their fears and restrictions”. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you come across a group of funnily dressed young people with their hands tied or kneeling on the floor (sometimes bowing all the way to the floor), loudly chanting the traditional student songs, while being watched from above by the already baptized colleagues from the so-called Baptism Committee (Comité De Baptême).
Although the majority of activities are closed in nature, the Belgians know very well the stories of the initiation parties of new students, that are sometimes the cause of postponing scheduled university lectures. In any case, if you need a break from the hot and vivid night life in Liège, go to the top of the 406-stair staircase of Montagne de Bueren. If you fail to make it in one go, stop for a while at one of the benches, enjoying the view that is only a warm-up for the sights awaiting you at the top.
The Citadel (la Citadelle) is located very close, but still very high above the center of Liège. It is a historical part of town, with more than sixty monuments. From the place that was once an ancient military fort, now opens a fascinating view of the town divided by river Meusa. Not far from the bustling city streets you will find peaceful nature and relaxing view of forests, meadows, parks, picturesque yards and silent boulevards. If you rather relax discovering interesting things on city streets, the Sunday afternoon should be reserved for visiting the biggest and oldest Belgian fair - La Batte. On a kilometer and a half long strip, you will experience a good-spirited yelling of the hawkers, offering fruits, vegetables, antiquities, toys and sweets, old records, tools and long forgotten books.
In the most vivid scenario, it might happen to you to go on a chase with the seller, trying to catch a playful white rabbit or hen that, under the frantic eyes of its friends, ran off under the next street stand. Satisfied yet exhausted, the wandering around lively La Batte should be replaced by coffee or local ice cream on coffee shop terraces of another favorite destination of Liège students, Place du Marché. If you should see Tchantchès hanging upside down on top of a street lamp or somewhere in tree tops, don’t rub your eyes in wonder – it is not a consequence of yesterday’s outing. Relax and forget all the questions, and do as the wacky Belgian students do, sip the last drops of your caffeine drink and start preparing for another wild night in Liège.