High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

All Roads Lead to Tongeren

All Roads Lead to Tongeren

Belgium's oldest city led a dormant existence for a long time. Now Tongeren has refreshed its identity. Thanks to the Romans.

No sign. No explanation. The oversized dodecahedron stands on a street corner in the middle of Tongeren. The metal structure is modelled on a mysterious object from Roman times found outside the city walls in 1939. No one knows what it is or where it comes from. It’s one of the world’s most baffling mysteries.

I first saw the dodecahedron when I visited Tongeren in the 1990s. It was the star attraction of the revamped Gallo-Roman Museum at the time. Now it seems forgotten. The world has moved on.

Tempus fugit, you might say. But some things remain the same, like the slow train from Liège to Tongeren, which is still the same old train with hard benches that stops at every little place along the way.

And yet. Go back almost two thousand years and Tongeren was the most important settlement in the region. The oldest town in Belgium, Atuatuca Tungrorum was founded in the first century AD on the great Via Belgica road that ran from the Rhine to the North Sea. For a time, all roads in the region led to Tongeren. Even now, the N road from Tongeren to Tienen follows the route of the old Romeinse Weg. It runs in a dead straight line across the landscape, just as it did almost two thousand years ago.

The settlement at Tongeren gradually expanded into a sizeable Roman city with walls, a forum and an aqueduct - all the trappings of late Roman civilisation. Compare that with Brussels, which scarcely existed as anything more than a few huts in the Zenne marshes.

But history has not been kind to Tongeren. The town has been in decline ever since invading Franks burned the place in the third century AD. It was slowly rebuilt, but never regained its original size, so you now find stretches of the old Roman walls out in the fields, beyond the limits of the mediaeval town.

Tongeren had a second stab at greatness in the fourth century (when Brussels was still just a soggy bog). The Bishop of Cologne chose the former Roman town as the seat of Belgium’s first bishopric. The first church in the Low Countries was built on the foundations of the old Roman basilica. But the first bishop, Saint Servatius, soon tired of Tongeren and moved to Maastricht in 382 AD.

And then disaster hit Tongeren again in 1677 when Louis XIV’s troops set it on fire, destroying 80 percent of the buildings. A painting in the tourist office shows the city consumed by flames. The fire marked a final blow for Tongeren, which now seems a forgotten place at the far end of the country. One slow train an hour if you are lucky.

And yet. Something interesting has been happening in the past 30 years. The town has rediscovered its Roman roots. It all started in 1994 when a dusty collection of Roman relics was moved into a stunning new Gallo-Roman Museum. Sited next to the basilica, the museum was voted European Museum of the Year in 2011, the first Belgian museum to win the title.

Recently expanded and reorganised, the bunker-like museum cleverly uses the latest digital technology to shed light on a relatively modest collection of ancient objects. The visitor wanders round with a digital phone listening to bitesize commentaries in four languages. Along the way, video screens show interviews with the museum’s curators to add further depth. And, after you leave, the museum uses your phone data to send an email listing the objects you studied and the ones you missed (my score: 14 stories heard, 68 missed).

The museum has recently made some radical changes to the displays. When it opened, the entire basement was dedicated to “the secret of the dodecahedron”. Evoking one of Piranesi’s imaginary cities, the darkened interiors challenged the visitor to come up with an explanation for the bizarre 12-sided bronze object found in more than 100 locations across Europe. ‘We are hoping that someone will come here one day and discover the answer to the puzzle,’ a curator told me at the time.

They seem to have given up hope. The dodecahedron might have been part of a game, or perhaps a tool for measuring pipe sizes. Or maybe it was an elaborate candlestick holder, someone has suggested. No one knows. And, it seems, no one cares any more, as the object is now tucked away in a glass case, more or less forgotten.

Other things have changed too, including the museum restaurant, renamed Bistro Bacchus in 2019. It is now a stylish spot with suspended lamps modelled on Roman busts and a menu that includes a number of Roman dishes.

‘They offer a taste experience that takes you back 2000 years,’ claims food archaeologist Jeroen Van Vaerenbergh. So I ordered the Isicia omentata, a dish involving pork meatballs cooked in red wine and seasoned with mulberries, pine nut kernels and lovage (described in the menu as ‘similar to the aroma of Maggi soup flavouring’. Add a glass of wine, and you could be a second-century Roman.

For a time, the Gallo-Roman Museum was the main reason to visit Tongeren. But recently, archaeologists have dug down under the floor of the Gothic church to reveal astonishing Roman remains, including the foundations of a bath house and traces of two Roman homes.

The excavations have turned up a total of 45,000 pottery shards, 75,000 fragments of wall paintings and 67 boxes of animal bones. Fortunately, not everything is displayed in the new underground museum known as Teseum.

Expertly designed by a team of historians, designers, musicians and IT engineers, the museum offers a headphone-guided route through the dark underground spaces. The commentary (again in four languages) draws attention to odd details, like a well where a Roman citizen once tossed a gold coin, a Roman stone carved by a local woman to protect her loved ones and fragments of wall paintings in the style of Pompeii. The ominous background music adds another layer of mystery to the experience.

The tour ends dramatically inside the foundations of a vanished Roman villa where you see the charred remains of a wooden beam set on fire during the destruction of Tongeren in 275 AD. With the background sound of the burning city in your headphones, the cracked brick walls and blackened wood bring you close to the moment the Roman Empire died.

Turn left for Cologne

The town has also created an inspiring series of three walks that take you around the historical sites (along with a fun walk aimed at kids). Known as the Mijlpaalroute, the Milestone Trail, the routes are marked out with a round metal disk set in the pavement, each with the letter M in one of three colours.

The Mijlpaalroute gets its name from an octagonal Roman milestone from the second century AD that once provided travellers with directions to important towns in the region. Discovered in Tongeren in the 19th century, the milestone is now on show in the Cinquantenaire Museum in Brussels, while a replica stands at the spot where it was discovered.

And yes, you’ve guessed it. Tongeren wants the milestone back. The city argues that it was lent to the Brussels museum, but should now be returned, particularly as there is now a splendid museum to display it.

‘Out of the question,’ said the director of the Cinquantenaire Museum in 1999. While he allowed the rare milestone to be returned for a temporary exhibition to mark the Millennium, he refused to hand it over for good, on the grounds that ‘every little museum in the country would want something back’.

The red Mijlpaalroute is the one to follow to reach the Roman walls on the edge of town. On the way down the main street, you pass the mysterious replica dodecahedron and the Roman milestone (copy of).

And then, the biggest surprise of all. The foundations of a huge temple were found buried under an orchard in 1964. One of the largest in northern Europe, the temple originally stood on a hill, visible from far away. The site lay forgotten for many years until recently, when Tongeren’s mayor, Patrick Dewael, decided to reconstruct the lower part of this impressive building, along with the base of every column. Hidden among houses, it still isn’t too easy to find. But the sheer size is an extraordinary of Tongeren’s importance.

From here, the green route takes you out to the Roman wall built of rough flint. Originally more than four kilometres long, it still runs along the edge of town, high above the fields, skirting a school and some private gardens.

The trail then leads you into the gentle Limburg countryside where a Roman spring is named after the historian Pliny. The reddish water that gurgles out of the ground was described by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopaedic Natural History as ‘an excellent remedy for kidney stones and the three-day fever’.

Two thousand years on, Tongeren still clings to its Roman identity, with streets called Caesarlaan and Legioenlaan. The main civic centre – normally it would be called the Gemeentehuis – is known here as the Praetorium. And the local hipster hairdresser could not resist calling his shop Barbarius.

The Roman past has also inspired several contemporary artworks dotted around the town, including a strange series of three mock tumuli constructed in 2017 near the Pliny spring. Known as Third Paradise, the work is by two local artists who call themselves Le Prince-Evêque. Borrowing a concept developed by the Italian conceptual artist Michelangelo Pistoletto, they have modelled the small hills on Roman burial mounds found in the region.

The gentle art of recycling

The 17th-century fire destroyed most of the city, but Tongeren’s Gothic church survived, along with a remarkable collection of religious art. This is displayed next to the church in the spotlit rooms of a new museum called Teseum. Here you see ancient treasures that were hidden for centuries, including elaborate reliquaries containing fragments of saints’ bones, rolled-up paper certificates (guaranteeing the bones are genuine) and small stones gathered from the Holy Land.

The collection includes a beautiful Virgin with long wavy hair carved from walnut by a Maastricht sculptor. With her long, wavy hair, the Virgin seemed very modern, someone who had just come from the hairdresser’s.

Most of the old buildings went up in flames, but the Begijnhof (Beguinage) survived the fire. The women residents somehow managed to persuade the French troops to spare their houses. Like other Flemish Beguinages, it’s a quiet quarter of cobbled lanes, neat stone houses with hidden front gardens and cats sleeping on doorsteps.

The rest of Tongeren is a muddle of styles. You find a few classical buildings, a couple of Art Nouveau houses and a range of Art Deco buildings. It seems nothing is sacred in this town where they have been recycling building material for almost two thousand years – the Roman basilica was converted into a Gothic church; the city walls plundered to build houses; ancient columns ground to dust to build new structures.

It’s no surprise then to find the tourist office located inside a little baroque chapel, the old hospital turned into a shopping centre and a branch of Hema squeezed inside one of the only houses to survive the fire. It might seem curious to find cheap underwear on sale in a 16th-century half-timbered house with a beautiful round timber staircase. But, as Pliny once put it, no one is wise all the time.

The main square is lively enough, with a row of busy café terraces overlooking a 19th-century statue of Ambiorix. Famed as the leader of a local uprising against the Romans, Ambiorix is represented as a tough Gaul warrior standing on top of a prehistoric dolmen. Not unexpectedly, children often think it’s Asterix.

Economically, Tongeren looks as if it is struggling to survive. Many of the shops on the two main shopping streets are empty, including the landmark Huis Timmermans, just off the main square, where the family sold newspapers, magazines and travel guides for almost 100 years. Wounded in World War One, the founder Alfons Timmermans opened his shop in 1921 with a sign on the window that read Oorlogsverminkt for Flemish customers and Mutilé de Guerre for those from Wallonia. A faded Knack magazine from 2017 gathers dust in the window as a last souvenir of the family business.

Even the new shopping centre – the one they gutted the old hospital to create – looks as if it is failing, with more than half of the 24 shops unoccupied. The latest to close was a branch of H&M, leaving behind a bleak empty space.

The town can feel a backwater. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have a very inspired cycling policy, despite sitting in the heart of cycle-friendly Limburg province. The steep hills don’t help. But it feels stuck in the 1970s, dominated by traffic and car parks.

Not that it isn’t dynamic. In late 2019, the town completed an ambitious two-year project on a site next to the Beguinage called De Motten. It involved uncovering a one-kilometre stretch of the River Jeker (buried underground in the 1950s) and creating a new water park and cultural centre. ‘The Tongerenaren always like to grumble,’ said Patrick Dewael at the opening ceremony, ‘But at least here they all agree on one thing: downtown Tongeren has become terriebel sjoon (incredibly beautiful)’.

The city regularly comes to life on a Sunday morning when Europe’s largest antique market takes place here. Launched in 1976 by seven local antique dealers, the market now involves 350 stands spread along the old mediaeval walls and down the narrow streets.

The dealers sell an extraordinary mixture of antiques and vintage furniture – everything from elegant French cabinets to ugly glass ornaments. The town is always packed on the day with tourists and professional buyers speaking French and German and Dutch.

Thanks to the market, Tongeren is back on the map. Once again, at least for one day, all roads lead to Tongeren.

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