Visiting Liège, Belgium and its rather special and historic slope: Rue du Plan incliné and engineer Henri Maus

Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Henri Borremans: Brussels-Prussian border railroad line: View of slopes towards Liège at Ans
Henri Borremans: Brussels-Prussian border railroad line: View of slopes towards Liège at Ans | Source
View of Rue du Plan incliné in Liège
View of Rue du Plan incliné in Liège | Source
A Thalys train descending the slope at Guillemins, Liège
A Thalys train descending the slope at Guillemins, Liège | Source
Alfred, Count von Schlieffen
Alfred, Count von Schlieffen | Source
MAP LOCATION OF LIEGE, BELGIUM
MAP LOCATION OF LIEGE, BELGIUM | Source

The inexorable course of history

A street in Liège, Belgium, rue du Plan incliné, translates 'Slope Street'. On the surface, pictures of Slope Street may not seem particularly special and the casual observer might even ask: What is so special about this slope?

In actual fact, this slope is not just any slope, but is of crucial, historic importance. Belgium became independent of The Netherlands only in 1830, and the following year a Saxe-Cobourg king, Leopold I, was enthroned. The emphasis in foreign and economic relations between the major cities of Belgium was decidedly an east-west affair when it came to the fact the young kingdom was trying to diminish dependence on north-south links with The Netherlands.

So it made sense to cultivate links with Germany, not yet a united country, particularly towards the Rhineland.

The problem with this was geographical, While much of northern Belgium, especially the Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest) is flat, yet eastern Belgium, though not actually moutainous, is very hilly and in an area known as Hesbaye, near Liège, any railroad proceeding from the Brussels (French: Bruxelles; Dutch: Brussel) direction would have negotiate some rather steep slopes.

Enter engineer Henri Maus (1808-1895)(1), who in 1842 successfully built a railroad down a slope between Ans and Liège, which thus enabled viable rail links to be established between Cologne and Brussels, via Liège. This railroad route greatly contributed to economic growth and the convience of travellers in the region.

All was well that ended well, then?

It must be admitted that the alternative of a railroad not eventually being built for the route is hard even to envisage.

But one must remember that after 1871, what had been a collection of German states along the eastern border region of Belgium, Luxembourg and France became an Imperial, united Germany under Prussian leadership, and which — especially after the dumping of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1890 by German Emperor William II — increasingly pursued an aggressive foreign policy.

Suddenly, to Belgians, the Dutch were no longer their enemies (if not exactly their friends). The relatively more restrained Bismarck saw it all along: even before his death in 1898, he predicted that a war would occur, and that Imperial Germany, led by radical militarists, would unleash and undergo a costly war, which he reckoned would become untenable for Imperial Germany to pursue beyond — approximately — November 1918. (All this, seen before the end of the 19th century.)

And so it was that an invasion plan, prepared by Alfred, Count von Schlieffen (1833-1913)(2) was carried out; Imperial Germany breached Belgium's borders in 1914 and attacked (not least, using the rail network) and subjected the country to an occupation noted for its most severe blood-letting.

Rail links that in the early years of the Belgian Kingdom had seemed to augur well for peace and economic well-being, contributed to bringing about death and destruction on a huge scale. It transpired that Engineer Maus's heralded success left Belgium dangerously exposed, (though doubtless the railroad connection would have come about eventually in any case).

I have supplied a number of photos: the main, one, above, shows an artist's view of the railroad slope in question in the 19th century; another shows the railroad slope today; another shows rue du Plan incliné, with a slight incline discernible: this street runs broadly parallel to the railroad incline. Rue du Plan incliné is situated in the Guillemins suburb of Liège, in Belgium's Walloon region (French: Région wallonne).

April 30, 2013

Notes

(1) Engineer Maus was notably involved in various, distinguished projects, including Alpine railroad tunnelling and Belgian canal building; and served as Belgium's inspector general for bridges and roads.

(2) Count von Schlieffen was chief of the Imperial German Army's general staff, eventually becaming a Field Marshal.

Also worth seeing

In Liège itself, other visitor attractions include: the Perron; the Bueren Mountain; the Zénobe Gramme Monument close to the Fragnée Bridge; the Fine Arts Palace (French: Palais des Beaux-Arts); the equestrian statue of Charlemagne; the Cointe Basilica and other, fine ecclesiastical architecture, some of it Medieval; and many others.

...

How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels Airport, where car hire is available (distance from Brussels Airport to Liège : 94 kilometres). The Belgian railroad company SNCB maintains a service from Brussels to Liège . Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

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