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Visiting Liège, Belgium, with its Meuse and Ourthe rivers: the psychologies of confluence

Updated on April 3, 2015
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
View of the confluence of the Ourthe and the Meuse, Liège, from the Mativa footbridge
View of the confluence of the Ourthe and the Meuse, Liège, from the Mativa footbridge | Source
Fountain, seen from Fragnée Bridge, Liège
Fountain, seen from Fragnée Bridge, Liège | Source
Meuse river, Liège, from Fragnée Bridge. At the extreme right is the confluence of the Meuse and the Ourthe.
Meuse river, Liège, from Fragnée Bridge. At the extreme right is the confluence of the Meuse and the Ourthe. | Source
Map location of the Scheldt and Meuse rivers, Belgium
Map location of the Scheldt and Meuse rivers, Belgium | Source

Fluvial geography defining a city on an ancient route

At Liège, in eastern Belgium, there occurs the confluence of two significant rivers: the Meuse and the Ourthe.

Notably, the confluence occurs at juncture of the Meuse where this river divides, creating a long island, Outremeuse, which, since Medieval times, has been at the heart of the City of Liège. A fountain, or water jet (generally reminiscent of the more famous one at Geneva, Switzerland) marks the southern end of Outremeuse.

One may therefore well imagine correctly that Liège is a city of many bridges.

The main photo, above, shows the mouth of the Ourthe, left, and the two branches of the Meuse. The picture was taken from the Mativa footbridge (French: passerelle Mativa ), sometimes referred to as the Hennebique Bridge (French: Pont Hennebique )(1). This footbridge links quai Mativa with Boverie Park (French: parc de la Boverie ) on the island of Outremeuse, part of which may be seen to the right of the photo. The Mativa footbridge was completed in 1905; the narrower, 3.8 kilometre branch of the Meuse, known as la Dérivation , was mainly engineered between the years 1853 and 1863. A substantial portion of the volume of water which flows along the smaller, Dérivation branch of the Meuse is actually received from the Ourthe River rather than from the main body of the Meuse itself.

Again, in the main photo, above, In the distance are two bridges: the Gramme Bridge (French: Pont Gramme ) and the Fragnée Bridge (French: Pont de Fragnée ).

Liège is in the Walloon region (French: Région wallonne ); while Belgium has a coastline, it lies outside this region's boundaries, and geographically and historically the area incorporated into the landlocked Walloon region is somewhat defined by its rivers (2). From a perspective of territorial and fluvial psychology, the Ourthe - Meuse confluence and the Dérivation are at a very interesting situation. While the Walloon region is divided into eastern and western parts by the great Meuse river, yet Outremeuse island at the heart of the city belongs neither to its eastern nor to the western bank, even though, almost by definition, the Walloon region is otherwise divided geographically by the Meuse (3). Thus, the basic delineation of Liège's natural boundaries transcend by many centuries Belgium's contemporary administrative arrangements: as an independent country, Belgium dates from 1830.

This Island, almost a psychological citadel, so to speak, has a strong, local identity; local people even sometimes refer to it as the Free Republic of Outremeuse (French: la République libre d'Outremeuse ): a spin-off from the well defined fluvial geography of the city.

The unique situation of Liège on the Meuse is a reminder that ideologies rise and wane, but geography — and the nature of fluvial trade — abides.

December 17, 2012


(1) The bridge is named for French engineer François Hennebique (1841-1921), who was noted for developing reinforced concrete as a building material.

(2) I always think the term 'landlocked' is so vague, covering such a variety of countries and regions that, in the abstract, it lacks specificity. For example, Ontario, because of its albeit sometimes ice-bound Hudson Bay coastline, does not qualify for a 'landlocked' status, yet its ocean-going traffic from the St Lawrence Seaway far exceeds the almost negligible tonnage which uses ports on Hudson Bay. Countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have no oceangoing outlets, yet do significant trade on the inland Caspian Sea. Similarly, the Walloon region's Meuse river is an ancient trade route, already active in Roman times (known as the Mosa ), and it continues to carry a large tonnage of trade, and — indeed — attract many tourists for its outstandingly scenic qualities, especially in the south of the Region.

(3) With the strength of regionalism in Belgium, which, with Canada, must rank among one of the most decentralized countries in the world, its geography nevertheless defies easy attempts by politicians to draw lines on a map that might offer a geographical basis for even more radical 'solutions' to the seemingly ever present urge to divide and decentralize further. For example, Brussels is a region in itself, a largely Francophone 'island' entirely surrounded by territory which is solely Dutch-speaking, officially.

An interesting lesson in pragmatism surrounding fluvial trade is offered by the neighbouring Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, inclusion in the Martime Register of which gives rights to shipping proprietors, instead of paying a conventional tonnage tax, to receive a tax credit as investors would on capital investment. In turn, this gives vessel owners the environmentally friendly incentive to keep reinvesting and renewing their fleets. Seemingly, instead of bickering about decentralization, and assertively stressing regional rights to impose tariffs and taxes, this is one way that the highly pragmatic Luxembourgers have found to turn their fluvial geography into a money-spinner!

Also worth seeing

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