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Visiting Tongeren, Belgium, and its ancient Basilica: complete with Swiss guards

Updated on March 11, 2016
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Tongeren, 13th - 14th century Basilica
Tongeren, 13th - 14th century Basilica | Source
Beadle (or Swiss guard) of Tongeren Basilica
Beadle (or Swiss guard) of Tongeren Basilica | Source
Map location of Tongeren, Limburg, Belgium
Map location of Tongeren, Limburg, Belgium | Source

A looming presence, in Gothic, of the Middle Ages

This colossal, towered Basilica (Dutch: Basiliek) in Tongeren, Limburg, in Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams Gewest ), dates from 13th - 14th centuries. For many centuries the Gothic features of this structure have thus dominated the city of Tongeren, Belgium's oldest, founded over 2000 years ago in Roman times. The tower itself is 64 metres tall; it was begun in 1442 and completed in 1541.

Visitors familiar with rural East Anglia, England, with its many, Medieval Flemish-style churches, may find the appearance of this tower uncannily familiar.

In the interior of the building, the nave and transepts took form over the course of the 13th to 15th centuries, together with side chapels. The treasury contains a very full collection of religious art.

One tradition which has been retained at Tongeren Basilica relates to the presence over many years, at some functions, of uniformed beadles, sometimes known as Swiss guards: The long, coloured uniforms have sometimes had the words 'church police' sewn into them. The 'Swiss' reference there refers to the colourful guards at the Vatican, traditionally recruited from Switzerland; however, the 'Swiss' at Tongeren Basilica are Swiss in name only!

In summary, a very traditional atmosphere prevails at this building, steeped in continuous customs from the Middle Ages. While in The Netherlands particularly, even among many Roman Catholic church a more liberal outlook is discernible, yet here the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that neither the Protestant Reformation, nor the French Revolution, have exercised much influence.

Linguistic note: In older English-language writings about Belgium, Tongeren might be spelt 'Tongres', which is the French spelling. Tongeren is, however, in a Dutch-speaking area and is not officially designated a bilingual area, so the usual Dutch spelling predominates.

May 5, 2012

Also worth seeing

In Tongeren itself, a statue of Ambiorix, a local Belgic tribal leader in Roman times, dating from 1866, is situated close to the Basilica; part of the 14th century Béguinage (Dutch: Begijnhof ) has survived, as has some of the Roman wall, dating from the 2nd century and some Medieval towers; a well-appointed museum has many exhibits relating to local history.

Maastricht , The Netherlands (distance: 19 kilometres); this ancient, Dutch city has two large churches side by side: the Sint-Janskerk and the Sint-Servaas Basilica; other sights include a Medieval gate known as the Helpoort. Travelling between Tongeren and Maastricht is in some ways almost surreal, because they are both in provinces called 'Limburg', one Dutch and the other Belgian; they are both Dutch-speaking, whereas the nearby city of Liège, in the same country as Tongeren, is wholly French-speaking.


How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels Airport, where car hire is available (distance from Brussels Airport to Tongeren : 86 kilometres). The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service from Brussels to Tongeren. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised 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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