In the footsteps (or wagon ruts) of Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s first visit to Liège was in 1840, when he was thirty-eight years old. He was travelling by stagecoach, known in French as a diligence, and was on his way from Paris to the Rhine Valley in Germany. In his book Le Rhin he described his approach to Liège from the Southwest, coming down the valley of the Meuse River:

But then evening comes, the wind dies down, the meadows, bushes and trees are silent, you can hear nothing but the sound of the water. The insides of the houses are lit dimly; objects disappear like smoke. In the stagecoach the travelers yawn as though it were a yawning contest, saying: We will be in Liège in an hour. At that moment that the landscape suddenly takes on an extraordinary appearance. There, in the forests at the foot of the brown, fuzzy hills to the west, two round eyes of fire burst and blaze like the eyes of a tiger. Here, beside the road, a terrifying flame shoots up eighty feet high in the landscape, assaulting the rocks, forests and ravines with sinister illuminations. Further on, at the entrance to this valley hidden in the shadows, a huge mouth full of embers opens and shuts brusquely, releasing horrible hiccups and a tongue of flame.

These are the factories that are lighting up. 

Beyond the town called Petite-Flemalle, the scene becomes indescribable and truly magnificent. The whole valley seems to be studded with erupting craters. Some of them disgorge turbulent clouds of scarlet sparkling steam from behind the bushes; others dismally outline the black silhouette of the villages against a red background. In other places flames appear through the gaps in a group of buildings. One would think an enemy army has just crossed the country and ransacked twenty villages, leaving them in the gloomy night in various stages of destruction, some burned to the ground, some giving off smoke, some still in flames. 

This warlike spectacle was actually produced by peace. This horrifying appearance of appalling devastation was made by industry. You are simply looking at the blast furnaces of Mr. Cockerill. 

A fierce and violent noise arises out of this chaos of workers. I had the curiosity to get out of the stagecoach and approach one of these disturbing and mysterious places. There, I truly admired the industry. It is a beautiful and prodigious spectacle, which at night seems to enhance the solemn sadness of the hour with a touch of the supernatural. The wheels, saws, furnaces, rolling mills, cylinders, pendulums, all those monsters of copper, tin and brass that we call machines and whose steam is alive with a frightening and terrible roar, hissing, whistling, moaning, protesting, sniffing, barking, yelping, tearing the bronze, twisting the iron, chewing the granite, and at times, surrounded and harassed by smoky black workers, screaming with pain in the ardent atmosphere of the factory, like hydras and dragons tormented by demons in hell. (From Letter VII of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo, my translation.) 

The Meuse River in Liège

This part of Belgium, the French-speaking Wallonia, was the rich half of the country in the nineteenth century, in fact for decades it was the leading industrial region of continental Europe. French was Belgium’s only official language at that time and the prosperous French-speaking Walloons tended to look down their noses at their poor Dutch-speaking compatriots in Flanders, just a short stagecoach ride to the north.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the situation has reversed. Flanders is now booming with innovative high-tech industries and the French-speaking Wallonia has fallen far behind. A big political issue in Belgium these days is whether or not to divide the country, as some Flemish politicians would like to do, so that Flanders would no longer have to subsidize the poor once-proud Wallonians.

John Cockerill, mentioned by Victor Hugo as “Mr. Cockerill”, turns out to have been a British industrialist (born 1790, died 1840) who spent most of his adult life in Belgium, where he developed a vast complex of mines and factories near Liège. Since John Cockerill’s death, his company has been through numerous crises and mergers. It is now part of the global ArcelorMittal steel company.

Stagecoach in the Public Transport Museum in Liège

The Museum of Public Transport in Liège (Musée des Transport en commun du Pays de Liège), located in the old tram depot in the district of Vennes-Fétinne, displays public transport vehicles from two centuries, starting with a horse-drawn stagecoach (diligence).  This was the kind of vehicle that Victor Hugo travelled in when he first came to Liège as a tourist in 1840. Unlike many of the other passengers, Hugo enjoyed sitting outside on one of the upper seats of the impériale, where he could have a better view of the passing landscape. He wrote:

Yesterday at nine in the morning, as the coach from Liège to Aix-la-Chapelle was getting ready to leave, a good Wallonian citizen caused an uproar by refusing to climb up to his seat on the impériale. The energy of his resistance reminded me of an Auvergnian peasant who said he had paid to be in the box, not on the roof. I offered to trade places with this worthy traveler; I climbed up onto the roof, peace was restored and the diligence departed. I was very pleased. The road was cheerful and charming. (From Letter VIII of Le Rhin by Victor Hugo, my translation.)

From his seat up on the roof of the stage coach, Victor Hugo had a clear view not only of the lovely countryside, but also of the many construction sites where bridges and tunnels were being built for a new means of transportation that would soon replace the stagecoach entirely — the new railroad that was being built from Liège to Verviers.

My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.

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