The city of Valenciennes is not on many Australian tourists’ trail when they visit the north of France. We were there because we were going to see the first match in the Australian Women’s soccer team bid for the World Cup title in June 2019. While we were a little broken hearted when the girls lost 2-1 against Italy, we had a little bit of time to have a look at Valenciennes and come away feeling that it seemed a lovely place and we were happy we had time to visit.
To drown our sorrows and feed our starvation, we went to the centre of town before and after dinner and we were able to have a good look at the centre of this northern French city, only 1 hour 20 minutes from Brussels in Belgium and three hours from Cologne in Germany. The main square in front of the restored Hotel de Ville was a celebration of soccer and given over to entertainment of the many visitors. The big sign below gave some indication of their enthusiasm for the soccer events coming to town.
The history of towns in the North of France seem to have much in common due to their location on the northern border. Like Lille, Valenciennes was besieged by an English/Austrian Army in 1793, attempting to put a stop to the revolutionary government of France. It was retaken by the revolutionary armies and like so many other cities of France, it wasn’t just the churches that were destroyed in the process. A ghastly story from this period tells of five Ursuline nuns who were guillotined during the Reign of Terror, presumably for their sins of overzealous piety. Being so close to the borders of Belgium and Germany, Valenciennes was an obvious target during the two world wars of the 20th century. In World War 1, the infamous Hindenberg Line ran through the city involving much demolition and devastation of the city in its construction and similar impacts with its eventual destruction.
In 1940 there was a devastating fire in the city not long before the German armies arrived. Much of the downtown of Valenciennes was destroyed and the Hotel de Ville was not spared; the beautiful façade, opposite our restaurant on the evening of our visit, was the only section that remained standing. The belfry of the town hall fallen taking with it the town hall roof top sculpture titled, ironically, “Valenciennes defending its walls”. The Hotel de Ville has been restored, particularly the sculpture sitting above the clock tower, which again shows a defiant ‘Valenciennes’ continuing to ‘defend its walls’.
Another aspect of Northern French towns and cities that we noticed on our visit to Nord-de-pas-Calais were the belfreys that appeared to be an integral feature of all these communities. The following extract from jbmetais.com gives a clear idea of the importance of these buildings. “Symbol of the free cities of the North in the Middle Ages, the belfry was more than a watchtower, it gathered daily a large and heterogeneous crowd that debated trade, edicts, justice, parties … It was a place of exchange, communication and information.” Unfortunately the belfry of Valenciennes was a casualty in 1940 and rather then restoring the original tower, a design competition was held in 2006 to install a new tower. The result was a work called Litanie (Litany) by Jean-Bernard Métais. Carved into the steel needle pointing towards the heavens in Place D’Armes are the words of locals who were interviewed by Metais during his preparation period.
From the main plaza of Valenciennes you can head off in various directions to get a sense of this city. One of the survivors of the wars of the twentieth century is the Notre-Dame du Saint-Cordon . This church is a pilgrim church; in 2008 over 100000 people gathered to celebrate 900 years since Our Lady apparently came to the aid of the citizens of Valenciennes and preserved the city from the plague by placing a cordon of Angels around the city. The practice of linking arms around the city is part of the annual pilgrimage to this city.
The city’s Office of Tourism is housed, like in Cambrai, in the Maison Espagnole. This building has survived since the 15/16th century from when Valenciennes was incorporated into the Spanish Netherlands.
We discovered that Valenciennes was a city proud of its cultural and artistic heritage and public art was on display on street corners and laneways as we strolled the area around Place D’Armes. We also discovered that the roses are in full bloom here in June and the garden displays just made us envious of a climate and soil that could grow such gorgeous flowers. Our Brisbane home was not so blessed.