For many years, the image of Liège - a mining town in eastern Belgium - wasn't particularly good. But today, the city has redefined itself as a cultural metropolis. What's behind Liège's newfound identity?
Many travelers are familiar with Liège's imposing railway station - though usually only from inside a train. The super fast Thalys and ICE both make a short break here on their journeys between Cologne and Brussels.
But if you leave the train, it can feel as if you're stepping into the future. The spectacular train station, designed by Spanish star architect Santiago Calatrava, is a cathedral of the 21st century.
Forty meters overhead, the station's massive glass roof swells gracefully over the tracks, resembling an insect's wings. And yet, the 200-meter (650-foot) arch contains 10,000 tons of steel. To see the station in person is alone worth the trip.
The construction of the Liège-Guillemins station in 2009 marked a new future for the eastern Belgian city, one that swapped mining for culture. But it was only the beginning.
City on the move
The train station is a flagship of the structural change in Liège, from a rundown mining town to a cultural center. Around half a billion euros have been invested in this metamorphosis: Half comes from the municipality and the region, the other half from the European Union.
The train station alone cost 312 million euros ($344 million), and the rest went toward the modernization of the opera house, the concert hall, the theater, and the construction of a new museum dedicated to local history.
But the city's redevelopment isn't finished yet, as construction sites continue to dominate the city. An excavator is tearing down the building that once housed the finance ministry. Its replacement, a mirrored skyscraper, sits nearby, looking as if it was airlifted in from Qatar.
"If you look at the building's silhouette, it somewhat resembles the Burj Al Arab in Dubai," said Rolf Minderjahn, referencing the famous sail-shaped luxury hotel. Minderjahn, a resident of Aachen just over the border in Germany, is the author of the only German-language guidebook for Liège. He's been following the city's development for decades.
Another new project in development is the Esplanade, a new public walkway also designed by Calatrava that will allow visitors to stroll from the train station to the new art museum, Musée La Boverie.
Temple of art
At the moment, it's still rather difficult to reach the new museum, which is due to open on an island in the Meuse River on May 5. "The ideal way to reach the museum would be to take this pedestrian and bicycle bridge," said Minderjahn, gesturing to the newly built span. But the bridge, a futuristic structure made of steel and concrete, is currently off limits.
The new bridge is intended to make it easier for Liège residents to get over to the Parc de la Boverie, a popular recreation area and picnic spot on the weekends. It's a magnificent idyll, complete with rose gardens and playgrounds. And right in the middle is the palace built for the 1905 World's Fair - the museum's new home. The city invested 30 million euros in its renovation, extending the space with a new addition designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, known for his work on the MUCEM in Marseille.
Inside the whitewashed exhibition spaces decorated with plenty of stucco, it smells of fresh paint. At 3,000 square meters (around 32,000 square feet), the upper level has plenty of space for special exhibitions. Next door in the glass box extension, which opens out onto the park and the Meuse flowing nearby, are another 2,000 square meters. When the new museum opens to the public, it will feature an inaugural exhibition entitled "En Plein Air" ("Outdoors"), works on loan from 40 museums around the world.
Partnership with the Louvre
The new museum is quite the coup for Liège, as it comes with a partnership with the Louvre in Paris. The world's most famous museum will use the space to display parts of its collection, and in turn it will support the city with the planning of its own exhibitions.
"Musée La Boverie will be playing in the big leagues," said Chloe Beaufays, a project manager who works with the museum. "It was clear to us that in order to get the top exhibitions, we needed to cooperate with the world's top museums."
Liège is following in the footsteps of another former industrial center, the northern Spanish town of Bilbao, which partnered with the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Masterpieces from around the world
"The good thing is, the Louvre will seek out works for us to loan. There's quite a difference if the Louvre requests a painting from the Prado, for example, versus if we request it," said Beaufays, stressing that La Boverie won't just be a second or third Louvre. Nevertheless, there are parallels to the Louvre-Lens, the branch of the Louvre that opened in a former mining village in northern France in 2012.
Through its cooperation with the Louvre branch in Liège, the famed museum hopes to tap a new audience. "Of course, 10 million people visit the famous works of art in Paris. But just like in Lens, the museum will be able to display its own works in a new context in Liège. It also excites the Louvre to be able to bring great art to people outside Paris," said Beaufays.
Past remains visible
The transformation of Liège brings to mind the transformation of the Ruhr region in central-western Geramny, which was also reinvented thanks to its cultural sites. "This partnership with the Louvre, but also the development of other cultural institutions in Liège, are part of a large-scale campaign to revive the city," said Jerome Hardy, responsible for the city's urban development. "Even the business sector is interested in expanding the city's cultural life."
They're hoping that attractions like the theater, the opera, the philharmonic orchestra and now La Boverie will make Liège competitive. And Liège, as an international brand, is determined not to lose sight of its past. Even though the city is sprucing itself up, what came before remains visible. And that's a good thing, according to guidebook author Rolf Minderjahn.
"Liège shouldn't be perfect," he said. "Liège must have a patina."