Tongeren (Tongres in French, Atuatuca Tungrorum in Latin ; pop. 30,000), halfway between Liege and Hasselt, is the oldest town in Belgium along with Tournai.
The area was home to the Celtic tribe known as the Eburones, whose leader Ambiorix gave a hard time to Julius Caesar's legions. The Eburones were eventually annihilated by Julius Caesar in 53 B.C.E., and the region was left almost devoid of human occupation until the development the Roman city of Atuatuca Tungrorum in 15 B.C.E.
The town became the administrative capital of the civitas (district) Tungri and was the largest Roman settlement in present-day Belgium. A first wall was constructed around Tongeren to protect it from incursion of Germanic tribes from beyond the River Rhine. A second wall was built in the 4th century, parts of which have survived to this day. The Roman city was completely destroyed by the Vandals in the 5th century, and subsequently the resettled by the Franks.
Saint Servatius (342-384) spread Christianity to the Low Countries in the 4th century and became the first bishop of Tongeren, then of Maastricht. The diocese of Tongeren-Maastricht originally comprised most of present-day Belgium and the southern provinces of the Netherlands. It was transferred to Liège by Saint Lambert of Maastricht (636-700), laying the foundations for the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. Nevertheless, the bishops of Liège continued to refer to themselves as bishops of Tongeren and Liège until the 11th century.
The region of Tongeren and Liège was one of the main Frankish settlement in the 4th and 5th century, and served as the cradle of the Carolingian dynasty.
Tongeren's main attraction is the Gallo-Roman Museum, which contains a collection of 18,000 artifacts not only from the Gallo-Roman period, but also from prehistoric and Merovingian times.
The museum is open Mon 12noon to 5pm, Tue-Fri 9am to 5pm, weekends 10am to 6pm. Closed on 25 December and 1 January and is open from 9am to 12noon the day before. Admission is 5 € for adults, 4 € for students between 15 and 25 years old, people over 55 years old and handicapped people, 2 € for children between 7 and 14 years old, and free under 7. There are other discounts for groups, schools or families.
The Basilica of Our Lady (open 8am to 12noon and 1:30pm to 5pm) is one of the country's oldest places of worship. Although the present buildings "only" date from the 14th to 16th century, there is evidence of earlier structures since the 9th century. Some historians believed that the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary north of the Alps was founded here in the 4th century. The construction of the present Gothic cathedral started with the choir in 1240 and took over 200 years to complete. The 64m high bell tower was erected between 1442 and 1541. The Treasure (entry 2.5 €) has an amazing array of religious objects dating from the Merovingian period to the 19th century.
Tongeren, like most Flemish towns has its own Beguinage. Founded in 1257, the Beguinage reached its peak in the 17th century when some 300 beguines lived there. The Beguinage's church of St Catherine was originally built in 1294, but was modified numerous times in history.
How to get there
Tongeren is easily reached by train from Liege (35 to 50min) or Hasselt (22min).
Coming by car, Tongeren is just west of the E313 motorway between Liège and Hasselt.
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