Like Alsace, the Mosan Valley is a borderland region that sits in the center of European history. The region has served as the capital of the Carolingian Empire, the industrial heartland of the Kingdom of Belgium and as Germany’s preferred route to invade France. The people of the Mosan Valley spoke their own language, had their own rulers and developed their own cultural traditions. The landscape offers one of Europe’s most expansive and beautiful forest landscapes and some of its most unique cityscapes. It is a region full of local traditions, and one of the most under-explored destinations in Europe.
What is the Mosan Valley?
The Maas River goes by several different names depending on the context. In French and sometimes in English the river is called the Meuse. However, English also uses the French adjective for the river “Mosan”. This can be somewhat confusing depending on the context, so I will use either the term “Mosan” as a descriptor of the region, and will refer to the river by its easier to pronounce dutch name, the Maas.
The region that I call the Mosan Valley does not encompass the entire length of the river. It is focused primarily on the lands and territories of the Bishops of Liege, and their dependencies. It also includes areas under the cultural influence of Liege, namely the Burgundian territory of Namur, the minor states of Loon and Limburg and the Holy Roman territories of Aachen, Maastricht, Roermond and Kornelimünster.
The Maas River itself starts deep in France, and flows to the North Sea via the Rhine. The connection to France goes deeper than just a shared river. Though the city of Liege may originally have been founded by Frankish settlers, the people of the Mosan Valley are largely Walloon. Today they speak modern French, but their own Walloon dialect is distant enough from French to warrant consideration as a separate language. The river also allowed the region easy access to the latest trends in France, which brought new styles, ideas and politics.
However, the Bishops of Liege were not part of France, they were part of the Holy Roman Empire. As pseudo independent political entities under the protection the Emperor, the region was almost entirely spared major conflict until the French Revolution. The unique geographic and political position of the region lent its self to the creation of a unique region identity visible in everyday aspects of life such the architecture and food.
In contrast to other regions such as the Lower-Rhine valley, the Mosan Valley is fairly homogeneous. That being said, I would divide the region into three smaller subsets, based on the political realities of the past:
The Imperial Maas
This region covers the territories of the Maas which were part of Dutch and German speaking states, primarily the Duchy of Limburg and Luxembourg. This includes the parts of the Mosan Valley in the modern-day Netherlands, Germany, and the area along the Belgian border encompassing Eupen and St. Vith. This sub-region saw greater influence from the Rhineland and Lorraine. The architecture often includes symbols of Imperial Authority which are typically absent elsewhere in the region. The best examples are the Cathedral of Aachen and the Cloister of the Church of our Lady in Maastricht, which were built with French styles from Liege, but with Imperial heraldry.
The Main things to see in this part are around the cities of Aachen, Maastricht and Roermond. You will find many moated castles/palaces and charming villages in a relatively flat landscape. That being said, this part of the Mosan Valley suffered especially heavily in WWII. Aachen and many other towns were simply wiped off the face of the earth during the fighting.
This central region includes the city of Liege, the area between Liege and Namur and the lands to the north. Notably, this also includes parts the Dutch speaking Limburg region. The connection to Liege can often be best seen in the architecture of the Churches and Town-Halls which rely heavily on either the Mosan Gothic or Renaissance arch-types. Historically, the towns of this region were considered “Good Cities” or Bonnes Villes by the Bishops and granted special rights. The towns of Huy, Sint-Truiden and Tongeren are some of the nicest in the valley.
The Burgundian Inheritance
The region which has most witnessed the realities of European politics sits at the western Edge. The County of Namur was inherited by the Burgundian dukes and later to the Spanish and Austrian Emperors. Further to the south, the steep valleys around Givet and Fumay made the region especially desirable for the French looking to protect their northern Border. The Bishops were forced to fortify the region if they were to keep it, and fought in numerous wars over the area. The political competition meant that the region was less developed than elsewhere and less dependent on the Bishops in general. Here, French cultural influence is much greater, though there were fewer resources to see it realized. This is a land of castles and fortresses.
Places to Visit
Th Mosan Valley can be incredibly beautiful, though unlike other parts of Belgium, there is less to see and do in the cities. The main attractions to the Mosan Valley lie in the hinterlands, with its great palaces, monasteries and fortresses.
Exploring the Mosan Valley
The valley has several visual narratives that bind the region together. The most immediate connection will be the blue-gray sandstone that adorns nearly every facade. The color of the stone was also used extensively in connection with other materials to create unique patterns. In the late Gothic period, the blue stone often formed the foundation, or lower half of the interior, with a yellow sandstone used to build the rest. This creates a striking dichotomy, as does the Mosan Renaissance, with it’s red brick patterns.
More elusive traces of the region’s ancient past point to a forgotten golden age. With Aachen named as the Imperial Capital of Charlemagne’s Empire in the 9th century, the region underwent an period of explosive growth. Mosan art and talent was exported across Europe. The valley was one of the great centers of Romanesque art, and can be seen today in museums around the world. Looking for these traces in the Valley itself though
As to how you should travel through the region, of course not everything on the map is equivalent in interest. However, the most interesting destinations may be hidden in otherwise uninteresting locations, below are some of suggestions to experience the Mosan Valley.
The Mosan valleyis a rugged region that runs the length of the Meuse/Maas River. With a rich and ancient history, it is known for its dense forests, remote castles and resplendent palaces.
Culinary Overview of the Mosan Valley
From Belgian cuisine, the many regional specialties of Wallonia are less well-known. The Maas Valley merges the well-known traditions of Belgium with the realities of the landscape and the traditions of its aristocratic court.
Thematic Tours of the Valley
One approach to narrowing down a list of interesting destinations is to look at the historical threads that connect them. Below are some guides based on the history of the region and its people.
The Maas Valley is full of resplendent and forgotten palaces. Relics from the Age of Absolutism, they offer well preserved windows into the past. So which ones are worth visiting? This guide will summarize the best palaces to visit in Maas Valley.
For more pictures of the many places to see here, head over to my gallery of the region: The Maas Valley
- Wasseige François-Emmanuel de. La Route Des châteaux. Institut Du Patrimoine Wallon, 2012.
- Macquet, Julien, et al. Le Patrimoine médiéval De Wallonie. Institut Du Patrimoine Wallon, 2005.
- Furnémont André, and Albert Lemeunier. Le musée Communal Et Le trésor De La collégiale De Huy. Crédit Communal, 1992.
- Caspers, Christine. La Route Des Cathédrales, Collégiales Et Basiliques En Wallonie. Institut Du Patrimoine Wallon, 2016.
- Allart, Dominique. L’église Saint-Jacques à Liège: Templum Pulcherrimum: Une Histoire, Un Patrimoine. Institut Du Patrimoine Wallon (IPW), 2016.
- Dejardin, Valérie. La Route Des Abbayes. Institut Du Patrimoine Wallon, 2006.
- Lepie, Herta, et al. The Cathedral Treasury of Aachen. Schnell Et Steiner, 2019.
- Köver Katharina. Johann Joseph Couven e. Architekt d. 18. Jh. Zwischen Rhein u. Maas; e. Ausstellung d. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museums U.d. Museumsvereins Aachen Vom 16. Oktober – 27. November 1983
- Bauer, Marcel, and Gregor Collienne. Johann Joseph Couven: Mythos Und Erbe Eines Grossen Meisters: Eine Spurensuche Im Dreilandereck. GEV, 2001.
- All Maps made with Datawrapper
- Historical Map from Wikipedia