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Visiting Comines, France: A Belfry Keeping Watch Over the Lys River Since the Middle Ages in the Heart of Flanders

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The old belfry at Comines, between 1878 and 1882.  Le Nord Contemporain / Revue Archéologique & Artistique, 1882.

The old belfry at Comines, between 1878 and 1882. Le Nord Contemporain / Revue Archéologique & Artistique, 1882.

Evocative of a silent sentinel?

[This visit occurred a number of years ago.]

A belfry has overlooked the Lys River at Comines since the Middle Ages. Even though successive belfries were in turn replaced by others — the current one by architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier dating from 1927 — and even though the Lys River has in the locality of Comines had its course altered somewhat, this is a remarkable piece of continuity.

Now on the periphery of France — the Lys River marks the border with Belgium — Comines is in the heart of Flanders in its historic definition (1). (The Belgian territory facing Comines, France is actually officially bilingual in French and Dutch and is known as Comines / Komen. On the Belgian side of the river, the Lys is also known officially in Dutch as the Leie.)

With such Flemish belfries, perhaps there is a strong, latent idea of perennial watchfulness: silent sentinels on the horizon? This is an image present in the writings of Abbé Gantois, a local Roman Catholic priest and regional activist (2). The author of a number of works, including the periodical De Torrewachter (Dutch for 'the tower sentinel'), Abbé Gantois sought to link local people with a sense of cultural roots with the region's past, on both sides of the Franco-Belgian border.

This sense of a watchful, silent sentinel can be very strong in the vicinity of Flemish belfries and I myself, a former holder of an ID from Uruguay where I grew up, have sought to recall where a similar sentiment lay buried in my memory from many years ago. Recently a memory footfall emerged in the shape of recollections of the image of a silent, watchful gaucho: a cultural and historical presence in the Pampas region of Latin America. Indeed, the founder of Uruguayan nationality, General José Gervasio Artigas (1764-1850) may be said strongly to epitomize the idea of a silent, watchful sentinel.

Flemish belfries and silent gauchos keeping watch on the horizon over the centuries: these are intense, wordless images separated by many thousands of kilometres, but nonetheless real.

February 2, 2022

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(1) Interestingly, in France, the French word for Flanders is often given in the plural: 'les Flandres'. In Belgium, whether in French ('la Flandre') or in Dutch ('Vlaanderen)

(2) Jean-Marie Gantois (1904-1968) whose reputation was somewhat tarnished by activities during the Vichy-France era in World War Two, was a tireless interpreter of the Flemish past and advocate for the wider use of the Dutch language.

The border river Lys / Leie between France and Belgium at Comines / Komen

The border river Lys / Leie between France and Belgium at Comines / Komen

Also worth seeing

Comines, France has a Town Hall adjacent to the belfry.The grounds of Saint-Chrysole church have a monument to Medieval chronicler and diplomat Philippe de Commynes. A war memorial commemorates heavy losses in World War One.


How to get there: Brussels has the nearest large international airport to Comines, France. Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ; distance to Comines, France: 125 kilometres), from where car rental is available. The Belgian railroad company SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Comines/Komen, on the Belgian side, which is easily accessible from Comines-France. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

Map location of Comines (France) within Lille 'arrondissement'

Map location of Comines (France) within Lille 'arrondissement'

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