As an assistant in the Côte d’Azur, we would spend our weekends exploring new cities and towns. The common theme of these cities included the Mediterranean Sea, lots of colorful buildings, and distinctive southern French architecture. Here in the north, instead of signature colorful buildings and the Mediterranean Sea, the common piece of architecture in most towns is le beffroi, or belfry.
A belfry, quite simply put, is a bell tower. The word comes from both French and Germanic roots, meaning “to protect.” Originally, the belfries of these towns were created as watch towers providing protection against invaders, as well as fires. There are belfries in most towns scattered around the north of France as well as Belgium, each offering a unique style and history of the town.
One of the most impressive belfries is the one located in Douai. Even Victor Hugo found Douai’s belfry to be impressive, as he described to his daughter:
“Picture a Gothic tower, topped with a slate roof, which is composed of a multitude of little conical windows superimposed; on each window is a weather vane, at all four corners a turret; at the peak of the belfry is a lion which turns with a flag in its paws; and from this whole ensemble, so amusing, so mad, so lively, comes a peal of bells“.
The Flemish-style Douai belfry contains a set of 62 bells– one of the largest in Europe. The belfry is also quite old, with construction beginning in 1380 and finishing in 1475. Today, you can take a guided tour of the belfry (in English) and climb the 196 stairs to the top, where an official bell-player will take song requests.
While I didn’t get the chance to admire le beffroi from up top on the inside, I did get to check out the Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai, an art museum with works ranging from the Middle Ages to Modern Art housed in a former Monastery.