WE DINANT KNOW BELGIUM COULD BE SO PRETTY!
Keen to explore more of the Ardennes around Namur we set out this morning to see Dinant, one of the regions most widely praised little towns for anyone that likes castles, churches, and river cruises. Throw in a Belgian waffle or 2 and we were sold! The town turned out to be a little gem, sandwiched (mmmm…., sandwhich) on the narrow strip of land between the cliffs of the Ardennes Hills and the River Meuse. With its Citadel looking over the town, the iconic Cathedrale de Notre Dame dominating the centre of town, and cafés lining the riverfront, it’s one pretty little town and well worth the visit.
As we mentioned yesterday, Namur was ridiculously quiet yesterday; today being Sunday we suspected it would be even more desolate… which, in fact, it was. Imagine our delight, therefore, when we actually found a small boulangerie (i.e. bakery) open at the stupidly early hour of 9:00am on a Sunday! Such joy! Keen to start the day energised we decided to forgo the customary croissant or pastry and instead ordered some eggs for breakfast to go with café-au-lait. They came soft boiled, which is fine, but what was not so fine was HOW soft boiled they were. It was like trying to eat egg-flavoured snot! Not recommended. Next time we ask for them to be hard boiled – cook ‘em ‘til they’re rock hard I say! Anything to avoid a repeat of that that runny, eggy disaster. Still, we were fed and caffeinated, so the day could begin…
A short 30 minute train ride* later and we were in Dinant. The sun was shining, it was a balmy 22C (i.e. virtually unheard of good weather for Belgium), families were out strolling along the river front, and right there in front of us stood the Dinant Citadel and the stunning Cathedrale de Notre Dame.
*Have we mentioned how much we love the extensive train network in Europe? Awesome! Public transport is scant, slow, and generally useless in Aus, so it’s a bit of a novelty for us when we’re in places (e.g. Japan, and pretty much everywhere in Europe) where the public transport networks are so extensive and (generally) work so well.
Dinant is positioned in the Upper Meuse valley, on a narrow strip of land between the river and the Condroz Plateau where its Citadel sits. The valley around the town is rich due to the alluvial soils deposited there by the River Meuse, and the strategic advantage afforded by the high cliffs behind the town meant that the Dinant area was already populated in Celtic and Roman times. In fact, the name Dinant comes from the Celtic “div nant”, meaning “Luminous Gorge”.
Dinant’s most famous export, and historically the source of its great wealth, was copper, mined from the surrounding hills. The city is also known in Belgium as the place where the Belgian monarch King Albert I died in 1934 when he fell whilst rock climbing*. For music lovers the town is famous as the birth place of Adolphe Sax, the 19th century inventor of the saxophone. For us, it will forever be all of these things, AND “that cute little village in Belgium with the cool fortress and the weird church”.
*The area is still popular with rock climbers – we saw lots of them clambering up the sheer cliffs around the town.
Dinant’s Citadel was our first stop. This large fortress has been fought over, destroyed, rebuilt, and extended numerous time. The current structure dates from the 19th century; it replaced the ruins of the original fortification, which was built 1051 on the orders of the Prince Bishop of Liege to defend the River Meuse against invaders.
The ascent up to the fortress is very steep and can be done on foot, via the 408 steps carved into the cliffside, or via the free cable car. We looked at the steps and thought about doing the climb, but the cable car was FREE and it was RIGHT THERE… So the cable car won out and in just a couple of minutes we were 112m above the River Meuse, admiring the views.
The interior of the Citadel could only be visited as part of a guided tour (only run in French so not worth our while), so we made do with a quick look around the “free access” parts of the fortress and a visit to the special World War I exhibition, which was actually quite interesting. Turns out the Citadel was the sight of a bloody battle between invading German forces and defending French soldiers in the early days of World War I; interestingly, among the wounded was a certain Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle. A few days after this battle, 674 inhabitants were executed by German troops in what has been dubbed the Massacre of Dinant.
Once back down at river level we visited the city’s landmark church. Built in the Gothic style, this 13th century cathedral replaced an older, Romanesque church that was destroyed when rocks from the overhanging cliffs fell on the building in 1227. Our favourite part of the church was its famous onion dome, which tops off the bell tower.
Having seen the village’s 2 major sights, and strolled through the ENTIRE town, we decided to stop for lunch at one of the lovely little cafés lining the riverside promenade. After a hearty meal of local veal escalopes (served, of course, with the mandatory Belgian bucket of fries, slathered in mayonnaise*), we decided to see what river cruises were on offer for the afternoon.
*Belgium food seems to polarise people. Some people RAVE about the food – and not just the waffles, chocolate, chips/fries, mussels, and beer. Others, like us, may find Belgian food a bit on the rich and extravagant side. Our experiences have shown us that sauces here are often creamy, cappuccinos come not with frothed milk but with whipped Chantilly cream, chocolate comes as a side with EVERYTHING, and potato chips/fries come with EVERYTHING and they’re invariably slathered in mayonnaise. And salad or vegetables? Oh what I wouldn’t give for a simple carrot! *SIGH* Each to their own, right? Thank goodness we aren’t here for too long though, otherwise we’d be truly obese in a very short time!
Seems there are a swathe of river cruises that you can do from Dinant; some go upriver towards Namur, most go downriver towards Freyr and the dramatic cliffs of the Meuse Valley. We chose one of the longer cruises that took us downriver, through a lock, all the way to the Château de Freyr.
Just outside of Dinant we cruised past the Rocher Bayard, a large monolith said to have been split by the hoof of a mythical horse.
Past farmlands and forest we went, through small villages that wouldn’t look out of place on a postcard.
We eventually reached the Castle of Freyr, a 17th century château built in the French style and surrounded by formal French gardens. The château and its gardens were built on the fertile lands across the river from the Rochers de Freyr, the largest of which is said to look like a lion head (we didn’t really see the lion, but maybe we didn’t quite have our heads tilted at the right angle or something).
The river cruise continued on along this vein for a little over 2 hours, which was a little too long for us but still made for a lovely afternoon’s entertainment. Eventually we found ourselves back in Dinant where one of the regular train services whisked us back here to the ghost town of Namur. Our quandary now is: where to go for dinner? The only places we’ve seen open in town this evening are McDonalds and a kebab* place.
*We’ve discovered that, thanks to globalisation, mass migration, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Turkish and other North African/Middle Eastern migrants, kebabs are the universal fall back food in Europe. There have been a few times on our travels, when all else has failed, and a kebab has served as a cheap, easy meal option!