Belgium’s River Towns
By Maria Lisella
Pierre-Yves Dalem, president and owner of GET to Belgium (www.get-to.be), thinks that Belgium’s river towns deserve greater recognition, not only as attractive tourist destinations but also for the ingenuity that helped shape them. Says Dalem; “Since the Middle Ages this European flatland has developed an incredible navigation network to transport heavy merchandise to all the tiniest places.” He would know; his grandfather wrote the book entitled 1,000 Years of Navigation on the Ourthe River.
Namur and Dinant
From Brussels, Namur and Dinant are less than one hour by train. Together with historical Bastogne, site of the famous Battle of the Bulge; and the cultural city of Liège, set at the confluence of the Meuse and the Ourthe Rivers, these towns dot the territory known as Wallonia. This French-speaking southern region of Belgium, which represents about 33% of the population, comprises about 55% of the territory of Belgium. It is also called the Walloon region and is where the Industrial Revolution took root right after doing so in Great Britain. Most of these towns built their wealth on the heavy industrial arts of metalworking, ore refinement and mining.
Namur is known for its Citadel and shopping, as well as long, lazy rides along the river by day or during the evenings on dinner boats. Dinant boasts its own, much more accessible Citadel right in town. Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, was born here in 1814.
Liège started off as a scruffy, working-class mining town fringed with buildings built to last several lifetimes. Its seven hills keep it looking a bit pastoral even in the face of its mining past. The new Liège -Guillemins Station just celebrated its first anniversary. Designed by the sought-after Catalan architect, Santiago Calatrava, the new station will be more flexible and will be a link between the biggest European cities such as Paris, Brussels, Cologne, and Frankfurt. If hopping the train to the next country is not what your clients have in mind, Brussels Airlines (www.brusselsairlines.com) operates flights from the Liège airport at low costs all over Europe and Israel, something to keep in mind for clients who may want to stray farther than Belgium’s neighbors.
In 2009, the Museum Curtius occupying Curtius Palace, once home to the 17th century Liège gentleman Jean de Corte, was refurbished and renamed Le Grand Curtius. Built in the early 1600s, this patrician mansion displays an extraordinary range of objects from prehistoric, Roman and Frankish Medieval periods; coins, medals, furniture and a decorative art collection ranging from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution. Curtius made his fortune in selling gunpowder to Spain. At one point, Liège fell under Dutch rule followed by French and then Belgian. Never far from its past, the Curtius boasts the fifth greatest collection of glass and also firearms.
Liège is just 20 miles from Holland and 30 miles from Germany. The city’s cathedral, St Paul's Collegiate Church, is one of the most important on the religious pilgrimage track. Originally founded in the 10th century, it replaced St. Lambert's, which was destroyed during the Liège Revolution. With 16th-century and contemporary stained-glass windows, a baroque Christ in white marble by Del Cour, and exceptional 19th-century furniture, the cathedral has one of the most beautiful Gothic cloisters in Belgium.
Liège’s Sunday market (6 a.m.-2 p.m.) continues to attract hundreds of vendors and buyers from neighboring towns, as well as visitors who cannot take enough photos of enormous pans with a variety of mushrooms cooked out of doors, and stands with old-fashioned kitchen appliances from the 1950s. Just behind the former butcher’s hall is Le Bistrot d’en Face, where the Liège meatballs and café Liège, should be sampled. The “other” dining spot of note is the Michelin-starred L’Epicerie (www.restaurantlepicerie.com), serving Italian and French cuisine. For more information about Liege, visit www.liege.be/tourisme
No visit to Wallonia would be complete without an overnight in the charming, tiny town of Durbuy. A century ago, this town was 87% farmland. Today just 7% of the land is used for agriculture and the heart of town is now a valley of resorts that circle a dip below the main road. Behind this bowl of resorts are truly charming small streets that wend their way around town lined with shops, restaurants and more small, boutique hotels.
Among the most well-known places to stay is the Hotel-Restaurant Jean de Bohême (www.jean-de-boheme.be), a country-style property with spacious, spare rooms and a staff that seems to have been raised intuitively knowing how to deliver great service. What the rooms may lack is more than compensated for in the kitchen. The property is operated by the third generation of the same family. At Bohême, do order the fresh trout cooked live until it turns blue (sounds awful but tastes divine) and cannelloni filled with bits of veggies and of course the succulent lamb.
As this town is so small everyone knows everyone’s business so the sibling rivalry with the adjacent property has become part of the town’s lore. Also well known for its cuisine and on-river setting is Le Sanglier des Ardennes (www.sanglier-des-ardennes.be).
For more information, contact the Belgian National Tourist Office at 212-758-8130 or www.visitbelgium.com