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In the heart of Wallonia – What to do in Namur, Belgium.
Namur, Belgium, is in the heart of the French-speaking part of the country, Wallonia. Today, Namur is a thriving University City, with a charming, friendly and welcoming atmosphere, perfect as a base for exploring Wallonia or travelling further afield in Belgium and equally good if you are looking for a city break with a difference.
For me, it’s a perfect mix of culture, nightlife, history and great restaurants. The student population and a strong connection with theatre and film help to make Namur a vibrant city by night, while there’s plenty to see and do during the day. Sitting at the confluence of the Rivers Sambre and the Meuse it has a historical significance dating back to before Roman times both for trading and as a strategic military vantage point so there’s a rich heritage to explore. And there are lots of quirky things to discover.
It’s nicely summed up by this little sculpture by Suzanne Godard that you’ll find in the Place d’Armes, based on two cartoon characters created by Jean Legrand for the local paper Vers l’Avenir’ The idea is that Françwès and Djoseph epitomise the laid-back attitude of the Namur people – les Chwès – who like nothing better than just watching the world go by. Namur is indeed the kind of place where you may just want to watch the world go by. But, do explore a bit – it’s definitely worth the effort.
Table of Contents
What to See in Namur
The Citadel of Namur.
Visiting the Citadel has to be one of the top attractions of this quirky city. There’s plenty to do beyond just walking around the gardens and enjoying one of the bars or restaurants. Here are just a few things not to miss.
Artisan workshops and stores at the Citadel.
There are a number of different artisan workshops open to the public at the Citadel. Perhaps the most famous, the Perfumerie of Guy Delforge is in a space which has been variously used as an artillery store, a military dovecote and the officers’ mess.
It’s a remarkable and unexpected treasure, with the artisan perfumes being created in 16th century vaulted chambers and matured in underground galleries a little in the way that wines reach their best. Guy Delforge was offered the opportunity to use the space by the City of Namur in December 1990 and since then he’s worked to create a unique and harmonious space to showcase the scents he creates.
I was lucky enough to meet Guy himself, now in his late 70s, and Charles Kerangoff who will be taking over from him. Most intriguingly I learnt that perfumes fall into ‘families’ and it’s possible to categories every scent according to the blend used. Guy explained that if I had a favourite perfume he could probably find me its nearest equivalent from his own range. In fact, I don’t – but we looked for the perfume I remember my mother wearing – Je Reviens by Worth – and his artisan scent brought back memories for me of hiding in the wardrobe where she kept her evening dresses!
You can enjoy a guided tour of the perfumery yourself and learn more about artisan perfumes. Find out more from the Namur Tourist Board or from Guy Delforge’s own website
The Underground Tunnels
There are guided tours of the Citadel’s network of around 500 metres of underground tunnels, complete with light effects, videos and commentary that will take you back in time through the various uses of what Napoleon described as ‘Europe’s biggest anthill’.
For me, what this illustrated most effectively was just how important the City of Namur was as a strategic vantage point for its various rulers. And, how ingenious our ancestors were in redeploying the tunnels to suit their various needs.
The Little Train
For a guided tour around the exterior of the Citadel, there’s a little train that will take you around the various buildings and point out the development of the Citadel to what you see today. My tour was in French but there are headsets available for those who do not speak French.
Of course, just walking around the Citadel provides fantastic views across the City and surrounding parts of Wallonia. There’s also a visitors centre, a cafe and a bar/restaurant named after one of the Citadel’s most famous princesses – La Reine Blanche.
Blanche was the eldest daughter of John I, Marquis of Namur and Marie of Artois. She married King Magnus of Sweden and Norway and moved to live with her husband. Astonishingly beautiful, politically and socially active, she was the subject of many stories and songs. And, there is a local award-winning wheat beer that has been named after her, “Blanche de Namur”. Obviously, something that should be tried by all visitors to Namur.
City Landmarks in Namur.
This is the kind of place where you should take a leisurely walk, stopping along the way for a beer or a glass of wine. Here are just a few of the things you shouldn’t miss in Namur.
The baroque style Eglise St Loup dominates Rue de Fer in the Old City. Originally built for the adjoining Jesuit College, it has a particularly stunning ceiling and the church was described by Victor Hugo as the masterpiece of Jesuit architecture.
The stucco facade with 12 Doric pillars was designed by Peter Huyssens and the church was built between 1621 and 1645 It’s still used as a Parish church and is open to the public manned by volunteers. It’s also a popular venue for music concerts
Just around the corner is the Musée Provincial Félicien Rops which displays the lifetime works of 19th-century artist Félicien Rops, as well as hosts temporary exhibits featuring the artist’s contemporaries.
I was fascinated by the series of paintings and engravings showing the evolution of Rops as artist and illustrator. He is perhaps best known for his work with Baudelaire and for a series of erotic and macabre imageries, part of the late 19th Century Decadent Movement.
The Cathedral, St Aubin’s is in the academic late baroque style and was the only church built in the low countries as a cathedral after 1559. It stands in a grand square, with the Palais de Justice opposite Today, one thing that links the Citadel with the City of Namur is the work of Grafé Lecocq. Negotiants since 1879, this wine house has some 500 square metres of storage in the tunnels of the Citadel which it uses for ageing up to 1,200 oak barrels of wine. Once the wine is bottled, it is stored in more cellars under the Cathedral and the Palais de Justice of Namur. What is remarkable is that the wine matured here is wine from across France – everything from top-quality Bordeaux and Burgundy wines through to entry-level wines which can be delivered across Belgium and Luxemburg at extremely competitive prices. It’s a fascinating fourth generation business, which you should take the opportunity to visit if you are interested in wines. You’ll find the shop in the same square as the Cathedral and the Palais de Justice and there are occasional tours of the cellars (more information from the Tourist Information Office or from their shop). There is also a burgeoning Wallonian winemaking industry largely driven by Philippe Grafé, who, having spent most of his life running Grafé Lecocq, decided to set up his own winery and vineyards.
The Belfry of Namur is one of the 56 belfries in Belgium and France listed by UNESCO. The tower was constructed in 1388 as part of the city wall to protect one of the city gates. It became a belfry in 1746 after the city wall was demolished. Tucked away behind an old market square, it’s a good place to stop for a beer or two!
The Marie Spilar Tower is another construction that was originally part of the city wall. Built in the 13th century and rebuilt in 1388, it takes its name from the location, built behind property owned by Marie Spilar by master builder Henri Merial. Although the tower remained, new houses were built around it so that it was all but hidden from the local people. During the Second World War it was hit and damaged by American bombs but was restored in 1949 and the local authorities decided to clear the surrounding area and named the street where it is sited ‘rue de la Tour’.
On the banks of the River Meuse is a statue of the Bayard Horse and the four Aymon brothers. The horse was said to have magical powers and, after one of the brothers fell out with Berthelot, the nephew of Emperor Charlemange, he came into his own by outrunning the Emperor’s men. But, sadly he was condemned to death by drowning by the Emperor when the brothers surrendered. The bronze and ceramic sculpture was created by Olivier Strebelle for the World Expo of 1958. The Bayard horse lives on in the International Francophone Film Festival in Namur, where ‘Golden Bayards’ are the awards given to winners in the competition.
What to Eat and Drink in Namur.
Anyone travelling to Belgium needs to be warned, the portion sizes are often generous. This is a country where I’ve never gone hungry.
Whether or not you are staying at Les Tanneries, it’s definitely worth visiting for a drink on their stunning open air rooftop bar and for a meal in one of the two restaurants. The Grill serves a selection of salads and freshly grilled dishes cooked to order on their wood-fired grill. l’Espièglerie offers a fine dining menu. Both restaurants are popular with local people – and you should reserve a table if you want to eat there.
For my second evening in Namur, I loved dining at Brasserie Francois, a charming, traditional Belgian brasserie with a pretty outside terrace and cute ‘beach huts’ if you want privacy.
I enjoyed a starter of local snails ‘Petit Gris’ with a pastry feulliaté, followed by half a grilled lobster.
For dessert, I made the mistake of ordering cafe gourmand, which in France is coffee with tiny mouthfuls of dessert. Not here…saved only by the fact that I’d forgotten to tell the restaurant I have a strawberry allergy, I couldn’t eat two of the four dishes that appeared! This part of Belgium is particularly famous for strawberries which are grown a little further along the River Meuse, in Wépion, where there’s also a strawberry museum. In season you will find them on offer in most of the restaurants. Less so in September of course, thankfully for me.
For lunch, I wanted something a little lighter. La Maison des Desserts is a patisserie and chocolaterie with an excellent cafe at the back complete with a stunning terrace with a retractable roof.
I enjoyed a Croque Monsieur there, classic café fare served with style. And, went away with some of the local specialities, Bietrume de Namur, large caramels made with fresh cream and toasted hazelnuts. Created in 1954, these are named after an 18th century jester from the town, Bietrume Picard, who is depicted on the boxes.
Where to Stay
Check out my review of Les Tanneurs de Namur
3 Place St-Aubain
London-Unattached has now visited this charming boutique hotel with restaurants three times and we can heartily recommend it.
When to Go
Namur, like many Wallonian towns and cities has a vibrant programme of events throughout the year.
Dates you might be interested in include:
- Namur International French Film Festival – from 27 September to 4 October 2019 with screenings of over 100 films in French and an international competition where the French film industry compete to win Golden Bayards – the equivalent to the Oscars for the French language film industry.
- The Christmas Market from 29 November 2019 to 31 December 2019
- Namur Capital de la Bière – there are four annual events – find out more from the website
- Folknam – the 24th Traditions and Folklore Festival – in April 2020
- Fraise’stival, – a strawberry festival organised by the Musée de la fraise in Wépion. The fair highlights the delights of strawberries and strawberry treats
- La Plante Nautical Jousts – when the inhabitants from two river banks (James and La Plante) do battle. Held in August each year
- La Combat De l’Échasse d’Or – another folklore festival, when two teams disguise themselves as giants, on stilts and do battle to win the ‘Graal’ – the golden stilts! The next event will be held in September 2020.
- More information can be found through the tourist information office
How to get around Namur
It’s easy enough to walk around the city and even up to the Citadel.
If you’d like to know a bit more about Namur though why not try taking one of the guided rickshaw rides. There are three route options – a short tour of the old town or a more leisurely trip around the Sambre and Meuse or even a trip to the Strawberry fields and islands of the Meuse river.
It’s quite a unique service and a very cost-effective short tour option (currently 7 euros for one person for 30 minutes rising to 16 euros for two for an hour. The modern rickshaws are based on electric bikes too, so although your driver/guide will pedal you around, he won’t get too out of breath! The service does only operate in the summer months, but it’s definitely worth trying while you are there.
An alternative way to see a bit more of the city is to take a trip around the rivers on the Namourettes – small riverboats which run a semi-circular route around Meuse and Sambre during the summer months. It’s another well-priced service – each stop will cost you half a euro – with a minimum charge of one euro.
If you prefer a self-guided tour, there are maps and smartphone audio guides available from the Tourist Information Office. Or, if you prefer, the information office can provide you with a guide for a private tour on foot, bicycle or segway. Finally, there are group tours of the old town from May to September priced at just 4 euros a person.
How to get to Namur, Belgium.
It’s easy to reach Namur from the UK travelling by Eurostar to Brussels and then taking a local train (from the same station)
Eurostar trains run from St Pancras Station to Brussels via Lille and then on to Namur with the train departing from the same station that International trains arrive. Local train tickets can be included when you buy your Eurostar ticket so you don’t need to buy a forward journey in Brussels. Fares start at £29 one way to Brussels and the journey takes just over two hours to Brussels and 70 minutes more to Namur.
For more about Wallonia, check out my feature on The Gastronomy of Wallonia
I was a guest of The Wallonia Tourism Board. For more information see their website
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