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Wallonia, Belgium – Beer, Waterloo and More:
Have you ever wondered where to go for a break and escape the heat of London? Wanting to escape the crowded heat of London, I got the chance to spend a few days in Wallonia, known as “the land of water”.
Wallonia is the French-speaking region of southern Belgium, roughly half the size of Belgium but with only one-third of the population. The regional capital of Wallonia is Namur, known for its Renaissance architecture and its deep history as a strategic gateway since the 10th Century. Many know this area as where the Battle of Waterloo took place, but there is so much more.
Brussels is only 2 hours away by Eurostar, and Namur is a simple 30 minutes more by train, taking you to the heart of the city. The ease of the train lets you arrive fresh, without wasting times at airports, and really makes long weekends here practical and rewarding.
Namur has numerous hotels that cater for all people and families at all levels. I stayed at the Hotel Les Tanneurs in Namur, a beautiful boutique hotel located in a quiet street back from the river. This amazing hotel is made up of 15 17th century houses, interlinked to create a single hotel, yet retaining all the original features. Original stones, beams, steel workings, brick vaults etc make this a romantic and memorable destination of just 35 rooms.
The rooms are large and unique; each one has a different shape and size as well as different features. Some have saunas and steam rooms in them, others with deep baths and spas. The original walls are thick, so you get all the peace you would expect from that. (their website shows you each room in detail so you don’t just book a room; you book a specific room!)
So check in, be amazed at the room, freshen up and then start your day.
A short drive out of Namur takes you to the Auberge de Poteaupré, and a chance to begin your Trappist Beer tasting with Chimay. The Auberge is a pretty roadside house, allowing you to try flights of beers with matching food and cheese. The measures aren’t small; each glass is about a third of a pint, which gives you enough to really taste and experience each beer. The five I had were the Chimay Gold, Red, Triple, Blue and the Grande Réserve served on a spiral wooden flight.
Everyone around me had a different favourite with everyone finding different ways to explain the flavours and aromas. Trappist beers were originally made for the local monks, so the flavours were meant to match smaller local foods like cheeses.
The four steps for an ideal Chimay tasting are:
- Sip your beer delicately.
- Then taste a piece of cheese without the rind.
- Take another piece of cheese, this time with the rind.
- Then take a generous mouthful of beer to mix the two on your tongue.
After all this food and beer, you may need some exercise.
Wallonia is criss-crossed with walking and cycling trails, all of which are discretely but well signposted, and aimed at both locals and tourists. They are usually headed up as a Great Trail, which can be hundreds of miles long, crossing countries, but within these there are numerous small trails from a mile to 10 miles per stage. Most people just choose different stages, based on specific things they want to see or do in the area, whilst enjoying the outside fresh air.
So to get some exercise in lush green forests, I took a walk on a 1km section of the Trappist Trail to the Valleys of the Calestienne (Foundry of the Dogs). It is said The Foundry of the Dogs got its name from when, centuries ago, land-workers would throw sick or dead animals into the pit so as not to leave them on the upper land.
Even on such a short walk, the tranquillity is hard to imagine. The lush green forest gives the air a freshness not found anywhere else, making it a joy to amble along the trail at your own pace. Then it’s a quick drive back to Namur.
Wherever you look up in Namur you see the Citadel, a layer walled fort built up rising to the top of the hill. But that’s just for show! Described as the “termite mound of Europe”, it has kilometres of underground tunnels linking together vast areas of the Namur region. With historical roots based over 2000 years ago, the tunnels have evolved, in both size and depth, in line with improvements in cannons and shells. The underground defences we still in use during WW2.
The tour of the tunnels takes you through 500m of historically evolving tunnels, their building and use, giving you a feel for how the Citadel was used through history. The use of multimedia and in-tunnel light shows enhance the visit, turning the tour into a much more personal experience.
If walking around the tunnels makes you thirsty (and it will), there is also the opportunity for more Trappist Beers tasting within the Citadel. Located in one of the cellars of the main Citadel Wall overlooking the town, this is a surprising location offering intimate tastings to small groups. It’s well worth stopping at.
Heading back to the hotel, the restaurant grill offered a superb selection of local meats and fish, as well as a range of local wines and, of course, beers. The small size of the hotel allows it to offer speciality local meals with real attention to detail and culinary flair. No need to go back into town, the hotel has it all.
I went to bed well fed and happy.
A few hours later, it’s time to get up and make the most of the new day. A quick breakfast and I’m off.
Namur sits on the river Meuse, and with so many walking and cycle ways, hiring a bike and getting out and about is the best thing to do. Not fit enough you say? You can hire an eBike for the same price as a regular bike, and have it delivered to the hotel, so I got on one and explored the tow paths on the way South to Annevoie, a little river town with an amazing water garden to explore.
The cycle ride takes about an hour, and because it’s along the towpath, it’s all flat, so you don’t really need an electric bike, but having one gives you peace of mind. The views are amazing, for both the green scenery and the hidden houses and chateaux only visible from the river.
The Water Gardens at Annevoie, reflect the history of the area going back to the 15th century, but the laid out gardens as we see them now started in 1758.
All the water features you see in the garden are managed naturally without mechanical intervention, which is really impressive when you see the fountains and the bubbling brooks.
Activities and night time events occur here making this a magical place to visit. There is no hurry to go around so a leisurely walk takes an hour. Longer if you stop to lie in the grass listening to the water flow with a loved one.
All this walking makes me thirsty again, so I head off to Brasserie du Bocq, a few miles outside of Namur. The Brasserie du Bocq is a Belgian family brewery founded in 1858 by Martin Belot and is a good example of a working Trappist Brewery.
The tour of the brewery takes about 20 minutes but gives you enough time to get a feeling for the passion the staff have here. The tastings are what you come here for, and Brasserie du Bocq deliver them well. Decent sized glasses for any beer you want to sample or flights for you to try side-by-side comparisons are no problem. The conversation is always good, and knowledgeable staff can answer any question you may have on local beers.
Want to get home slightly differently? Why not take a cruise? I tried the cruise and dine boat from the local town of Dinant back to Namur. With beautiful passing scenery and a local produced regional meal served at your table, this was the ideal way to end a day. However, you could also hire a small boat or for the more energetic, a kayak, if you wanted to get home that way.
Up early for breakfast of fresh croissant and local eggs and bacon, it was time to check out and head home.
Leaving Namur by taxi, I stopped at Waterloo to visit this historic site and monuments. As you head there you can see The Lions Mound, a 40-metre high monument, from miles around. It was erected in 1826 by William 1st, King of the Netherlands to mark the spot where his son, the Prince of Orange was wounded on June 18th 1815.
Just aim for this ‘hill’ and you arrive at The Memorial Museum, built underground, leaving no visible footprint to spoil the historic location. It’s a modern museum, with lots of interactive experiences for kids to engage with, and yet it maintains a serious presentation of the facts that keep older people interested too. The audio guide is free to all visitors.
Walking through the Museum takes you out to the Panorama, a vast circular building housing a vast circular painting (110m wide and 12 m high) of the battle, painted in 1912 by Louis Dumoulin. It has audio guides that sense where you are so you can listen and understand fully what part of the battle you are seeing.
Leaving The Panorama, you are at the foot of The Lions Mound. Climbing the 226 steps to the top is an effort, but richly rewarded by the view and the gentle breeze. Around the tower at the top are detailed maps explaining the troop layouts for the battle, helping the interested observer understand more of the tactics used at the time.
Hougoumont Farm, one of the most important battle scenes in the history of Europe at the Battle of Waterloo, is a 1km walk through corn fields from the foot of the memorial. With a superb immersive theatre show of the battle, which combines innovation with respect for history, this is a place not to be missed.
I also had time to go into the town of Waterloo itself and visit the Wellington Museum. Housed in a former coaching inn where the Duke of Wellington set his headquarters, this museum allows you to explore how life was lived at the time for commanders and soldiers. It’s well worth a look.
A short taxi ride takes me back to the central station in Brussels. The train back is as easy and quick as it was getting here, letting you arrive in London relaxed after an all too short break in Wallonia, wondering why you didn’t stay longer.
Hotel Les Tanneurs
Address: Rue des Tanneries 13, 5000 Namur
0032 81 24 00 24
Les Jardins d’Annevoie
Rue des jardins, 37 a
5537 Annevoie – Belgique
Tél : +32 (0)82 67 97 97
Boat Hire and Tours
Chaussee de Bruxelles, 147
Planning your own visit to Wallonia? Why not pin this post for later
Thinking of exploring Belgium? We have plenty of features about this quirky country – how about exploring the food and drink of Liege for instance. Or Antwerp, the diamond capital of Europe. We’ve been to Ghent too, where they have a wonderful vegetarian food offering. And, we’ve explored Bruges, staying at the luxurious Pand Hotel