Stepping up to the mark on Leige's famous staircase
It is always a pleasure to visit Belgium – the people are such fun and the culture and landscape so enticing.
And judging by the enthusiasm shown by the Wallonia region’s tourism gurus, I knew our trip to Liège and Namur would be one where we left wanting more.
So it proved as Ruaridh (12), Flossie (9) and I embarked on our adventure. Literally 40 minutes after landing at Brussels Charleroi Airport, we were in the lovely historic town of Namur.
With a lovely river running through it, the town is surrounded by a vast citadel which was once one of Europe’s mightiest fortresses.
It prides itself on being a slow kind of place, with a snail and turtle the official symbols of small steps. A giant golden turtle statue with an explorer on its back is perched at the entrance to the citadel, which covers a whole hilltop with ramparts, tunnels and grey walls. It’s a hike to the top, so plenty of time is needed.
The Terra Nova tourist train at the top is a must for the children and gives you a chance to see the citadel in comfort, with the running commentary pointing out the sights.
The best part, though, is the tour of the underground tunnels with digitally enhanced soldiers telling the story of its history, which dates back to the Celts and Romans and includes a period of devastation during World War I and II.
It's fascinating to find yourself in these well-built tunnels which proved invaluable in the fight to protect Namur.
In the grounds of the citadel there lies the Guy Delforge perfume workshop, a fascinating place where you can discover the smells and processes involved in making scents.
The perfumes are carefully crafted and matured deep in the cellars of the citadel and a tour gives you the chance to test out your nose for the sweet smells and one of the most popular selling perfumes in Northern Europe.
It’s lovely to walk around the town and see Namur’s beautiful park and river, but if you are short on time, then a rickshaw tour is the answer. With three tours offered, you can wile away a good hour being transported around as you admire the historic architecture, including the stunning opera house and seeing such sights as the seat of liars.
This quirky statue plays host to festival time in Namur. People are called to sit in the seat and spin tales and the audience have to guess whether they are true or not. This is combined with concerts and other cultural events and lots of fun.
From Namur, we headed to Liège, home of the waffle and, boy, what a treat these baked pastries are! It’s superior to its rival from Brussels because the corners are rounded to ensure syrup poured in can soak in nicely and make it taste even more scrumptious than you can imagine.
At first glance, Liège can look a little unkempt and shabby, but peel back the layers and you unravel a real gem of a place. The buildings are beautiful, the people very friendly and up for fun and there is plenty to see and do.
We stayed in the Pentahotel Liège. Children will love the reception, because it doubles as an American style diner/bar with a pool table, comfy sofas, Hollywood lamps and glittery disco balls and when you check in, the bartenders suddenly become receptionists.
This four-star hotel is bathed in neon purple lighting at night and the rooms come with huge walk-in showers and nifty bathing bags containing some sweet smelling shampoos.
It is just yards from Liège-Carre station and handy for all the city’s attractions. There are three stations in the city including the quirky Liège-Guillemins station, designed by Santiago Calatrava in 2009. It has since become an icon of the city, with its semi-abstract photography and bold white sweeping curves which flow like a bird and are covered in glass and concrete.
A huge Rubik's Cube hangs from the high roof and platform one gives a great view of a 118m-high glass skyscraper shaped like a sail.
History is a big thing and if you head back to the 16th century, you can imagine the now Grand Curtius museum as a hive of activity.
Housed in an impressive former arms dealer’s mansion-warehouse. Originally painted with ox blood, this building stands out and inside there are four very different collections paying homage to art and the city’s painters and industries.
For those who like a challenge, climb the 374 steps of Montagne de Bueren, one of the world’s extreme staircases. Named after Vincent de Bueren, who defended his city in the 15th century, it was built in 1881 to honour the 600 soldiers who died in battle and it takes some energy. Luckily there are handrails to guide you up this sheer cliff, a lovely café at the top to quench your thirst and views to die for. Once you have recharged your batteries, a further short walk takes you to a World War II monument, before you wind you way down into town through the traditional houses and cobbled streets.
The oldest and largest market in Belgium is held every Sunday along the river at La Batte. Crammed full with every stall you can imagine from vegetables to cheeses, clothes to shoes and flowers to plants, it is a great place to wile a way a few hours.
For those short on time, the Museum of Walloon Life is a good place to stop off. It transports you through Wallonia life from the 19th century up to the present day and a hit with the children is the marvellous puppetry exhibition.
Liège is known for its meatballs cooked in a sweet raisin gravy and the historic Amon Nanesse restaurant is famous for them. For the more chic, the mirror-covered Bruit Qui Court restaurant serves up delicious plates of caramalised ham, smoked duck and salads sprinkled with exotic fish. Coconut panna cotta and fried apple pie are a must for the sweet toothed.
As we made our way back to the airport via the ever-efficient train service and through some lovely countryside and historic towns, we talked about our trip and Ruaridh and Flossie summed it all up best when they agreed to save up all their pocket money so next time their dad, left at home to work, could come too and enjoy the fun!
Need to know
Wallonia is easily accessible from Brussels. Low-cost carriers fly regularly to Brussels Charleroi Airport and from here it is a short train journey into the heart of the region. www.brussels-charleroi-airport.com and www.belgiantrain.be
Namur has wonderful options. We stayed at Les Tanneurs, a charming hotel which has been created by connecting 15 traditional houses together. The result is a classy joint with beautiful stonework, excellent buffet breakfasts and, joy of joys (for the children), a television in the bathroom. Children will love the pancake making machine at breakfast, while the grown ups enjoy a good coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. www.tanneurs.com/en
Fashion savvy families will love the Pentahotel Liège. Transformed from a horrible 1960s office block, it now oozes style. It is just yards from Liège-Carre station and handy for all the city’s attractions. www.pentahotels.com/hotels-destinations/belgium/liege
In Namur, try The Grill in the Les Tanneurs hotel, a top-notch restaurant with some fine meat on offer and desserts to die for. www.tanneurs.com/en/le-grill-restaurant.php
Meatballs in a special syrup are the main staple of Liège. Try Amon Nanesse, a rambling antique house with bare-brick walls and heavy beams. www.maisondupeket.be
For a chic experience, try Bruit Qui Court. bruitquicourt.be
Places to go
The citadel is the main landmark and is an impressive fortress. There is much to do here including a tourist train, underground tours and a tour of a perfume factory. walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk/en-gb/content/citadel-namur-and-its-fascinating-network-underground-galleries
A great way to see the city is via a rickshaw tour. There are three options which cover different journey times. For more information check out tours.visitnamur.eu
Liège is a city more spread out, so the best way of seeing things is by foot. Check out the Museum of Walloon Life, which concentrates on the history of the region, La Batte Market, a busy place which sells just about everything and a hike up the mighty Montagne de Bueren steps.
The Lonely Planet has just updated its guide to Belgium and Luxembourg and has a comprehensive section on Wallonia. Take a peek at www.lonelyplanet.com/belgium/wallonia-1342569
For tourist information, check out the friendly folk at walloniabelgiumtourism.co.uk