Namur - at the junction of two mighty rivers
Namur gained importance as it is at the junction of two mighty rivers. The Sambre starts in France and runs for 120 miles to join the Meuse here. The Meuse has been described as the "oldest river in the world" - though I'm not sure how you would measure that! It runs for 575 miles from France to the North Sea in the Netherlands. For many centuries waterways were the main methods of communication, so where these two rivers meet was an important point for trade. At the angle where they meet, a fortress was constructed, and has been enlarged and developed over the centuries. With rivers on two sides, the landward side heavily fortified, it was impregnable until someone invented explosives. Today these massive works, the same size as the entire city until recent times, stand as a monument to man's constant futile battles with man.
The fortress is honeycombed with tunnels - miles of them, and today there are tours through the fortress and around one thousand two hundred wine barrels are stored there to mature the wine in the constant temperature and peacefulness. Standing on the battlements you can see the town which is within the line of the railway. Beyond the railway is the new town, and across the river Meuse is another new town. There are half a dozen bridges and you will see the tourist boats shuttling along, a great way to see the city, and also cruise along to Dinant.
Walking down into the town, you find people bustling around doing their everyday shopping, chatting and eating in the many cafes. There is no tourist tat for sale, or people pressing flyers onto you for restaurants or trips, this is the real Belgium. You'll have to search to find a postcard! Walking through the streets you will smell coffee - beans are roasted in the doorway of Cafes Delahaut. In the narrow streets you will find speciality shops selling the local chocolates - these are very high quality. There is local beer too. In Belgium you are allowed to add all sorts of things to beer, especially fruit. This has given rise to an enormous range of beers including sweet beer to go with you desserts! You will certainly not go hungry in Namur, and Belgian food portions are large and not expensive. Crossing a market square with its typical market cross, I looked up at a church on one side, and had to look again - yes, the tower on the top is crooked. It is like it was made from a kit and the top part has been glued on crooked. Quite why it was made this way is unknown, but it works and keeps the rain out so it doesn't matter.
One narrow street has some metal discs set in it in lines, which I thought was maybe a trail to follow. No, this marks the place to walk. In the olden days inhabitants emptied their chamber pots into the gutter in the middle of the street, as was normal everywhere at that time. If you were wealthy, you kept to the side of the street to avoid this while peasants would have to walk in the centre and keep an eye out! Today there is still an expression here "tenir le haut du pave", or keep to the high part of the pavement, meaning to be posh or smart or up market.
Shopping is a big thing here (and there are no empty shops) and there are regular markets. One shop puzzled me. It is a church - but it is a shop selling up market clothes for men and women. When you go inside, you are faced with a staircase to the upper floor. Of course churches are tall, so there is room for an upstairs. However, there are still religious states on the walls, and - over there - the pulpit and beyond that, the altar! There is a surplus of massive churches in Namur, so this one is now a shop, but the shop does not touch the sides. This is so that if, in the future, the church is wanted as a church again, the shop can move out and the church will be as it was. The whole shop is self supporting inside the shell of the church! There is also a solid magnificent Cathedral. A wine merchant has rented the cellars below the Cathedral to store 800,000 bottles of wine. A centre of spirituality in many ways!
In the centre of the city is the town hall. If you walk for 15 minutes in any direction you will be in another part of the city, outside the old part. On the wall is graffiti which shows some of the famous inhabitants from Namur who made lasting impressions on the world. One is Georges Naggelmackers who invented / created Wagons Lits. This was the famous luxury train network that covered all of Europe and beyond. Another is Jean Jadot who built tramways and railways in Egypt, and then built the first railways in China. The Belgians had the first railway on the continent of Europe and went on to develop an astounding industry that lead the world in railway development. This created an industry in Belgium that welded the country together and provided the economic impetus to build the country that we know today.
Belgium can be a little puzzling. Railway station names change as the train goes along, depending on whether they are in the French or Dutch speaking half of the country. Namur is French speaking, and no-one speaks or accepts that they speak, Dutch. Our perception of Belgium is that it is flat. Around Namur this is not so. It is a pleasantly wooded landscape of hills and small villages, real rural Belgium. Namur is close to France and also to Germany, which explains why it has suffered so much from invading armies passing through. This geographic location makes Namur an ideal base for exploring.
Just along the river Meuse is the delightful town of Dinant and this is a pleasant journey by boat, or by bicycle.
You can rent bikes, including electric bikes, and the route is dedicated to walkers and cyclists. It is flat, along the river, so is easy to do. There are four railway lines radiating from Namur, and Belgian railway fares are very cheap compared to the UK. The main line runs through from Brussels to Luxembourg, so a day trip to Luxembourg is cheap and easy, on comfortable trains.
I flew from Edinburgh direct to Brussels, where there are direct trains to Namur hourly from the airport railway station. It takes just over an hour and is comfortable and cheap. You can also take the KLM flights from Aberdeen and Inverness to Amsterdam - book through to Brussels (often a zero cost add-on) which is a high speed train from Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. Again, this takes just about an hour, and connections are made at Brussels Nord, Midi or Central stations. It is so easy! Namur station is an ugly concrete box, but it has been modernised. You take the escalator to an over bridge where there are shops, cafes and ticket offices, and descend to the platforms, again by escalator. Belgian trains are much better than ours here in Scotland, they make life easy. There are also regular bus services to many areas - including directly to the Brussels airports at good prices. You can also ride around Namur in a modern rickshaw! This is slowing down your life, and lets you see all the wonderful buildings and places at a good pace.
Namur is a lovely place to visit. There are as many as 50,000 students here, so that means there are so many eating places at low prices and good value. It adds a dimension to the town, and a buzz. Maybe that is why there are no empty shops. There are good bookshops (including an excellent Oxfam bookshop) and an atmosphere of the Belgians busily going about their business. Facing the theatre you will see a statue, of Mr. Nicolas Bosret (1799 - 1876). Beside it is a stone chair. Mr. Bosret wrote the "La Bia Bouquet" (in local dialect) that is the official anthem of Namur. He was one of the founders of the Society Moncrabeau, in 1843. At the annual fete of Namur, the members of the association (known as the 40 moons) elect a King of Liars. The candidates sit on the stone throne and tell their tall stories, the story that is the most comical, false but believable, wins. The stone at the base of the statue is marked "Pierre de Verite 1748" (stone of truth) so the local folk have been telling their far-fetched stories for centuries! It is good that these traditions continue, and in the local language as well.
There are many hotels here, as you would expect. I stayed in the "Les Tanneurs". This is fairly central, and only a 10 to 15 minute walk from central station. It is converted from old tanneries, and I was in a new section with one of the longest hotel rooms that I have ever been in! Mrs. Smith often complains that hotel rooms are too dark. This one had 22 lights in the ceiling plus reading lights and so on. Abroad it is difficult to get a decent cup of tea. In the breakfast room, there was one of those machines that squirt scalded water into a mug. There were teapots and when I kept filling it up again the wonderful lady on duty went and got me a large tea pot, and filled it with freshly boiled water. Heaven! I have never had such good tea on that side of the Channel. I recommend this hotel just for the wonderful lady on duty in the breakfast room.
For some reason, Belgium does not often appear on our "radar" for holidays. We are missing out. It has so many great places to visit and explore, and to see the real Belgium, with the additional attractions of the massive Citadel, the charm of a working city that is open and friendly, go to Namur.
Go to the Namur tourism website for more details, their tourist office is excellent.