As I’m about halfway through telling you all about my Asian adventures, I thought I may as well break it up a bit. With a bit of my old favourite, Belgium.
I was mucking around on StumbleUpon late last year, when I came across an article on the prettiest small towns and cities in Europe. I’d been to a lot of the places already, and the vast majority I’d at least heard of before. But one struck me; Dinant, Belgium.
It was a single image; one of a line of historical Belgian-looking buildings and a large stone Gothic/Baroque church overlooking a river, with a mammoth cliff rising up from behind. Perched upon the cliff was a citadel. I don’t think I’d seen such an instantly charming picture in my life.
I got a little obsessed with that photo. I needed to go there. I do this a bit, you see. I became besotted with seeing Baarle-Hertog, Giethoorn and Bilbao last year, and managed to get to them all. Dinant was going to be my 2013 project.
After a bit of Googling, I realised Dinant was in Wallonia (the French-speaking part of Belgium) and over three hours hours by train from Dordrecht, with a change in Brussels. I’d never been to Wallonia before, always sticking to the northern part; the Dutch-speaking Flanders.
The only thing was, a six-hour round trip was quite a hefty one for a glance at a tiny town. Running a search through Google Images proved to me that there wasn’t much else to Dinant; all the other photos were similar to that first one that had enchanted me so much. But last weekend, we had a breakthrough. Paul’s parents going to Madeira for a week, so we could have their car. Off we went.
Dinant’s on the Meuse River, which winds its way from France all the way to the North Sea. Yep, it’s about a five minute walk from where I’m typing now. Up here the Meuse is called the Maas (think Maastricht) and Dordrecht’s one of its last main cities before it meets the North Sea. If we were making the same journey 150 years ago, we’d go by boat. And it would have been pretty direct, and a bit more picturesque too.
As it was early February, I was cold. Really cold. The further south we drove, the cooler it got and eventually the light dusting of snow gave way to a monochrome landscape. (I’m sorry. I’m Australian. I have no idea how to describe snow eloquently.) By the time we’d gone past Brussels and the roadsigns started appearing solely in French, it really felt like we were far away from home. Before that, not so much. But Wallonia, with its hills, tiny villages off in the distance and the temperature drop, felt noticeably foreign.
The approach to Dinant, at least by car, is quite weird. The town is pretty much stuck between a river and a cliff, without much room to grow and as such its new town is up on top of the cliff. The only other place I can think of that has a similar approach is Stuttgart; you have to drive into what feels like a big bowl. Nevertheless, the little Dutch car we were in certainly wasn’t used to inclines, and we put-putted our way down the hill and into Dinant.
And it was what we expected. Absolutely gorgeous.
We stood in that spot, ridiculously excited about what lay in front of us. The sun was out, the snow had disappeared when we descended down the cliff, and it really was just unquestionably pretty.
We hung around the riverbank for a while, headed into the tourist office (where we were dutifully ignored) and went to get a sandwich. All of a sudden we realised we were in a French-speaking area, with very little French, and the Wallonians aren’t known for speaking much English. I got my sandwich (and pastry of course) but my terrible bogan French, without any practice, went something like this, ‘Eehn – bah-get – ah-vek – sa-mohn – see-voo-play’. Miraculously, I was given salmon.
Dinant is pretty quiet in the wintertime, with only a smattering of tourists around. Almost none of the restaurants are open, the back streets are all under construction (yet no men in hard hats are visible) and as such, it doesn’t feel touristy at all. The chairlift up to the citadel was working, but we drove up instead. After parking, we discovered that the view from the citadel was worth a whopping twelve euro each! We said thanks but no thanks, and had to be satisfied with the view from down below.