In this fourth post (already!) in the Belgium Under the Radar series we’re diving head first into history, beer, music and wars.
Dinant is a small French-speaking city, located on the steep and narrow banks of the Meuse River in the province of Namur. Because of its strategic setting, Dinant has seen many battles and destructions. Particularly the demolition of the city by Duke Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold in 1466 was one to remember. They threw down an uprising by setting fire to the city, throwing 800 inhabitants into the river and destroying a part of the church.
The city has a few extremely interesting features. Its impressive citadel overlooks the rest of the city from a 100-meter-high cliff, there’s a magnificent church, it used to be the home of Adolphe Sax and one of my favorite Belgian beers, Leffe, is brewed here. It’s the setting of a fascinating legend as well. Nearby attractions are accessible caves, beautiful gardens and a picturesque castle.
Let’s take a walk!
Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame
The Notre-Dame Church was built in Romanesque style in the late 12th century. In 1227, however, falling rocks from the cliff behind the church destroyed parts of the church and it had to be rebuilt, this time in Gothic style. Originally the Notre-Dame Church was meant to have two towers, but eventually that idea was abandoned and the present central onion-shaped tower was built.
Despite the relatively small size of the church, the inside is strikingly beautiful. It’s filled with religious objects, made in dinanderie, a type of late medieval brass ware typical for the region. Dinant became the center of the manufacturing of metal and copper during those times.
The city remained a major center for metal and copper production and manufacturing and when, in 1814, Aldolphe Sax was born in Dinant, the sound of music would change forever. He followed his father’s footsteps and became a famous musician and music instrument designer. As you may have guessed, he was inventor of the saxophone.
The house where Mr. Sax used to live is now open to the public and has an exhibition on his life and work.
The mighty citadel dominates the city from a 100-meter-high cliff behind the church and the houses that line the river. This military fortress was first built in 1051 to protect and control the Meuse valley. In 1530 it was used, rebuilt and enlarged by the Prince-Bishops of Liège and the French destroyed it again in 1703.
The rulers of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands gave the citadel its present look in 1821. They were the ones who carved the 408-step stairway all the way up to the citadel. Several battles were fought inside the citadel during WW1.
It now serves as a truly fascinating museum and offers absolutely spectacular views down on the Meuse River and Dinant.
Abbey of Leffe
Leffe is one of my favorite beers ever. The abbey of Notre-Dame de Leffe was founded a little north of the city in 1152 and the monks first started brewing this healthy beverage in 1420. The plague was causing devastation all over Western Europe at the time, but the necessity to boil water during the brewing process of Leffe beer killed all germs in the beverage. This made beer a healthier beverage to drink than water.
The abbey and brewery were closed during the French Revolution, but fortunately some unknown heroes decided to re-establish it in 1929. Nowadays Leffe is still brewed according to the original 1240 recipe. The beer is now owned by AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewing company. (We’ll hear more about them later on, when we visit Leuven.)
The Bayard Rock lies just outside of the city. It’s a tall piece of rock that stands completely separated from the rest of the main block of rock. It is said to be split in two by the hoof of the giant Bayard horse when it leaped across the Meuse River. This legendary horse carried the four sons of Aymon, who were on the run for Charlemagne and escaped through the Ardennes.
The story of the Bayard horse and the four sons is called ‘The Four Sons of Aymon‘ and was a famous 12th-century tale.
Cave ‘La Merveilleuse’
Cave ‘The Wonderful’ is definitely the greatest of several caves in the area around Dinant. It is located 500 meters from the train station and can be visited. There are waterfalls and thousands of stalactites.
The Castle of Freÿr is a Renaissance castle surrounded by truly magnificent gardens – and I’m saying that as a horticulturalist. The terraced gardens are walled, there are babbling fountains, hedge mazes (6 kilometers of them!) and 300-year-old orange trees.
One of the most picturesque castles in the Ardennes is Château de Vêves. It used to be a feudal castle and is still inhabited by the same family. You can visit this pretty castle and learn about life in a castle in the late middle ages.
Fun Fact: During the many battles in Dinant in World War One, many soldiers and inhabitants got killed and the city was once again destroyed. In one battle in particular a young French lieutenant got injured. The bridge that now spans the Meuse in the city center bears his name: Charles de Gaulle.
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Dinant. You can get the app right here!