Weekends in Wallonia
"Mons is also within striking distance of Waterloo, where Napoleon finally came to grief."
Despite being one of the smallest nations in Europe, Belgium punches well above its weight. Great events have happened there. It was where Napoleon met his Waterloo. It formed part of the Western Front in two World Wars. It has given us Tintin, Magritte, Inspector Maigret and the saxophone.
Wallonia is the lesser-known, French-speaking half – Flanders, to the north, is the other – and it’s where Belgium’s most beautiful landscapes can be found. Eurostar has made the region easily accessible from the UK. If you time it right, the journey from Oxford to the capital, Namur, can be done in less than five hours. Namur is one of several appealing towns on the fringes of the Ardennes that make an ideal base for a weekend break. Every May, Namur stages a three-day arts festival when the place goes agreeably bonkers. By day the streets are filled with stilt-walkers, jugglers and acrobats; as darkness falls the town throbs with rock and jazz. Nothing better captures the quirky, spirited nature of the people. This year’s Namur en Mai spectacular is from 26-28 May.
A stand-out hotel is the Chateau de Namur. Outside town, Le Castel, at Fosses-la-Ville, is a gourmand’s delight. Its restaurant includes one seven-course feast at €70 per head. Or you can self-cater at the Gites les Duves in Bioul, where an old sawmill has been converted into open-plan apartments, each with a riverside terrace. Deeper into the Ardennes, La Malle Poste in Rochefort is full of character, exquisite furnishings and has a swimming pool and sauna.
A few miles along the river Meuse, the extraordinary water gardens of Annevoie host a three-day carnival, in which scores of people don gaudy, intricate Venetian masks and costumes to meander around the lovely lawns, streams and lakes. Nobody is exactly sure why Venice comes to Wallonia every spring (29 April-1 May this year), but to witness this bizarre, beautiful parade in the sumptuous grounds of a 17th century castle is an unforgettable experience – and another excuse to sample the region’s unsurpassed local beers.
In nearby Dinant, the Hostellerie Gilain has six exquisite rooms and a gourmet restaurant. Rowan Atkinson stayed here when he was racing one of his vintage cars at the famous Chimay racetrack, which specialises in motor racing nostalgia. This summer’s highlight is the European Bug-in (30 June-2 July) which attracts Volkswagen enthusiasts from far and wide to show off their eccentrically restored Beetles or any other venerable vehicle with the iconic VW badge.
To the east, the university town of Mons – a former European Capital of Culture – stages an extraordinary event every summer that mixes religious history with make-believe, featuring another spectacular parade – and another excuse for everyone to party. The weekend’s events are known as ‘Dou Dou’. The big day is Trinity Sunday (11 June this year) when a casket containing the relics of the town’s patron saint is borne on a gilded horse-drawn carriage through the streets. Then, in the main square, a re-enactment takes place of St George’s tussle with the dragon, with the principals in mediaeval costume on horseback. This being Wallonia, there’s a quirky twist at the end. Instead of slaying the dragon with his lance, St George finishes him off – with a pistol! And this being Wallonia, it all ends with food, drink and music.
A most unusual place to stay in Mons is the Dream Hotel near the town centre. This former nun’s refuge and chapel was smartly modernised recently but retains many ecclesiastical touches such as giant neo-Gothic windows and stained glass.
Mons is also within striking distance of Waterloo, where Napoleon finally came to grief. The towering Lion’s Mound, museums and other historic locations were enhanced for the bicentenary two years ago, and the surrounding area – looking much as it did in 1815 – is crisscrossed with footpaths where you can appreciate the special atmosphere of the place.
This summer’s anniversary of the battle, over the weekend of 17-18 June, includes a commemorative march in Napoleon’s footsteps and a Napoleonic market.
You can find out more about the events, festivals and hotels mentioned here – and many more besides – at the tourist board’s website belgium-tourism.co.uk. We hope to see you one day very soon in Wallonia.
Top image Dinant © WBT-J.P.Remy
Below Mons © Visitmons-GregoryMathelot