The Citadel of Namur is one of the great sights of Belgium. Sitting dramatically on steep rocky limestone cliffs overlooking the ancient town below, it dominates the strategically important confluence of the rivers Meuse and Sambre, and for centuries was the scene of epic battles and sieges. Viewed from the opposite side of the Meuse in the early morning, river mist shrouding parts of it from sight, it is simply wondrous.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Namur Citadel was one of Europe’s mightiest fortresses, and also one of the largest. As a student of European history, the name Namur was already etched onto my consciousness as it seemed to feature in endless contests for power between France, Spain, Austria and a multitude of others. To walk within its immense walls on a chilly but sunny spring morning was a joy.
I climbed up the steep hill to get into the citadel, passing along the way a bizarre art installation of a golden sea turtle being ridden by a diminutive jockey. The work of Belgian artist, Jan Fabre, it’s known as Searching for Utopia and makes no sense at all. When you’re tired of wandering the vast citadel complex, there’s a fabulous cable car to whisk you over the River Sambre back into the old town.
Namur is a small place, home to just over one hundred thousand people. It’s one of several spots to lay claim to the title ‘most underrated city in Belgium’. Despite having an UNESCO World Heritage status bestowed upon its 14th century belfy, an outsized history, a lovely city centre, good food, even better beer, and friendly people, ‘underrated’ is a label worn proudly by the city.
All of which makes it the perfect, if sedate, home of the Regional Government of Wallonia. Even the Wallonian Parliament is a down to earth place. Housed in a small but attractive pink-hued 13th century building nestled beneath the hulking fortress above and the banks of the River Meuse, it began life as a medieval hospital and still houses a hospice today.
The town’s main square, the Place d’Armes, is only a short stroll from here, and when you enter the square you can’t miss the Belfry poking out from behind the city’s former stock exchange, the Bourse. The Belfry of Namur is one of thirty three belfries in Belgium that all share a single World Heritage status. It may date from 1388, but compared to the belfries in Bruges, Antwerp or Mechelen, it is quite humble. Not unlike Namur itself.
In front of the Belfry and Bourse is a fascinating sight, a self-effacing statue of Joseph and Francois, and their two escargots: one on a lead, the other in a cage. They are cartoon characters created for the local paper, Vers l’Avenir, and represent the laid back attitude of les Chwès, as the good folk of Namur are known. The snail has become a symbol of the pride the city feels in its slow pace of life.
Leaving the buzzing Place d’Armes behind, I made my way along attractive and busy streets, past ancient churches and townhouses. Despite getting seriously pummelled not once but twice during the Second World War, not to mention the many times before, the heart of the picturesque old-town has retained its sense of history, cobblestone streets are lined with attractive old buildings.
I made my way to the cathedral, before settling into the nearby Brasserie François for a long lunch. The restaurant’s beautiful surroundings and traditional Wallonian food set me up for an afternoon meandering around the city.