There’s no escaping the fact that Namur is mostly, and rightly, famed for its enormous citadel, or ‘Europe’s biggest anthill’ as Napoleon witheringly referred to it when his armies conquered the fortress and annexed the town below in 1794. While the citadel might be the reason to visit Namur, it’s the town’s relaxed and friendly atmosphere, well-preserved historic sights, and its famed culinary scene that will make you want to return.
I was only in Namur for a day, but by the end of it I found myself wondering if this wasn’t a place I’d enjoy living. To be fair, it was while sampling my second, possibly third, beer in one of the nicest bars in town, Le Chapitre, that the idea of living in Namur occured to me. It was less the beer and more the friendly owner, who had come over to have a chat with this out of season foreigner, that appealed to me.
This wasn’t a one off. In Chez Juliette, the lovely cafe where I had breakfast several hours earlier, the waitress quizzed me about where I was from, what I was doing, and gave me some top tips for spending my time in the town. Everywhere I went, people were just as friendly. Brussels is not an unfriendly city, but Namur has a small town charm lost in many places. A small town with a big history and an even bigger heart.
I’ve already made plans to return to Namur in September for the – I swear this is true – Golden Stilt Joust. Like many other places in Belgium, Namur is home to a weird tradition – a legendary stilt jousting contest. That’s right, actual adult men dressed in 15th century garb fight it out mounted on pairs of wooden stilts. It’s a 600-year old tradition, and the Golden Stilt is awarded to the best stilt fighter in the competition.
Stilt fighting may be the best non-sport I’ve ever heard of, but is only one part of Namur’s rich and fascination history. In the 18th century cathedral, lies buried the heart of Don Juan, the Austrian Hapsburg governor of the Spanish Netherlands. The famed military leader died in Namur in 1578 only shortly after he’d captured the town from rebels. While the small but pleasant Place d’Armes hosts Namur’s UNESCO listed 14th century belfry.
A definite cultural highlight is the museum dedicated to one of the town’s most famous sons, Félicien Rops. An artist that shocked and scandalised ‘decent’ society with his erotic paintings and engravings, Rops was born here in 1833. As the discrete section at the end of the museum attests, no subject was off limits for him. One etching of a nun explicitly pleasuring herself would, in a different era, have ended with burning at the stake.
It’s fair to say that Rops’ work still shocks today, so no surprise that his career was dogged by accusations of blasphemy and obscenity. His personal motto was, “Can’t be virtuous, won’t deign to be a hypocrite, Rops I am.” Yet, he was a brilliant etcher who also skewered the social issues of the day. The works on display in the museum are thought provoking. Well, apart from the one with the nun, that’s just pornographic.
The Rops museum is just about as racy as it gets in Namur. Traditionally this is a town famed for its slow pace of life and love of good food. The two do go hand in hand. The statue of cartoon figures, Joseph and Francois with two snails, one on a lead, the other caged, in the Place d’Armes, is a self deprecating joke about how other Belgians view the town: life here is slower even than that of a snail.
That, it turns out, is very appealing.