Sitting beneath imposing cliffs topped by a formidable citadel, Dinant is a spectacularly located town. The cliffs and valley below were carved over millennia by the River Meuse as it meandered its way across the limestone Condroz plateau. The onion-domed Church of Notre Dame and row of attractive, colourful houses along the river, limestone cliffs as a backdrop, make this one of the most picturesque town views in Belgium.
The dramatic setting is matched by its long and troubled history. The Celtic tribes who first settled here called it Divo Nanto, the Sacred Valley. Later, Romans named it for the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. As an important river crossing, Dinant witnessed frequent conflict. In 1466, Philip the Good of Burgundy, burned the town to the ground and drowned hundreds of people in the Meuse.
This atrocity was mirrored in 1914 when advancing German troops committed the worst civilian massacre of the invasion, and what became known as the Rape of Belgium. In a single day 674 people were murdered, but Dinant was the scene of only one in a string of massacres. The town was severely damaged by fighting when a combined French and Belgian force tried to block the German advance.
It was during this conflict that Lieutenant Charles de Gaulle, the future French president, was wounded on the bridge over the Meuse. There is a plaque marking the spot where he was shot, and a statue of him stands at one end of the bridge. Dinant had barely recovered from this horror when it was seriously damaged in fighting during the Second World War.
The modern bridge is also home to several oversized saxophone statues, testimony to the fact that Dinant is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax. The inventor of the saxophone is the town’s most famous son by a considerable margin. Strange then that while there are statues of saxophones all over town, there isn’t a more interesting museum to his life and work. The Maison Adolphe Sax took 10 minutes to view.
Dinant is also one of the gateway towns into the Ardennes and the plethora of outdoor activities for which the region is famed. You can hire boats here and spend some time splashing about on the river – just keep an eye out for large barges. I’d arrived early to do a half day hike along the river and through pleasant countryside to the equally dramatically located Château de Walzin.
Dinant is a small place of around 14,000 inhabitants, so doesn’t take too long to explore. It was mid-summer and by midday the temperature would be in the mid-30ºCs, so I decided to walk in the morning and come back to Dinant for lunch and more exploration. First though, I walked along the river in the opposite direction to a small hamlet called Bouvignes-sur-Meuse just north of Dinant.
The fabulous looking, but closed for renovation, Maison du Patrimoine Médiéval Mosan, is an incredible 15th century house in a small square overlooked by the medieval fortified church of Saint Lambert. Towering over Bouvignes is the 14th century castle of Crèvecoeur, a good indication that things weren’t always as peaceful as they are today.
The castle gets its name from an incident during Henry II’s siege of Bouvignes in 1554. The town overrun, three knights, their wives and some soldiers took refuge here. After heavy fighting the castle was stormed and the knights killed. Their wives fled to the highest tower and instead of capture jumped from the ramparts. It’s said that such dignified deaths broke the hearts of local people.
I set off back along the river, crossing over a dam in the Meuse to make a detour to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Leffe. This is the 12th century abbey where Leffe beer originated. It was closed by the French Revolution, and later converted to a glass factory and a paper mill. Remarkably, religious life returned to the abbey a century after its initial closure. It remains a working abbey today, but while the separate Maison Leffe offers beer tasting and a museum, beer making is no longer found on the abbey grounds.