Map of Belgium showing Namur, NM31.

Namur, Dinant, and the Northwestern Ardennes Forest

Namur

Namur is on the Meuse River, at the northwest edge of the Ardennes and about 40 kilometers southeast of Brussels. You can easily visit it on a day trip out of Brussels. I had originally thought, from reading about the Battle of the Bulge and similar history, that southern Belgium would be largely rural, forested, and hilly. But then I thought about Belgium being lumped into "The Low Countries", and what the Netherlands (with a name literally meaning "The Low Countries"!) was like. I must be wrong, Belgium couldn't be hilly. And squeezed in between France, the Netherlands, and Germany, it couldn't be rural and forested.

But I learned on an earlier trip to Bastogne and the southern Ardennes that I had been right in the first place — southern Belgium is largely rural, forested, and hilly!

The history in this area goes way back. The Aduatuci tribe moved into this area before 100 BC. They had helped another tribe fight and almost defeat the Romans at the Battle of Sabis in 57 BC. The Aduatuci retreated upstream to their fortified hilltop city.

The Romans pursued them and prepared to beseige the hilltop fortress. Julius Caesar, the Roman commander, promised mercy to the Aduatuci if they surrendered. Apparently the Aduatuci surrendered and turned over most of their weapons, but kept back some improvised shields and weapons. They attacked the Romans that night, but the Romans defeated them after fierce fighting. Many of the Aduatuci were killed in the fighting, and most of the rest were sold into slavery.

Of course, the only source of information on all this was Julius Caesar himself in his Gallic War, so take the story with a large grain of salt....

The Romans called the area Arduenna Silva. It's an area of more than 11,000 square kilometers largely in what today is Wallonia, the Walloons French-speaking area of southern Belgium, but extending into France, Germany, and Luxembourg.

The Aduatuci's hilltop fortress had already been an important trading town through Celtic times, as it was on the Meuse River where the Sambre joined it. The Meuse is a major river, flowing some 925 kilometers from its origins in France, north through Belgium and the Netherlands and emptying into the North Sea. The trading town, which came to be known as Namur, sat on east-west and north-south trade routes through the Ardennes region.

The Romans established an outpost here after defeating the Aduatuci. That evolved into a castle under the Merovingian dynasty, which lasted from the mid 400s until 751.

Various Counts of Namur ran the place, then it was annexed by the Count of Flanders in 1262 and then purchased by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy in 1421.

U.S. Government map of Belgium

La Chanson de Roland or The Song of Roland is an Old French epic poem describing the Battle of Roncevaux in 778 and composed in the period of 1040 to 1115. We have copies of it from 1140-1170. The Song of Roland described Charlesmagne having a nightmare in the forest during the night before the Battle of Roncevaux Pass.

Les Quatre fils Aymon or The Four Sons of Aymon is an Old French chanson de geste or "song of heroic deeds" from the 12th century. It also describes the exploits of Charlesmagne and names many of the rivers and villages of Wallonia, including Dinant.

Namur became part of the Spanish Netherlands in the 1640s. The hilltop fortress was significantly extended and strengthened.

Here you see that fortress, looking across the Sambre from the direction of the more recent city center.

The citadel above Namur, in the northwest Ardennes Forest.
Namur, along the Sambre River in the northwest Ardennes Forest.

Here you see some of the more modern buildings lining the Sambre.

The French forces of King Louis 14th invaded in 1692. They captured Namur and it was annexed to France. Louis' military engineer Vauban rebuilt the citadel. His work is probably the majority of what you see today.

It's impressive military architecture, but it didn't work all that well. Just three years later, in 1695, William III of Orange-Nassau captured Namur. It was handed around by various treaties: to the Dutch in 1709, and to the Austrian House of Habsburg in 1713.

The French invaded and captured Namur again in 1794. After Napolean's fall in 1815, what is now Belgium became part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Then with the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the modern nation of Belgium was born. Namur continued as a major military garrison town through all of this.

The trees and the associated charcoal industry, coupled with the transportation network based on the rivers, made Wallonia an industrial power through the 18th century into the early 20th century when its coal deposits had replaced charcoal. Wallonia was a contender through those centuries for the rank of second greatest industrial region in the world after England. Meanwhile much of the forests remained, but unlike coal they were treated as a renewable resource.

Germany wanted to use the Meuse valley as an invasion route into France during World War I, so Namur was a major target.

Military technology had advanced, so the citadel fell after just three days of fighting in 1914. Germany occupied Namur through the rest of the war.

Then, just over twenty years later, Germany invaded again in World War II. Namur was in the front lines of both The Battle of the Ardennes in 1940 and The Battle of the Bulge in 1944. The damage was as heavy as you would expect.

The Belgian Army's paratroopers were based in the hilltop citadel until 1977. Here we are up in the citadel, passing through its many layers of heavy defensive walls.

Interior of the citadel above Namur, and Belgian paratrooper headquarters.  In the northwest Ardennes Forest.
The citadel above Namur overlooks the Meuse and Smbre Rivers.

Here you are looking east from the citadel. The Meuse flows from the right into the distance, across Belgium and toward the Netherlands and the North Sea.

The Sambre flows in from the lower left and joins the Meuse.

Namur is an important center for stilt-fighting.

Really.

The annual Combat de l'Échasse d'Or or Fight for the Golden Stilt is held on the third Sunday in September. There are two teams, the Avresses and the Mélans. They wear medieval dress and fight on stilts.

If you turn about ninety degrees to the right of the above view, you are looking south up the Meuse River toward the heart of the Ardennes and toward the river's origin in France.

The rail line south from Namur follows the east (left in this view) bank of the Meuse toward Dinant. We will take one of the local trains along the Meuse to Dinant.

Looking up the Meuse River into the Ardennes.
Belgian train from Namur to Dinant.

Dinant

Dinant also has a long history, although it isn't as well known because Julius Caesar had no victory there to tell us about. The location of today's Dinant was populated back in the Neolithic era and on through Celtic and Roman times. It didn't get mentioned in historical writing known today until the 600s when Saint Perpete, the bishop of Tongeren, established his residence in Dinant and founded the Church of Saint Vincent.

Control or at least influence over Dinant was controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles the Bald gave part of the Dinant area to the Count of Namur in 870. Then in the 1000s, Henry IV gave the Prince-Bishop of Liège market and justice rights over Dinant.

A citadel was built in the 1000s, overlooking the town. It was expanded, destroyed, and rebuilt over the years. The current version is from 1821, when Dinant was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

But back in the Middle Ages, Dinant was trying to be a neutral city of the Bishopric of Liège with mixed success. There was an uprising in Dinant in 1466. Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy and uncle of Louis de Bourbon, the Prince-Bishop of Liège, along with Philip's son Charles the Bald, responded by setting the city on fire and throwing 800 burghers into the Meuse.

The citadel above Dinant, in the northwest Ardennes Forest.
The citadel above Dinant, in the northwest Ardennes Forest.

There were other disasters, like the destruction of the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in 1227 due to a rockslide from the nearby cliffs. It was then rebuilt on the old foundations.

Then, with the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, wars between France and Spain came to dominate the region in the 1500s and 1600s. Dinant was neutral in those wars, but still suffered destruction along with the attendant famine and epidemics.

France occupied Dinant in 1675.

Austria briefly held the city in the late 1700s.

The Bishopric of Liège was ceded to France in 1795.

The citadel above Dinant, in the northwest Ardennes Forest.
The Meuse River through Dinant, in the northwest Ardennes Forest.

Then came World War I and the German invasion. On 23 August 1914, 674 inhabitants of Dinant were summarily executed by German troops. It was one of the biggest atrocities committed by the Germans during 1914.

A series of German war crimes during the first months of World War I have come to be known as the Rape of Belgium.

The German troops were afraid of the Belgian francs-tireurs, or guerrilla fighters. So, through August and September 1914, the Germans burned homes, executed civilians, and ravaged cities. The civilian executions in Belgium included:

  • 156 in Aarschot
  • 211 in Andenne
  • 674 in Dinant
  • 248 in Leuven
  • 383 in Tamines

In more pleasant history, Dinant was the home of Antoine-Joseph "Adolphe" Sax, inventor of the saxophone. He also invented several other now obscure horns that did not catch on.

A series of valved bugles called the saxhorns became popular in the British brass band movement and led to the flugelhorn and the euphonium.

The saxotromba lasted only a very short time, as did his clarinette-bourdon or contrabass clarinet.

His saxtuba made only two significant appearances, in the 1852 opera The Wandering Jew and a military ceremony later that year at the Champ de Mars in Paris. The saxtuba tended to overwhelm the rest of the orchestra or band. The twelve saxtubas at the military ceremony drowned out the rest of the 1,500 musicians from 30 regiments.

Saxtuba from Le Monde Illustre, 10 August 1867, and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saxtuba
Saxophone lights in central Dinant, home of Adolphe Sax.

See the saxophone shaped lights over the main street in Dinant?

A pale blonde pale ale named Saxo is brewed here. See my page on classic Brussels cafes for details on that beer and where you might sample it.

Here is the interior of the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame.

Interior of the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Dinant.
Interior of the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Dinant.

Dinant is a short distance south of Namur, close to the French border. There are frequent trains between Namur and Dinant, and even more frequent trains between Namur and Brussels. It is easy to visit both Namur and Dinant on a day trip out of Brussels.

However, to get further into the Ardennes you will have to make connections by bus, and travel by public transportation gets much slower.

Rent a car to explore the Ardennes in detail.