We collect cities. Small cities. Small cities of Europe. It started several years ago when my wife and I were in a position to travel a little bit more than we could before. Simultaneously, this travel blog was born.
Some time ago, we went from Germany to France with a short two-day stop in Bruges, Belgium. When we came out to the old city of Bruges for the first time, I felt something special, something like déjà vu. I had already been here. Maybe it was in my previous life, but, to be sure, it was. I think Bruges didn’t change a lot during the last few hundred years, therefore if you lived there in medieval times (in your previous life), most likely youd find your house even today.
I asked my wife, “Would you like to live here?”
“Yes. And you?”
“I think, yes.”
From that moment, we played this game every time when we stayed in the next small European city. “Would you like to live here?” I am stressing the meaning: “to live,” but not just “to stay for a while.” Sometimes, an answer was negative, for example:
- in Tivoli and Pompeii, Italy;
- in Dubrovnik and Split, Croatia;
- in Cordoba and Figueres, Spain;
- in Gordes and Annecy, France.
For us, those places were good just for visiting, but not for living. However, sometimes an answer was affirmative, and our collection of cities for perfect living started to grow. Now, besides Bruges, it includes:
- Zell am See, Austria;
- Budva, Montenegro;
- Füssen, Bavaria, Germany;
- Orvieto and Bergamo, Italy;
- and some others.
Recently, the collection was supplemented with one more item: the city of Dinant, Belgium. This historical artefact is the most unusual in our exposition. Why? Because it has no outstanding attractions. It has no medieval streets. It has no sea. What it has is a modest, but brutal church, a citadel, and an abbey where monks have brewed the famous Leffe already 800 years. And yes, Antoine-Joseph Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, was born there. That’s all. However, we found one more thing there: déjà vu.
Dinant has chosen such an unlucky location that, for its whole life, it has been forced to pay a high price for that choice. It seated itself between the two most aggressive countries of Europe: France and Germany. Their armies were so “polite” that they regularly paid visits to each other and constantly moved forth and back through Dinant. Moreover, other armies as well, hadn’t turned down the chance to visit Dinant. Even Spaniards, Russian, and Americans have been here. Probably, the Citadel of Dinant could be entered into the Guinness Book as the most often besieged fortress of Europe. Unfortunately, we can only see its walls; the castle was demolished. Today this citadel is a museum.
Nevertheless, the tiny town survived and is trying to be a resort town with its own river promenade. For most tourists this is a one-day-visit place. They come, visit a church, the citadel, and the home of Sax, take pictures of the Meuse River and numerous saxophones on the Charles de Gaulle Bridge, and leave. But some (including prisoners of the local jail) come here to live in the peaceful atmosphere and breathe fresh air for a while. We have found at least one hotel, but preferred to book an apartment. As it turns out, this apartment was located in front of a prison (which looks rather like a small castle), and I have a strong feeling that it was the calmest place in the city, even in the evenings.
There was one more reason why Irina chose Dinant as our residence for a 10-day stay in Belgium. No, it wasn’t because of the biggest nuclear power station of Belgium, Tihange, which is located 30 km away. Dinant sits in the center of the virtual circle of places we intended to visit with our rented car:
Château de Vêves. A picturesque well-preserved medieval castle of the family of Beaufort is one of the most remarkable examples of 15th century military architecture. During the castles restoration work, between 1969 and 1979, great attention was paid to the castles interior decoration. You are able to cross time barriers and imagine what it would have been like during the different periods from the Middle Ages to the present time.
Abbaye d’Orval. Founded in 1132, the Notre-Dame of Orval is one of the most remarkable Cistercian abbeys in Belgium. This historical location is home to stunning art collections and a Trappist beer, famous in the Ardennes region. Have you ever tasted Orval beer?
Château de Bouillon. The owner of the castle, Godfrey of Bouillon, was one of the leaders of the First Crusade. When crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099, Godfrey became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but refused to be a king, saying that he couldn’t wear the gold crown of a king where Jesus Christ had worn a crown of thorns.”
Villers-la-Ville, the ruins of a Cistercian abbey, will show you more than 800 years of history.
Gaasbeek Castle. It began its history from a medieval fortress of 1240. A beautiful castle in neo-romantic style was built on the ruins of the destroyed fortress at the beginning of the 16th century, and was gifted to the Belgium State in 1921 by its last owner, Marchioness Arconati Visconti. Today, this is a museum, and its interior is as stunning as the exterior. You won’t be disappointed.
Château de Walzin. During its 900-year history, it was a fortress, a castle, just a two-storey country house, then a castle again. It was plundered and burned down by the French army, the Austrian army, and the French army once more, and restored, each time becoming increasingly better.
Hallerbos. A picturesque forest with blue and white flowers.
Every morning, we had breakfast, went to the prison’s parking lot, wished all the prisoners to be free again as soon as possible, and headed to our next goal. All the above-mentioned attractions were stunning, and deserve separate blog posts, but every time during the way back (especially after the nuclear station) I found myself thinking about the forthcoming evening.
We park our car, go to a small local supermarket, buy amazing French cheese, amazing beef carpaccio, amazing French wine, some fruits and vegetables, and have dinner discussing the impressions of the day and viewing the photographs. After that … and this is the culmination … we go out for a promenade along the river Meuse. All visitors have already left our Dinant. Now, it’s only for us. Déjà vu again.