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Summer staycation in Belgium: Namur
Its emblem may be the snail, but Namur has overhauled its reputation as a genteel city with an equally sedate nightlife. As the capital of Wallonia, an army of civil servants swarm daily into the capital of Wallonia. But once they leave their desks, it always seemed as though the lights went off in the city. Now the picturesque city is in the final stages of transformation with a swathe of major urban projects already open or near completion. And despite Covid, a busy calendar of events, from cultural and culinary to heritage and sporting, are all helping to revive its image.
Rising majestically over the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers, the 80-hectare ancient citadel is a living reminder of the city’s once strategic military position in war-torn Europe. Its somber grey stone facades come to life as dusk falls thanks to a new eco-lighting system, which celebrates important events with themed light shows. The fortress is home to activities for all ages, including medieval re-enactments, outdoor theatre and live music, cycle races, torch-lit walks and guided tours. The esplanade and Théâtre de Verdure sit atop a lofty plateau; the site of many events and festivals. The Terra Nova visitor centre occupies a former military barracks, with a café and terrace on hand for refreshments and snacks. A kids’ playground also lies within the sheltered spot. From here, you can explore the citadel’s labyrinth network of underground tunnels.
A 20-minute tourist train ride is one way to explore the citadel’s paths and panoramas (reserve in advance). Alternatively, be prepared for some serious walking, interspersed by breathtaking vistas of the city and the Mosane valley. A shuttle bus connects to the station and city centre and visitors on foot can take the tourist shuttle from the foot of the citadel (Rue Notre-Dame or the casino). Keep an eye out for the giant turtle sculpture by Jan Fabre halfway up the citadel and overlooking the Grognon (refurbishment still in progress). A number of boutiques line the main route ascending the citadel, including delicatessen Made in Namur and perfume atelier Guy Delforge. A couple of traditional bars and cafés are dotted around the site for pit stops.
From the station, the main shopping artery Rue de Fer leads into the quirkier lower town area. The narrow passages and streets of the pedestrianised quarter are filled with interesting boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Over the past year or two, Namur has witnessed a rise in individual stores and cafés promoting sustainable and second-hand products, especially in Rue des Brasseurs and Rue des Carmes. The latter is a destination for cinephiles thanks to art-house cinema Cameo and on-site Caféo for locally-sourced refreshments and menu.
Namur is also a city of culture. As part of the Sculpture in the Town project, 80 giant red ants, created by French artists Nicolas Eres, can be spotted clambering various walls and facades until 30 September. Keep your eyes open for the insect invasion at the city’s sumptuous theatre (Place du Théâtre), town hall (Rue de Fer) and Galeria Inno (Place d’Armes). The street art theme has been a highlight of the summer cultural programme with new frescoes popping up in prominent public places. One of the most striking adorns the Art Nouveau Villa Balat on the Meuse riverbank in Jambes. The architectural jewel is now a B&B and along with its vegetation-themed mural (pictured) by local urban artist and designer Démosthène Stellas, is visible in all its splendour from the new river walkway and cycle path L’Enjambée. Inaugurated last year, the bridge enables walkers and cyclists to crisscross the Meuse and admire the valley views and busy river life below. As if they needed any other motivation, delicious artisan ice-cream shop Le Glacetronome, with its enticing flavour combinations, is strategically placed at the foot of the bridge directly behind Villa Balat.
On the Namur side, L’Enjambée links up with Le Delta, the city’s newly-renovated cultural centre. It contains exhibition spaces, concert halls and a restaurant and terrace. Archeology museum Les Bateliers is showing an exhibition on gender until 25 October. Pas son genre! explores the issue via its own collection and those of other museums in the region. The Félicien Rops museum in the old quarter is dedicated to Namur’s most famous cultural figure. The Fin-de-siècle artist and illustrator is renowned for his erotic and satiric works, and the museum celebrates his life, art and influence.
On the water
Life on the riverbanks of the Meuse and Sambre is a source of endless pleasure, whatever the season and whether on foot or on bike. Water taxi La Namourette is one way of plying the river, and regular river cruises also explore the confluence. There’s little chance of capsizing when you rent a stand-up paddle at floating bar La Capitainerie in Jambes, unless a passing cruise boat tips you off in its wake. The seasonal pontoon also hires out kayaks and small boats and is a popular spot for the cocktail crowd.
Eat & drink
Head to Rue des Brasseurs and the surrounding cobbled streets for wine bars, cafes and restaurants, including the reputed Vino Vino. Le Bouchon in Rue Haute Marcelle is recommended for fine wine and delicious tapas. If the weather’s fine, enjoy terrace life in Place du Marché aux Légumes and, as the sun sets, Place du Théâtre. For an unsurpassed view, you can’t beat tapas restaurant and bar la Cuisine BelRive, which occupies a moored barge on the quayside. At the foot of the citadel, Rue Notre-Dame continues its slow march towards gentrification with the help of some excellent addresses, including new wine bar Pépite and cafe bar La Pharmacie, specialising in artisan Belgian beers with occasional live music. Continuing past the casino towards La Plante, L’Echasse is a micro-brewery producing Houppe beers. For local flavour, cross the ancient Pont de Jambes and sample a beer at La Schtouffe; its terrace and adjacent ice-cream bar catches the sun and affords a fine view of the citadel. Gastro food truck Guinguette Mobile has returned for a third summer to its woodland spot at La Plante overlooking the Meuse, just south of Namur. Former Michelin star chef Benoît Van den Branden serves tasty bites and drinks. Reservations are necessary to bag a spot at one of the gingham-dressed wooden tables.
The Royal Snail Hotel is home to gastronomic restaurant, L’Agathopède, while further along the riverbank, there’s a friendly youth hostel, the Auberge de Jeunesse Félicien Rops for budget travellers. Up on the citadel, the Ne5t hotel and spa is a renovated farmhouse, combining wellness and gourmet food. The aforementioned Villa Balat offers three rooms decorated in Belle Epoque style. Les Tanneurs is a convenient and attractive four-star hotel in the centre, with a cosy bar and two restaurants.
Photos: Namur citadel (c) Roberty Photography/Roberty Sébastien; WBT Panorama Namur Citadel JP Rémy; WBT Namur pedestrian quarter JP Rémy; Fresco Démosthène Stellas (Drash Collective) (c) Thierry Dupiereux Fettweis; WBT Namur Ravel JP Rémy