Wandering through Wallonia
Wallonia, the French-Speaking Walloon Region of Belgium
By Kent E. St John
“Gosh,” I thought as I wandered through the chilly night on the Grand Place in Brussels. “No wonder why a coveted EU Commission job is a score.” To walk through such grandeur would certainly be a job perk for me!
After a meal of moules and frites at T Keldevke, I would have paid to work instead of looking for a salary. Apparently the Europeans, as well as NATO members, have amazing taste; if Brussels isn’t the physical center of the world, maybe it should be.
The country is generally split between the Northern Flanders area and the French speaking Walloon Region. While I was asked repeatedly before leaving if I would be going to Bruges and Antwerp, I was actually heading south to Wallonia, an area filled with castles, battlefields and liquid gold, beer, a place as yet relatively undiscovered.
It is said in Wallonia that a wine drinker talks to his glass and a beer drinker to his neighbors. I got to know my neighbors fairly well.
Shared by all of Belgium is Brussels; and it is a perfect beginning point. The hardest part is leaving, that is until I did. I then found another side of Belgium that took me in and stayed with me long after.
No Brushing Aside Brussels
The city of Brussels has changed much yet not at all. Be ready for the city to balance your desires; all that is needed is a priority of choices. It is saucy yet sincere, lived in yet a fairy tale.
If surreal fits you better the Magritte works at the Musee d’Art Moderne. Magritte will soon have his own display in a new annex being built. Magritte’s work was used as an album cover for for Beck-Ola and songs about him were written by Jethro Tull, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney and John Cale. Not bad for an old man in a bowler. The man in a bowler is said to have loved chocolate.
Belgium’s past domination of the Congo has led to its predominance in the world of chocolate, still savored today. That is best displayed on Place du Grand Sablon, forever known to me as “Chocolate Square.”
While the many chocolate makers display works of art I recommend Wittamer — if it’s good enough for the royal family… well, you get it! The area is also filled with antique shops and many dedicated to African art.
With my time short I decided to do as the citizens of Brussels do, visit the many distinctive cafes and bars, a people-watching bonanza. Right on the Place du Grand is the rambling Le Roy d’ Espagne, long a city favorite.
On the other hand, locals pick their bars depending on mood and a Stamcafes or neighborhood working-class bar is a sure thing, everywhere in the city. Brussels is easy to explore just hard to leave.
Fighting over Wallonia
After a bit in Brussels it was time to traverse the French-speaking Walloon Region, packed with more castles and breweries than any man could wish for, one castle per 25 kilometers. It is no wonder that many of Europe’s battles took place in Wallonia; it was well worth fighting over.
Through history right up to WWII, major decisive battles raged, yet today it is a peaceful, picturesque place. Wallonia is the lungs of Belgium with more than 80 % of Belgium’s forests. It also borders France, Luxembourg and Germany while maintaining its own style and traditions.
There was no better place to begin than in the capital of Wallonia, Namur cradled between the Meuse and Sambre rivers. Victuals in the area are superb as there are cheese makers, bakers, farmers and monastery masters at food production.
Truth be told there should never be anything called a French fry — Belgium fry works better. It is said that the idea originated with the people of Wallonia frying small fish from the rivers. Food is certainly a part of the good life in Wallonia.
High Above Namur
On a huge bluff above Namur the rivers of Meuse and Sambe pass below and our hotel shares the spot with a castle from yesteryear. The lights of the compact city below start to twinkle and I have no doubt that the pub left only a bit ago is awash in conversation.
It seems fitting that our hotel, the Chateau de Namur, is in actuality staffed by those studying the hospitality industry. The people here are very in tune with hospitality. It is a centuries old tradition in Wallonia, and Louis XIV himself experienced it!
All that day I was treated as if special, from museums, restaurants and shops, friendly attitudes prevailed. Namur has a bounty of places to discover — deep roots — and the Le Rop Museum, which was once the home of an important merchant from the 19th century.
Namur is one fortified city that does just that, fortifies the visitor. Its cobbled streets and alluring alleys make it a perfect base for exploring this most impressive part of Europe. Perhaps not as early to bed as the monks of old, I did however prepare for a visit to an Abby of world renown. I slept.
Blessed are Those Who Brew
I would never make the cut as a monk in a monastery, but I sure can enjoy the fruits of their labor. A prime example is the Abbey of Maredsous; besides its beauty they still make some of the best cheese and beer in the world. The cheeses are stored in the cellars and the newest beer is a Belgian wheat beer called Vedett Extra White.
If countries could be so well run the world would be a better place. The order is one of St. Benedict and the rules still apply. This is a must-visit Walloon destination. The stomach and heart will be pleased.
Another man who some would say should be made a saint is Martin Belot who started brewing beer on his farm in 1858, but only in winter. He did so to keep his field workers employed, and it is still a family operation located in the village of Purnode.
Today Brasserie du Bocq is well known as one of the finest brewers in Belgium, not easy in a land of beer. The brewery has tours and tasting but in a laid back way, no rush. Savor and enjoy. It is the Walloon way.
It Takes Village, or a City… at the Least an Ear
Charlie Parker and other jazz stars owe a debt to Dinant and Monsieur Adolphe Sax, and the huge saxophone statue in the middle of Dinant makes it perfectly clear. In a land of innovators as well as those who appreciate life, the riverside Dinant takes its place. Adolphe was the inventor of the saxophone, perhaps the most complex instrument known today.
On a huge cliff high above is a citadel below a magnificent church. As with many places in Wallonia, statues commemorating WWI and WWII victims and heroes are found. Perhaps most pleasing is to just let your mind wander as you watch the river flow or hop aboard a boat like a European Huck Finn; river excursions are frequent.
If great food and magnificent beer doesn’t fit the bill there is a magnificent castle down river, the Freyr. If the travel gods are with you the Baron Bonnaert himself may just be your host. What a fine example of Wallonia’s place in history.
Family paintings and furnishings as well as grounds will astound. The Freyr also has reminders of past battles fought in the area. It was time to head to one of the hardest fought in history, Bastogne, just down the river valley.
This Band of Brothers
The Battle of the Bulge, or Bastogne, was caused by Nazi Germany’s last offensive during WWII and it was hellish. Freezing cold and violent close-contact fighting was the Christmas that soldiers faced in 1944.
If ever you need a reminder of just what is good about the US, a visit to Bastogne will fully restore your faith. I haven’t been to a place in a long time that still, years later, remembers sacrifices made by our troops and those of our allies. Everywhere you are reminded.
Strangely enough, and to the city’s credit, doom and gloom isn’t the order of the day. Instead the museums and battlefields are uplifting and inspiring, something we all need in today’s world. It is easily explored and even those not interested in WWII will find themselves enthralled.
It was an HBO series that really brought attention to the soliders of the 101st Airborne that were known as the Band of Brothers. The series captivated me and was a hit for producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
To actually see the position and foxholes where those heroes fought literally brought tears to my eyes and a grateful feeling for my Dad’s generation. I will always think of the city and area when I am in the need of a reminder of a fight worth fighting and the meaning of loyalty.
As a frequent traveler to Europe this was my first visit to Wallonia; it certainly will not be my last. It is an area that, though easy to explore, maintains its own style and feel. The history is vast and deep yet it is also modern. Nature prevails and even a glass of superb beer lingers in my mind.
The people encountered on my journey were warm and inviting — matched by the cuisine. Meals were an occasion even when done in low-key venues.
It is almost a miracle that with all of the invasions and battles in the area, Wallonia remains just that, Wallonia. As I write this I am once again reminded of the saying that a wine drinker talks to his glass and a beer drinker to his neighbors. I cannot wait to visit the neighbors again!
As always, I recommend that a visit begin with a trip to the area’s website and Walloon has a fine one. They will also help provide info to make your visit special. In fact they were one of Europe’s best.
City of Dinant
For a guy who flies multiple miles every year I am seldom blow away by an airline. I was on my flights to Brussels and back to JFK by Jet Airways. This Indian-based airline is poised to be tops in the world. Service is given and not grudgingly, the spiced Indian cuisine was such a delight and the cabin simply relaxing. I will sum it up by saying, “Where Jet Airways goes, there would I go willingly!”
Just as in my air trip over I was equally very pleased with my hotels. I stayed in two different ones in Brussels and both rank high on my list, both had fantastic locations and service that Belgians expect, an admirable quality. I added their quotes as both more than lived up to their promises in the ads.
The Dominican Hotel is poised to become a destination for elegance in the centre of Brussels. Located behind the theatre La Monnaie, off the Grand Place, our Brussels design hotel offers stylish non-smoking rooms, a private courtyard and bustling Grand Lounge that combine to ensure indulgent hospitality.
The award winning architects of FG Stijl have created an eclectic mix of design in both the interior and exterior – resulting in an array of new styles and experiences.
The Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place is one of Brussels best hotels that ideally whether on business or planning a vacation in Belgium for the Holidays. After a recently completed three-year refurbishment plan, the Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place offers guests a blend of traditional values and the latest technology to ensure a carefree stay in the heart of Brussels.
Simply put, the Royal Windsor Hotel Grand Place offers the very best in Belgian lodging accommodations and is the ideal place to stay during your Belgium holidays.
Sites to see:
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.