Complete with turreted castle, rippling river-bends, cobbled streets and mysterious megaliths, Durbuy could have been designed by the Belgian Luxembourg tourist board. And in fact it was recently awarded the distinction of being a 'European destination of excellence', which only 10 of the finest rural locales in Europe have received. It's enough to flag this Wallonian town as something of a 'get-away-from-it-all' mecca.
And those break-seeking tourists have certainly come. Like many of the tiny, pretty villages scattered over the wrinkled valley of the Famenne, Durbuy welcomes a field or three of happy campers. Every summer they arrive, here to sample this rural idyll, which has all the charm of the Ardennes, but without quite so much of its ruggedness.
Shrouded by pine-clad hills and oozing medieval charm, Durbnuy is a perfect gateway town for those seeking outdoor fun. Walking and cycling take second-place here to kayaking, canoeing and rafting down the River Ourthe. Caves litter the nearby bluffs and cliffs, while the woods hide those doing a spot of archery, orienteering, tree-walking or paint-balling.
Durbuy also does the high-life, as well as the action-packed. This self-proclaimed 'smallest city in the world' has a whole city's worth of fine restaurants – as well art galleries, a museum and a cluster of four-star hotels. And it even has a bit of 'architectural' geology on its list of things to see. A famously huge fold in the river cliffs – an anticline – tells the tale of the geological forces that made this wonderful landscape. And it's in those rocky-cliffs that Durbuy's story actually begins.
The cliffs in question are made of limestone, which became riddled with caves over the eons. That made them the perfect home for Durbuy's technologically-challenged first time residents – the stone age hunter-gatherers of the Palaeolithic era. They lived in caves found all around this area, including ones in the nearby Trou des Nutons (or 'goblin hole') of Verlaine. Some of the bone tools and religious artefacts found in these caves date back to more than 10,000 years ago. By five-thousand years ago the locals were erecting sculpted stone monuments in Wéris, megaliths that are thought by many to map out the stars.
So ancient roots have been put down in this landscape, enough to make the Roman roads that criss-cross the Ourthe valley seem like new additions. The Romans took charge here in the 1st- century BC, but they were mainly passing through. The Famenne finds itself at something of a cross-roads, on a route between Bavay and Trier, and one linking Tongeren to Metz. That role as a stop-over point, carried on through to the end of the Dark Ages, which is when Durbuy first got its name 'in the papers' in 814. Its castle was started soon after, in 889.
By the 11th-century Durbuy was a feudal-castle town, guarding the trade routes from the Duchy of Luxembourg to Liege. A whole line of watchtowers and forts kept the lookout over the roads into and out of town, and in 1331 Durbuy was raised to the coveted status of a city – by the-then Count of Luxemburg, John I. Its castle was strengthened and became the foreboding structure seen today, while the town gained walls and a courthouse.
Boom-time for Durbuy came in the 16th-century, when rich, iron-bearing mineral veins were discovered. Mines were set up, and the valley of the Ourthe became one long line of furnaces and forges – by 1575 it's reckoned there were 34 furnaces employing 2,000 people just around Durbuy. And because the River Ourthe was the best way to ship ore to the furnaces – and the finished steel back to Leige – many river-ports were set up, served by the oûtleux (boatmen) in their bètchètes (flat-bottomed boats).
But the iron ran out, and from then until the 20th-century, Durbuy entered a gentle decline, while a flurry of rulers passed wider Luxembourg around like a game of 'pass-the-parcel'. Spain, Austria, France and the Netherlands all took their turn in ruling over the wooded hills and valleys around Durbuy. But it was the newly-formed nation of Belgium that, in 1839, finally received the prize – the lion's share of eastern Luxembourg, Durbuy included.
Getting There & Getting About
Durbuy lies right at the top of the Belgian Luxembourg, the country's southernmost (and least populated) province. The hills of the Condoz lie to the north, with the crags of the Ardennes ranging southwards. Durbuy sits slap bang in the middle of both, in the broad depression known as the Famenne. While the River Ourthe, the Roman roads and the ancient tracks once made this town an ancient communications hub, these days it's a bit trickier to bend your path here.
If you're planning to come by road, there are a couple of options. One is to head down the E411/A4 from Brussels, which skips past Namur, and passes within 30 miles of Durbuy. Keep on it until the junction with the N86, and then you'll get to wind along the 'Dorsale de la Famenne' – a long narrow ridge that runs through most of the Famenne. This route has great views, and even better stop-overs (Rochefort anyone?). Stay on the N86 until Bavaux-sur-Ourthe, and then take the N983/833 into Durbuy itself.
The other option, if you're coming from the eastern side of Belgium (or the Dutch Limburg) is to pass through Liege and pick up the E25/A26. Stay on this until you hit the junction with the N66. This road soon crosses the N86, along which you pass south to Bavaux-sur-Ourthe again. Both routes are somewhat long drives, but the rolling Condoz and Famenne scenery help the time pass.
All rails to Durbuy also pass through Bavaux-sur-Ourthe. There are direct trains to Barvaux from all Brussels stations (North, Central and Midi) every half-hour. From Barvaux, there is a shuttle-bus service to Durbuy itself. Though, as it's only a mile or so, many chose to take a taxi, or even walk that last furlong. Once you're in town, though, don't have too high expectations of the public transport. There is a functional network to the area's wider attractions, but it's not always very frequent.
Tourists feature pretty much at the top of the local Durbuy economy, so the range of accommodation offered here is broad. It is especially good for those looking to keep things simple, wanting nothing more than a pitch for tent or caravan. While Durbuy itself only has the Vedure campsite, adjacent Barvaux has several large campsites and caravan parks, all at reasonable rates. At the other end of the scale, chic Durbuy has an excellent selection of top-rated hotels to choose from – no less than four of which are four-star.
They range from modern-meets-plush hotels, like the fully-featured Le Sanglier des Ardennes, to the quaint oaken-beamed luxury of the Hôtel Au Vieux Durbuy. Much of the rest of town seems to be taken over by 3-star hotels and B&B's, but with the area being so popular in high-season, booking well in advance is advised. Many are housed in the historic houses that Durbuy is so famed for, perhaps none more spectacularly than the La villa des Roses. This charming mansion has a tower of rooms with fabulous views onto the town's castle.
And of course, with the widely-wooded vistas surrounding Durbuy, it's no surprise to find many of the local farms and barns converted into self-catering holiday homes with a view. It's not all gites and remote locations, though. There are plenty of modern self-catering townhouses, boasting creature comforts, in Durbuy itself, and in the surrounding villages too.
For the Love of Beer
For the beer-lover, Durbuy looks within striking distance of beer-heaven – after all the hallowed vats of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy are just an hour's drive away. But let's leave the Rochefort 6, 8 and 10 to the Rochefort-bound. Instead, what does Durbuy and its cluster of hamlets and villages have to offer the beer-seeker?
For a start, there is a fine fettle of local hostelries and restaurants, in which to enjoy a perfect marriage of cuisine and beer-supping. Durbuy prides itself on being a town of culinary distinction, bringing together the rich flavours of the wild Ardennes and the hard-won bounty of its local farms. Marry that to a beer heritage all a-froth with the strong Trappist traditions of the region, and you'll find plenty of gastronomic adventures in the eateries along Durbuy's narrow, cobbled streets.
Then there is a local brewhouse – or rather brewpub – in the shape of the La Ferme Au Chene. This impressive old farmhouse building overlooks the Ourthe, and its terrace is perfectly-formed for a summer afternoon's beer tasting. That said, there are only 2 beers on offer, one of which is the in-house brew. And the brewery tour takes about as long as it takes to pour their Marckhoff beer – they only produce 80hl or so a year. But this is a nice rounded Belgian Pale Ale, strong on the coriander and light on the hops, at 6.5% ABV.
Rather more variety, if not quite such charming views, can be had at Brasserie Fantome, another farmhouse brewery, but a couple of miles south of Durbuy in Soy. Here, the brewing takes pride of place, with the brewer keen to show visitors around his venerable equipment, bought from the nearby Achouffe brewery. As well as a highly-regarded farmhouse ale Fantome (its drinkability belying its 8.0% ABV), this first-class beer-artisan makes Saisons with a difference. Their Saison D’Erezée isn't nailed to any one season, but changes with them. You could find yourself drinking beers flavored with chamomile, lime, juniper, or apple, and the alcohol-content wobbles between 6% to 9%. A great idea, and a great set of beers, ones good enough to have you tempted to stay all year long.
Food & Gastronomy
'Famenne by name but not by nature' might be the motto of Durbuy – the Famenne region got its name from its poor soils, and their meagre harvests, in medieval times. These days Durbuy can draw from a richer palette of cuisines – Walloon and Condoz, French and Ardennes – and so is known as a real sweet-spot for the wandering gourmand. There are many fantastic top-class restaurants in town, squarely catering for the well-heeled tourist. There are also plenty of traditional brasseries, offering up a range of local dishes, much-loved staples and snacks. And even a 'city' as steeped in medieval heritage as Durbuy can't escape from the more up-to-date pleasures of the local fritterie.
Perhaps the biggest influence on the menus, of the more gourmand-slanted restaurants at least, is the terroir of the Ardennes. While not quite in the Ardennes proper, Durbuy wallows in the rich potential to be had from its forests – swarming with boar, deer and pheasant – or from its rivers – teeming with freshwater fish like trout, or crayfish and shrimp. So, of course you'll find classics like the juniper-smoked Jambon d'Ardenne, the boarish pleasures of Ardenne pâté or the simply baked Truit en papillote.
Game naturally features highly here, including hare, partridge and duck, and a favourite casserole is Pheasant à la Brabançonne, slow-stewed with tender endives/chicory and bacon. Endives also form the basis of the delicious local Ardennes soups. Good gourmet restaurants include the Le Clos des Récollets, with its French-slanted menu, Le Sanglier des Ardennes, with its broad open menus, and Au Saint Amour, with its specialism in freshly-caught local trout.
Shopping & Markets
In a city as tiny as Durbuy, you're never going to get a full-spectrum retail experience. But for this historically pristine town of cobbled alleys and stone-built town-houses, quality is what counts, especially over quantity. Even better, much of the town centre is car-free. Among its cafes and eateries and (possibly too many) tourist-trap shops, you'll find plenty of distinctive provincial shops. There's an artisanal butchers specialising in charcuterie, salaisons and local fromages, a parfumerie, and a boulangerie.
There are also many small boutique clothing shops, antique stores, bookshops and shops brimming with decorative tidbits. Durbuy itself isn't much use for markets, though. The weekly produce market is actually held in the much larger Barvaux (on its Place du Marché) every Wednesday morning. On Sunday's you can catch a flea market, which takes over 'Le Sassin' sport hall, in nearby Bomal, on Sunday mornings
Just be warned – and be prepared – for the tourist throngs (and a fight for car parking) on holidays and high days. Durbuy is popular both as a sight-to-be-seen, and a great getaway, for many in Wallonia. So it can be uncomfortably packed, when the weather is fine, and the weekend has arrived.
Sightseeing & Culture
You could say Durbuy itself is the main attraction here, with its postcard-prop narrow streets, blue-grey stone-buildings and fairytale castle, all shot through by the sparkling waters of the River Ourthe. But there are plenty of highlights set within its overall scenic splendour. Most start with Durbuy Castle, the sharp turreted-and-towered fort right at the heart of the city.
It has roots that go back to the 8th-century, but most of it was built in the 11th-century, and then reworked in the 17th. Perched on a mound above the Ourthe, it looks imposing enough from the outside – and unfortunately that's all you'll get to see. This private castle doesn't open its doors to the public. Other architectural gems can be found, though, including the Halle aux Blés (or Wheat Hall) with its rare timber framing and unusual front gable.
While Durbuy makes claim to being the smallest city in the world, it also has a pretty firm grasp on the unusual category of 'Largest Topiary in the Globe'. This hedge-trimmers delight is found along the banks of the River Outhre, and includes 250 sculpted box trees spread over 30,000 square feet. Imagination has been allowed to go wild here, with a host of fantastical geometrical shapes, and even animals, birds and people.
And it's not just man-made wonders to admire here. The Famenne is something of a geological playground, folded and rippled over millions of years, to produce its characteristic mix of low ridges, flat plains and riverine gorges. Durbuy sits at the entrance to one such gorge, carved by the Ourthe. In doing so, it has exposed a striking 100-foot high ripple in the rock – the Roche de la Falize – a so-called anticline. Formed from a mass of dolomitic limestone, bent like warm toffee, it's a rock that impresses, even if you're not a geologist.
More rocks to impress can be found in nearby Wéris, a village with an ancient megalith pedigree. The standing stones found here are made of local 'pudding stone', and seem to be arranged along parallel lines. Some have made a convincing case that these 5,000 year-old megaliths are actually lined up to mark out the position of the stars in the Plough constellation. That, or (says one local legend) they're doorways to a satanic realm, laid here by the Devil...
Activities & Entertainment
Durbuy itself maybe all prim-and-proper, but for a sizeable number of the tourists, who fill its campsites and caravan parks to bursting, this place is all about getting active – and just a little bit wild. The woods and hills around Durbuy are something of a gentle outdoors playground, for kids and adults alike. And the fun can actually start right in the centre of town: the River Ourthe provides a perfect venue for messing about on the water.
Kayaks, canoes and rafts can be hired, with some hire companies providing tuition. The river is perfect for beginners and old-hands alike, being both broad and shallow most of the time. But routes as long as 20 miles can be paddled, if you're feeling particularly adventurous (and fit). Then there are the endless possibilities presented by mountain bike hire.
As well as on-road exploration, there are MTB trails through some of the surrounding woodland and reserves, as well as specialist circuits. One of the best places for hitting the great outdoors is Durbuy Adventure, just outside town. This purpose-built outdoor activity centre has over 60 outdoor activities on water, land and air. As well as the inevitable canoeing, they provide facilities for quad-biking, abseiling, rock-climbing, zip-lining and even pot-holing or helicopter rides. And if you want something more kinetic, archery and rifle ranges can be hired – or full-velocity paint-ball combat engaged in.
If you want it a little more gentle, you could try letting the horse take the train – horse-riding lessons and treks can be arranged around Durbuy. And the town itself has a horse-drawn carriage for touring around the local sights. At the other end of the scale, if you're looking for a bit of a night-time dance-time scene, Durbuy does have one – as long as you're happy shaking along your groove in the only club in town.
B2B & Conferencing
It's a little out of the way, and a little on the small-side, but Durbuy actually has a lot going for it when it comes to those organising MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Events). This is a city that has honed hospitality to an art, with top-class hotels, top-notch restaurants and a meeting backdrop to die for. It's also not as far-flung as some of the 'deeper Ardennes' towns further south. And as a strapline for a meeting invite, 'come to the smallest city in the world' has a certain appeal.
Of course, the facilities in the locale aren't up to serving larger meet-ups and conferences – but the bigger four-star hotels can cover most medium-sized events. Le Sanglier des Ardennes has 14 meeting rooms, and can seat up to 150, while La Passerelle offers a friendly smaller alternative, geared towards the business-tourist. Many are also drawn here for the excellent 'extra-curricular' potential offered by the great outdoors. Activity centres in particular are superb for incentives,or team-building activities.
The local Durbuy MICE office is completely focussed on helping businesses to realise their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas. They can advise on the logistical side of organising meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations in Durbuy. They may even be able to help you find out the availability of venues, or to help get you discounted (or special) offers from gites, hotels, convention and activity centres – and to group-book restaurants.