You might be forgiven for thinking that Namur (Namen to some, Nameur to others), the picture-postcard perfect capital of French-speaking Wallonia, has something of an image problem with its neighbours. 'Too posh and too slow', would probably sum it up. Too posh because geography didn't gift Namur with the coal and iron that drove the other Walloon cities to become working-class bastions of the Industrial Age.
Too slow, because the Namurois (or Chwès, as they like to call themselves) are an easy-going lot, both in life and language. They speak in a notoriously long, slow meander, enough to rival the broad River Meuse that the city sits on.
But one thing geography has gifted Namur is one the most dramatic of settings in all of Wallonia. The towering cliffs of the 'Grognon' - a limestone massif pinched between the rivers Meuse and Sambre - proudly looks out over the rolling plains to the north.
It's a landscape that shouts 'military advantage'. And that's exactly what everyone, from the Celts to the Romans to the Belgians saw too, giving Namur a 2,000 year long history in fort-building and siege-breaking. This small picturesque city of 107,000 has managed to neutralize that 'slow' tag, over the years, embracing it to make it its own.
The snail is now the city's emblem, and also provides its signature dish: les petit-gris de Namur. And while Namur remains an up-market sort of town (especially since it became the capital of Wallonia in 1986) there's plenty to celebrate in that.
The old town is dotted with beautifully presented Gothic and Baroque monuments, and lovingly-preserved Art Deco streets. The local foods are exquisite, served in some wonderfully imaginative restaurants. And the beer? Well let's just name-drop Rochefort, whose enigmatic monk-brewers are just an afternoon's drive south of Namur.
Namur's story actually starts rather early on, even for Belgian's history-steeped cities. And especially so for its dogs. That's because it just so happens that the inhabitants of the limestone caves, lying to the west of this city, were the first people known to have domesticated wolves. Canine remains found in these inhabited caves date back to over 31,000 years ago.
But the first actual scribbles of history about the area date back to the Iron Age. That's when the Romans noted that Oppidum Atuatucorum, the capital of the Atuatuci tribe, was located here. It was reckoned to be one of the largest fortifications in Europe at the time. The Romans eventually made it their own, after defeating the Celtic Atuatuci in the Battle of the Sabis in 57 BC. The inhabitants of the settlement below the Roman fort remained Gauls, although Franks were also settled in the area by the Romans. It was the Gauls who gave Namur its name, as the settlement was first named after a local god, Nam.
When they converted to Christianity, the bishop banned them from worshipping the old god, making Nam mute. In Latin that was 'nam mutus', a name which eventually became 'Namur'. A nice little story, one which might even be true. When the Roman Empire retreated south, as the Dark Ages gathered, the Germanic tribes moved in. The Merovingian kings built their own fort here in the 7th-century. By the 10th-century, Namur was its own county, but in 1261 fell to the Count of Flanders.
Given its strategic location – as one of the few crossings to the riches of the Flanders cities of Bruges, Ghent and Brussels – as well as to its powerful fort, the next few centuries saw Namur become a stopping over point for a succession of armies. Surprisingly, though, its next change of ownership was peaceful, as the Duke of Burgundy purchased the city from the Count of Flanders in 1421. By the 16th-century, Namur was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish strengthened the fort, completing the encircling city walls that are still visible today.
The next to tussle over Namur were the French, under the Sun King, Louis XIV. They captured the town in 1692, after a month-long siege. The Dutch returned the favour a few years later in 1695 – as part of the war of the Grand Alliance – taking back the city after another siege. Somewhat confusingly the Dutch were allowed to keep troops here, but the actual rule of the land passed on to the Austrian Hapsburgs, in 1713.
The French returned in 1794, their armies riding in on the crest of the wave in the years after the French Revolution. But they were not looked on kindly by the locals. When the French were finally kicked out, following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Namur became part of, first, the United Kingdom of Netherlands, and then of the newly-risen Belgian nation, in 1830.
Peace reigned for nearly 100 years, but the Germans were to shatter that in the 20th-century. Three major battles hit the city hard: the 1914 German invasion of the First World War, the 1940 Battle of the Ardennes, and the 1944 Battle of the Bulge (the last two in the Second World War). Namur was left pretty battered. Thankfully, today its days as a fighting citadel city appear to have drawn to a close.
Getting There & Getting About
Namur lies pretty much in the centre of Belgium, giving the would-be visitor a rather long list of options for getting here. Perhaps the simplest approach to take, whether flying, driving or 'railing in', is to aim for Brussels (which is 45 miles to the north) and then head south. So if you're flying, land at Brussels Airport, and then get the train into Brussels, and onto Namur (which takes a little over an hour, including changes),
On the railways, a Eurostar train to Brussels takes 2 hours from London. You can then take the same regional line from Brussels down to Namur. Or, if you don't mind bypassing Brussels, you can take the Eurostar to Paris, and then the Thalys high-speed bullet train from Paris straight to Namur. That only takes two-and-a-half hours, but the number of trains is limited – just two a day. Driving from the Channel coast can also be done the 'French way' – via the E42/A25 from Dunkirk to Lille – but you do stand a chance of getting snarled in Lille.
There's a fair amount of road-switching, before you can hook up with the E19/A15 that runs into Namur. If that doesn't appeal, go the Brussels E40/A10 route from Oostende, coming off the Brussels ring-road onto the E411/A4.
Namur isn't the simplest of cities to navigate by car, as there are many pedestrianized streets. But as the most interesting slice of Namur is squeezed tightly around the river, this a city that can be easily seen on foot.
Public transport is an option, with a reasonable bus service. But its not as well-served as the bigger cities. Cycling can also be an option, but with the twin hassles of an abundance of cobbled streets and some steep hills, many (including the locals) seem to avoid going pedal-powered. But if you're up for a challenge, mountain-biking up and around the massive Citadel complex is one of the best ways to see this defining Namur attraction.
Namur itself has a somewhat limited selection of hotels, with only a dozen or so within the city proper. There are a couple of four-star hotels (one of which, the Château de Namur, is a spectacular example of everything a Château should be) and a smattering of three-stars. But for a town that is the capital of Wallonia, there's perhaps less choice than you might expect. Stretch your horizons out a few miles, though, and things look better.
You'll find a large number of interesting and attractive small hotels and B&B's, set in some very pretty locations along the Meuse. There are also a great many cottages and farmhouses for rent in the rolling hills and woods around Namur.
If your budget is tight, the town does have a great youth hostel, the Auberge de Jeunesse de Namur. It is a quirky building, plunked on the left bank of the Meuse, and sleeping over 100. The good news is that the Citadel is right on your doorstep. The bad news is that it is a bit of a long trek into old-town Namur, back across the Sambre.
There is also a scatter of camp-sites within a few miles of Namur, for those inclined for a canvas or caravan roof. The closest is at Camping Des Trieux. This lies on the edge of the woods of Bois de la Vecquee, again close to the Citadel. A more luxurious camping experience can be had at Le Pechy, in Fosses-la-Ville. This has an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, a paddling pool, a miniature-golf course and several tennis courts... and no doubt a kitchen sink too.
For The Love Of Beer
Namur has the distinction of being the city closest to the monastery of Abbaye Notre Dame de St.Remy – better known as the brewers of the well-loved Trappist Rochefort ales. But don't jump in the car or hop onto the bus straight to Rochefort. Like several other Trappist monasteries, the monks of Abbaye Notre Dame de St.Remy aren't particularly interested in retail outlets, or providing 'authentic' tours of their brewing operations.
And in fact Namur provides as good a backdrop for supping the Rocheforts as the abbey itself. The bottle-conditioned beers the monks produce – the Rochefort trio of the 6 Red Cap, the 8 Green Cap and the 10 Blue Cap – are praised by many for their simple, honest approach to ale-making. No overwrought complexity or flashy fireworks here – just fine ingredients brewed to perfection to produce exquisitely balanced and drinkable beers.
The 6 (7.5% ABV) is a coppery, light, and slightly dry, ale; the 8 (9.2%) is darker, earthier beer which brings dates and figs to the palate; while the 10 (11.3%) is darker still, and hauls a veritable fruit-cake experience to your taste-buds.
The Rochefort 10 in particular is highly-rated, regularly earning awards and places in 'best in the world' lists. But Namur isn't just about the Rochefort. There are some excellent breweries scattered all around the Condoz countryside that Namur lies in.
One is the Brasserie du Bocq, which lies 15 miles south in Purnode. This family brewery is housed in an old farmhouse, and has been dispensing beer since 1858. Their top-fermented brown La Gauloise, which is fast approaching a century of being brewed and drunk. This is a brewery, however, that doesn't let tradition hold it back, with no less than 11 beers on its brewing sheet – including the witbier Blanche de Namur (4.5%ABV).
A light, citrus top-fermented beer, this is one that's best served with its yeast 'in'. Just pour out half the bottle into a glass, then swirl the bottle to kick up the sediment, and mix. You'll get the full yeasty scent and cloudy body of this very Namurois tipple.
The town itself may be devoid of breweries, but it does its part in keeping the local breweries in business. And it also plays a role in keeping the region's beer heritage alive, too. The Museum of Belgian Beers is close-by, presenting an eclectic collection of beer bottles and glasses (numbering over 15,000 at last count) as well as beer-mats, flags, and poster adverts for Belgian beers across the ages.
Food & Gastronomy
Namur has developed something of a reputation as a real treat for the professional gourmand, especially because of its many small artisanal food suppliers, with their respect for terroir and seasonality. So 'slow food' is definitely on the menu in the city of the snail. And the snail naturally forms the essential ingredient for one of Namur's signature dishes – les petit-gris de Namur.
This puff pastry dish – filled with what are reputed to be the juiciest and tastiest snails in all Belgium – is cooked using a creamy garlic sauce.
Many of these 'caracole' are sourced from the Escargotiere de Warnat, 5 miles south along the Meuse, which might just be worth a visit, if shelled molluscs are your thing. The local restaurants serve everything from hearty food from the Ardennes – which is all about the meat, with wild boar and smoky ham dishes, like the jambon entire – to organic, gluten-free vegetarian dishes, like pepper and tofu brochettes (kebabs).
One common theme is the creamy tomato and onion Sambre et Meuse sauce, a recipe first cooked up locally. And fresh fish from the Meuse have always been part of the Namurois diet, with daube de truite en escavèche à la Namuroise (marinated trout) being particularly favoured.
Those with a taste for the sweet-side of cuisine won't be disappointed in Namur either. There are several fine chocolatiers and pâtissiers here. But perhaps none are more respected (and venerable) than La Maison des Desserts, owned by Etienne de Hucorne. Housed in one of the more ancient buildings in central Namur, its melt-in-mouth tarts and chocolate cupcakes are piled high. But Monsieur de Hucorne's crowning glory is the Biétrumé de Namur, a soft caramel toffee laden with hazelnuts and chocolate, which is hand-made according to his own family's recipe.
Finally, no visit to Namur is complete without tasting – and possibly visiting – the products and producers of Wepion, Belgium's strawberry capital which is only a stone's throw from Namur.
Strawberry jams and jellies find their way onto all manner of foodstuffs here, and even into a strawberry-infused liquer (and a strawberry-flavoured beer, La Wepionaise). A visit to the Musee de la Fraise in Weipon should satisfy all of your soft-fruit cravings.
Shopping & Markets
With over 300 small shops, Namur is a town that is proud to say 'small is beautiful', especially when it comes to retail. Some of the best boutiques and craft stores are to be found in the narrow pedestrian streets of the old town, pressed against the Sambre on the north-side of the Meuse. The main shopping thorough-fares are defined by the four avenues – the Rue de Fer, the Rue de l'Ange, the Rue Emile Cuvelier and the Rue de Bruxelles – which the Namurois like to call their 'open sky shopping mall'.
Of course, these routes are crowded with brand-name stores, but deeper in, the old town has its fair share of foodie-shops: from cheese shops and charcuterie, to patisseries, chocolatiers and purveyors of jams, compotes and juices (the famous fruit producer Materne-Confilux is based in nearby Floreffe).
Namur does vibrant open-air markets pretty well, too, with Saturday being the best day to catch stalls selling all manner of fresh local produce. The city also hosts markets during an organic and environmentally-friendly month – the Salon Valériane de Namur – which runs from the beginning of August to the first week in September. And water-colourists the world over flock to Namur, paintings in tow, for the International Watercolour Biennial, when the city becomes European watercolour capital for 2 weeks.
Sightseeing & Culture
As a visitor to Namur, one of the things that simply has to be 'done' is a visit to the Citadel. And let us point out that this is non-negotiable – it's simply one of those unwritten rules of entry to the town. Which is only fair. Namur pretty much owes its existence to the succession of forts, castles, walls and turrets laid out on this massive hulk of limestone.
Perhaps the best place to start your trek up onto the top of the Citadel is at the Rue du Grognon end. This is the side that shows the walls and turrets off to the best effect.
And once you've ascended up the slope here, you'll be rewarded with stunning views back across the town, and down the Meuse valley. The complex behind the main forward fortifications is vast, stretching back almost a mile, and there's plenty to explore (Napoleon didn't call it a termite's nest for nothing). So you could easily put in a day or more to the effort.
One of the more unusual things to do on-site is to visit the Guy Delforge Perfumery, nestled in the Citadel's tunnels. This scent workshop, run by a maestro of the arts of perfumery, is open to the public.
Allegedly the caves have been used for perfume-making since Charles V, and the guided tour, detailing the full perfume production process, will be 'a veritable orchestra of scents'.
From the top of the Citadel, the stand-out monument looking back down into Namur is a tall domed cathedral – St. Aubin's Cathedral. This is a pretty late entry for a cathedral, by Belgian standards, as it was only completed in 1767. But it is very striking, successfully blending Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical styles into an imposing building. It also has a claim to fame as the last resting place of the heart of Don Juan, the Austrian Hapsburg governor of the Spanish Netherlands, who died here in 1578.
Moving away from the religious and spiritual, to the earthier side of the spectrum, Namur is also home to a museum dedicated to a famous 19th-century erotic artist – Félicien Rops.
He was born in the town, but moved to Brussels, and then Paris, eventually becoming infamous for his provocative drawings on sex, death and Satan. So for those of an artistic bent, the Musée Félicien Rops will be a definite draw. This one is only for over 18's only, though, we have to note.
Activities & Entertainment
The nightlife of Namur is sedate, rather than scintillating (this is the 'snail city' after all). What entertainment there is tends to be geared towards the small student community. Which isn’t to say there isn’t a good time to be had in the jazz bars and pubs of the city’s streets. But this is no Antwerp or Brussels.
As the capital city of Wallonia, though, Namur does host a fair number of good-time festivals, banging the drum of Walloon culture. The most important is the Fêtes de Wallonie, held on the third weekend of September every year.
The special theme of this festival is conviviality – that is to say plenty of drinking and making merry. And then drinking some more. Beer obviously features in these three days of street-partying, but more as a side-show. The centre stage is reserved for the local beverage peket, a gin-like spirit which the Walloons have a pretty good claim for having invented. It all ends with a big bang, when a massive firework extravaganza is launched from the Citadel, showering a cascade of sparks into the Meuse.
Another Wallonian calendar oddity, staged in parallel to the Fêtes de Wallonie, is the Combat de l'Échasse d 'Or or the Fight of the Golden Stilt. Grown men, dressed in medieval costume, walking on stilts and engaged in combat in the city's main square – what's not to love?
The two teams, the Mélans and the Avresses – representing the 'Old Town' and 'New Town' respectively – stilt around furiously, as they seek to topple the other by means fair or foul. The tradition is though to go back to the 14th-century, but it's still a great spectacle even in the 21st.
If you're looking a little slice of high-stakes gaming, then Namur also has its own casino – so you can play at being a playboy. It's tucked into one side of the Hotel Beauregard, and while it's not exactly Las Vegas, it sucessfully doubles as a glamourous entertainment venue. Namur also hosts events as diverse as the Verdur Rock Festival, the Namur International Festival of French-Speaking Film and Nam'in'Jazz, which, as you might guess, is a jazz festival.
B2B & Conferencing
Although it was for a long-time a relatively small-time city, Namur's status as the capital of Wallonia has seen it play catch up, in the business-entertainment and conference-hosting scene. And its prime card, in attracting those sorts of visitors, is its undisputed prettiness – not to mention the very 'bourgeois' tag that other Walloon city's have used to put Namur down. It may be posh, but Namur knows how to do classy.
The venues are a classy bunch too, ranging from the sleek, modern efficiency of Burogest Park, to the crinkled charm of the old Arsenal. One of the most dramatic venues for meetings is the four-star hotel Château de Namur, which sits right on top of the 'Grognon' hill, next to the Citadel.
The hotel has four seminar rooms for larger presentations, plus one large meeting, and several small meeting rooms. And it has spectacular views over Namur from its a rooftop terrace. The local Namur MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city.
It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Namur will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.