We were warned to avoid Brussels, not much due to any inherent lack of safety, though. Indeed the city was attacked mere weeks before our arrival in Belgium, but the advice Teresa and I received to avoid it altogether was more in regards to the heavy security and congestion we would be likely to face as a result. With a limited temporal window before our flight out from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, we followed the advice we received from family, friends, and even the rental car agent and circumvented the city on our way down from Bruges.
Driving on major highways is insane in Belgium (and Germany’s autobahn for that matter). If you’re new to driving in this region of the world, perhaps it’s advisable to avoid the left lane entirely. Despite blazing down the road at over 150 km/h, I was still getting honked at and flipped off by local drivers tailing me hard. Some of the cars must have been reaching close to 200 km/h. I don’t know how more accidents don’t occur, but I have heard people say that this lack of a speed limit is somehow safer. I’ll believe it when I see the numbers.
It wasn’t too long until we arrived in Dinant, a beautiful riverside town nestled in the gorge of high surrounding hills and characterized by a black-topped citadel well known for its Imperial German Army occupation during the First World War. I had booked a B&B-type spot a few kilometres south of town, in a little community called Anseremme. It’s called Auberge Grill le Freyr. We arrived around noon which was a little too early for the owner so we headed into town to kill some time before checking in.
The road entrance to Dinant’s centre is encased in an arch-like rock formation. The town itself has some similar characteristics to a town like Bruges with the tight cobblestoned streets and wall to wall Old World architecture. We drove a little past the city and found a small park next to the Meuse River that snakes through Dinant and down into France (actually it technically begins in France and works its way into Belgium and the Netherlands before emptying into the North Sea). The riverside provides some beautiful rural scenery, although the winds are fairly high and it was a bit difficult to stay warm.
We headed back to the opposite edge of Dinant, back towards our B&B but first stopping at a bar on the edge of town, right after the stone archway that serves as the southern entrance point to the small city. Here, we tried some excellent Belgian Chimay beer. Teresa opted for Chimay Brun and I got Chimay Bleu, 7% and 9% alcohol content, respectively. They were both excellent and poured beautifully into the labelled glass. With a great view of town, the river, and the massive bridge extending above and across town from so high up it was a perfect way to relax for a good hour before finally heading back to Auberge to drop off our belongings and check out our new accommodation.
At the time, we were the only guests staying here and were treated to the largest room in the house/building. It extended for an entire side of the second floor and we knew instantly that this would be one of the nicest rooms we’d be inhabiting on our journey. There was so much space, a nice big bed, sunshine coming in from almost every angle, and a massive almost maze-like washroom. It was hard to leave Auberge after only two days.
That evening, we treated ourselves to one of the various tapas restaurants in Dinant. We’d been seeing tapas in Bruges and Amsterdam as well and finally decided to give it a try. It’s called Coin a Tapas and the servers were very friendly and helpful when it came to guiding us through the menu. We didn’t eat too much, though, deciding to give it a rest for once and soon headed back to our room for a peaceful sleep.
The next morning, we chose to enjoy some of Belgium’s rural offerings. After an excellent, well-rounded breakfast of croissants, cheese, deli meat, jams, egg, juice, and coffee we drove less than ten minutes away, a little deeper into the surrounding farmland. We found a place to park our Suzuki that would take us hiking through a small forested area and then out into the verdant rolling hills that characterize southern Belgium.
The greens simply pop, even on the dull cloudy day that it was. The fields are so spanning that whatever little sunlight was available was easy to spot as the clouds worked their way quickly across the sky, creating these epic sweeping shadows that rolled across the land. Teresa and I would run to the sunny spots as much as possible while doing our best to turn our back to the gusting wind.
We walked along the road into a little town called Dréhance. Here, we noticed a few stables where horseback riding was available, as well as a bicycle rental shop. It was a little surprising to find considering the town seemed almost entirely deserted save a few horseback riders who were setting off as we approached.
We made a few twists and turns through town before emerging into some massive fields again, finally looping back around and heading back to our Suzuki after a couple of hours of early morning walking.
Originally, I wanted to come to this part of Belgium in order to hike the Ardennes, a stretch of forest that begins in France and sweeps into Belgium, Luxembourg, and reaches as far as western Germany. We didn’t really make it to any forested areas (just yet) but the agricultural landscape was beyond rewarding and something different compared to the kind of walks we were used to. Again, these types of verdant fields reminded me of my relatively short stay in New Zealand, particularly when Teresa and I drove out of Auckland to Matamata to visit the farmland that was transformed into Hobbiton for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. It’s simply stunning and it seems like it goes on forever. Another example of my yearning for this is in the beginning of the movie Inglorious Basterds when a Nazi lieutenant drives into rural France in search of a farm where Jewish refugees may be in hiding. Despite the solemn, dark content, the land itself looked absolutely stunning, standing out in my mind as the kind of place I must visit. Southern Belgium is almost exactly like it and our journey through this rural gateway to the Ardennes was highly rewarding for us.
Later on, we would discover more of the town itself, the citadel, and learn of some it’s more violent, sobering history.