Published: 28/07/2017 10:09 - Updated: 28/07/2017 11:41

To Belgium by train all the way

Written byRon Smith, travel writer

Flying anywhere has become very tedious – you can’t carry this or that, you are X-rayed, searched, stood in corridors, crammed into tiny seats – I began to wonder what it would be like to travel calm and relaxed – and the answer was by train.

 

We set off for Belgium from Keith on the late afternoon train to Inverness. Once there, you exit the station and cross the road to the Caledonian Lounge. This is a classy oasis of calm and style. The steward checked our tickets and showed us in to 5 star luxury. There was a buffet, you help yourself, and the food is all local Scottish products, biscuits, cheese, crisps, everything. There was a range of Tomatin whisky of various ages, including a cask strength one (and you can help yourself!!!) plus wine (not Scottish of course, about the only thing that wasn’t) beer, soft drinks, tea and coffee, unbelievable.

We then trundled back across the road to the train. None of the hassle of ticket barriers that Scotrail inflict on us. The platform was open, and the dark blue romantic train stretched away down the platform into the gathering gloom of the evening. At the door of our coach the attendant was waiting. He was dressed in Harris Tweed, overcoat, suit, everything. He took our order for breakfast and showed us to our cabin.

The statue of Adolph Sax outside the museum on the main street of Dinant
The statue of Adolph Sax outside the museum on the main street of Dinant

After breakfast, we arrived in Euston. It is a 6 minutes stroll down the road to take the Eurostar train to Brussels.  Being early in the morning, the shopping centre with tracks above it that is St. Pancras International was not so hectic, and again strolling through it all was relaxing – and I had my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket all the time, and we carried water as well. It is all so civilised.

These rains are so smooth and quiet, it shows what can be done if we spend enough money on rail infrastructure! The passage through the Channel Tunnel actually went unnoticed by us, and soon we were charging through France and Belgium at some great high speed, before slowing to wriggle our way into Brussels Midi (which means South) station. For customs purposes, our international train goes into a special set of tracks fenced off from Belgium, and you slowly go through the formalities and out into the busy part of the station. We had a little time to wait before going to the platform for our train on to Dinant. These are hourly trains so you do not have to wait long, nor worry if there are delays – you can always take the next one!

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The view across the river Meuse of the Collegiate Church and the citadel above it

The view across the river Meuse of the Collegiate Church and the citadel above it

Belgium from the coast to Brussels is as flat as a pancake, and many folk think all the country is flat, but as we neared our destination we were running through wooded hills and river valleys, really bonny country.

Arriving at Dinant was stepping out into another world. Such a contrast to the hustle and bustle of London and Brussels. For the last bit of the run, our smart Belgian train had been following the wide brown river Meuse. The town, population of around 13,500 people, is split by the river. Looking across to the other side you are caught by the classic view of Dinant, as used in many railway posters over the years. There is a sharp steep cliff, with a massive fortress on top. Immediately below this, squeezed onto a narrow shelf by the river is the magnificent collegiate church of Our Lady, and colourful houses stretching all along the bank of the Meuse. We were so relaxed that we couldn’t be bothered searching for our hotel, so jumped into a taxi which took us to our hotel in no time, costing just 5 Euros. The Ibis hotel is almost new, well situated on the banks of the river, great views, very helpful staff, and good food too – what more could you ask for?

The statue that commemorates the Confrerie (association) who keep alive the tradition of the Flamische cake
The statue that commemorates the Confrerie (association) who keep alive the tradition of the Flamische cake

The next day we explored Dinant with a walking guide. He was a fount of knowledge. Before it was tamed with canalisation, weirs, locks, and so on, the Meuse was a dangerous river, but vital for communication. At Dinant, with the cliffs of the hills coming so close to the river, there was a ford, and it is believed the Romans even built a bridge here. This prompted the growth of the town, and the massive fortifications to enforce the tolls for river traffic which added to the income of the town. Between the two world wars Dinant was very popular with tourists, brought by the railway from France and Germany as well as from the UK. Many large houses today were formerly hotels.

There are tourist boats to give trips up and down the river, a cable car to take you up to the fortress, which is worth exploring, (you can walk up by the 408 steps if you are feeling fit) and many attractive tea rooms, cafes and shops. Everywhere you go you come across giant saxophones. The bridge connecting the two halves of the town has saxophones along each side, and they are everywhere. This is because Adolphe Sax, the inventor of this as well as many weird and wonderful wind instruments that never caught on, was born here. In what was a shop on the Rue Grande there is now a Sax museum. A bronze life sized statue of Adolphe sits on a bench outside, with space next to him for you to have your photo taken with the great man. The Museum is open all the time, free, and interactive.

There are several empty shops in the Rue Grande, the main shopping street, but these have had vinyls covering the windows. These pictures show famous Belgian inventors – I never knew there were so many, asphalt, electric trams, steam engine developments, and so on. This is a good way of disguising the empty shops.

The Chateau Freyr, now with the front wall removed to allow more light into the courtyard
The Chateau Freyr, now with the front wall removed to allow more light into the courtyard

The big Collegiate Church of Our Lady is well worth a visit. It has such history. It was built between 1,000 and 1200, in stages, and has suffered fire, wars, and destruction by part of the cliff face falling onto it. It has had several rebuildings, including after being partially destroyed by the Germans in the First World War. The famous onion dome was eventually replaced, and the Carillion of bells only finally replaced in 2014. There is an “English” chapel inside, as a lot of money was raised in the UK to help with the rebuilding. There is a magnificent stained glass window and some monumental brass candle sticks, at least 6 feet high. These are examples of “Dinanterie” – brass working has been carried on here for centuries, and still is today.

When the Germans arrived here in August 1914 they destroyed most of the town, and massacred 674 civilians. This wholesale slaughter is marked by several memorials around the town, on both sides of the river, it was an awful atrocity.

There is the “Marvellous Grottos” to explore. These are a system of 3 caves, linked by stairways around 80 metres deep in the side of the hill opposite the fortress. They are very accessible and very popular to visit. Prominent at Dinant are references to Leffe – this was a famous brewery, there are some big buildings and an Abbey with that name, and a stream that runs down into the Meuse, but the beer is not brewed in Dinant any more. One beer that I did come across was Duvel. It is good beer. Belgium is justifiably famous for excellent beer – but Duvel claim that their beer is exceptionally good as it uses yeast from the Highlands of Scotland! This is explained on a beer mat that shows Nessie in a beer bottle! That was unexpected.

The Town Hall, seen from the WW1 memorial
The Town Hall, seen from the WW1 memorial

One wonderful local speciality is “Couques de Dinant”. These are biscuits that range in size from a saucer up to, and normally, a full sized salmon! They are known as “dentist’s friend” as they are so hard they break your teeth. They must be the only biscuits that carry a warning that you must not bite them. They are made from an old recipe from when there was only flour and honey available. They are so hard they say that you can keep them for 10 years and they will still not go soft. You eat them by dunking, or by breaking bits off and letting them melt on your tongue. One of the remaining original makers is Patisserie Jacobs on the Rue Grande. They also have a café behind the shop part, and you can also have a tour of the bakery behind that and see how the pastry is still hand pressed into pear wood moulds.

Another speciality is “Flamiche”. It is said that a lady was walking along with a basket of eggs and flour and fell over, breaking the eggs. She rushed into a nearby bakers are salvaged what she could, the result being the Flamiche cheese pie, which is delicious. There is even a “Confrerie” of locals dedicated to carrying on the tradition of the Flamiche…although whether they still fall over carrying the ingredients I do not know.

Dinant is one of those lovely places to discover. There is the Bethlehem old convent, walks along the crest of the hill from the fortress to castle remains and chateaux to explore (and also an Ostrich farm open to visitors too!)  You can take a boat trip up the river a little to the “Castle” (more like a big chateau) of Freÿr. This has magnificent gardens, and once derived its income from taxing passing boats and also guarded a ford. When the French arrived they destroyed it, but around 1571 it was rebuilt. Then a new generation of owner decided to demolish one side of the square building to let the sun shine in, so the current building, open to the public, has some odd bitties and shapes.

One of the many war memorials dotted around Dinant
One of the many war memorials dotted around Dinant

 

There are many camping sites, hotels, guest houses and hostels, our Ibis Hotel  is very well situated, very close to the Casino, and also to the old prison – so be sure to pay your gambling debts! Touring around the local area would be good fun too; there really is something for everyone here.

We left Dinant reluctantly; we would have liked to spend more time here, but had planned to move on to Spa – the word “Spa” comes from this Belgian town, which was the first Spa in the world. We walked over the saxophone bridge to the station, and the modern smooth train took us back along the Meuse and off to Namur…..that is another story, and the next article will tell you all about our adventures there.

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