One of the first images of Wallonian Belgium that I ever had the pleasure of seeing was of the town of Dinant. It was the classic view taken from across the river capturing Dinant’s iconic bridge, its famous onion domed Collegiate Church of Notre Dame de Dinant, and the dramatic limestone cliffs behind the town capped by Dinant’s citadel. I guarantee you every visitor to this beautiful town has this shot. At a time when my concept of Belgium was limited to Antwerp, Gent, Bruges, and Brussels, there was Dinant, simmering beneath the surface fueling my ever growing wanderlust.
The itsabrewtifulworld History of Dinant
So what of Dinant? With all due respect to Ypres, Dinant may be Belgium’s most often invaded and destroyed city. Things weren’t always bad though. During the 12th and early 13th century, Dinant had a thriving industry. They were famous for their copper and brass work which became known as “Dinanderie” all throughout the Netherlands.
Side note: Dinant is not the only city in Belgium which inspired a word related to goods produced by the city. The word “gauntlet” derives from Gent, and the word “diaper” comes from Ypres.
But everything went to Hell in a hand basket in 1272, all because of a most untimidating creature.
It wasn’t the poor oblivious cow’s fault though. During a jousting tournament in the town of Ardenne, a cow brought to the BBQ by a peasant just happened to be a prize cow stolen from a local bourgeois of Ciney. Unfortunately for the peasant and much to the dismay of the hungry spectators, the owner was there and recognized his cow. The owner requested the help of the bailiff of Ciney who was also attending. However, Ardenne was outside his jurisdiction. Assuming the peasant was from Ardenne and that local authorities would not dish out the justice demanded by the bourgeois owner, they escorted the peasant back to Ciney rather than notifying the bailiff of Ardenne. Once they crossed into Ciney territory, the peasant was hanged. Have to love those Middle Ages.
Then here’s the kicker, the peasant wasn’t from either town, but from another town called Jallet, and when the citizens of Jallet heard what happened, they were understandably pissed. Just so happens that Jallet and Ciney lie in two different rival regions of Belgium. Liege and Namur. And the dispute escalated into a six-year war between Liege and Namur that had to be stopped by the King of France.
So what does this have to do with Dinant? Well, the border between the regions of Liege and Namur happens to be the Meuse river which runs right smack in front of Dinant, with Dinant being on the Liege side. Dinant used the opportunity to pick a fight with their cross river rival, Bouvignes, who was in Namur territory. During the fog of war however, sneaky Bouvignes built a copper foundry and when the war ended, Dinant suddenly realized that their own ‘cash cow’ was in total jeopardy. Not only had Bouvignes started producing copper, a precious clay called derle which was needed to make the crucibles was only available on the Bouvignes side of the river. For the next 200 years, Dinant suffered from this economic disaster (presumably with Bouvignes laughing all the way to the bank) and they didn’t hide their frustration, making a general nuisance of themselves from time to time. The final humiliation came in 1466 when sick and tired of Dinant’s rebelliousness, the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold strolled into town, took 800 people, tied them in pairs, and drowned them all in the river. What a Good and Bold thing to do.
All because one damn peasant stole a cow.
Something that happened that long ago has little impact on us emotionally today. But I find the words written by American author and diplomat Isabel Anderson in 1915 to be the essence of why we should appreciate life and connect with the places we visit. These are the words that come to mind when I visit Dinant. Published in 1915 but based on travels in 1904-5.
“…we came down into the valley of the Meuse at Dinant, then one of the most picturesque places in Europe. Its palisades and striking cliff formations were crowned with ruined castles, like a miniature Rhine. The city has since been destroyed.”
– Spell of Belgium, Isabel Anderson 1915
This time the culprit was not a cow or a thief, but the invading German military at the onset of World War I. During occupation of the city in August 1914, a few German soldiers were found dead. Germans were most terrified of citizen snipers. So this lead to a violent retribution with the execution of 674 citizens of Dinant, and the city was torched and shelled with artillery, ironically from across the river at Bouvignes. Author George Wharton Edwards wrote this about the destruction of Dinant by the Germans:
“…there now remains but a dreary pile of bricks and ashes and half consumed charred beams, over which stands the ragged wall of the ruined tower of the old church reflected in the choked, swiftly running river. That is all that remains of Dinant, Queen of the Meuse. In all probability the town will not be rebuilt. It is not worthwhile.”
– Belgium Old & New, George Wharton Edwards 1920
Those are echoes that resonate with me.
Thank goodness no one listened to Edward’s opinion on what is worthwhile. Today Dinant has been restored to much of its former glory and looks much like it would have prior to World War I. It is a place that doesn’t take long to visit, but beckons you to grab a riverside table at one of the restaurants lining the river and just wile away the hours listening to those echoes with a cold beer.
And speaking of beer…
That’s the whole point of this post, right? I was getting to that.
For beer lovers, Dinant is the epicenter of a beer phenomenon that truly defines Belgium. The Abbey Beer.
It was here is 1952 that the first agreement between a commercial brewery and an abbey occurred where a brewery would make a beer and licence the name from an abbey. You’ve all heard of it.
The abbey still exists and is just up the road from the center of Dinant. Like most monasteries of the middle ages, it brewed its own beer. How much of the current recipe of Leffe can be attributed to the 13th century version is obscured, in my opinion, by crafty marketing. Nevertheless, I love the rich flavors of abbey beers and nothing…. I mean NOTHING makes a beer look more delicious than a stained glass window or a monk on the label.
There is a Leffe museum in Dinant, called Maison Leffe, which I am sure does a good job of explaining the story of Leffe. It was nearing closing time during my last visit so it still remains on my to-do list.
In Dinant, you don’t have to go too far to witness the impact that that commercial agreement had on other fiscally-shrewd monks in Belgium. A short bike ride away in the beautiful rolling hills on the Bouvignes side of the Meuse is another well known abbey with its own commercially-licenced abbey beer. The Abbaye de Maredsous. You might say that the rivalry between the Dinant side and the Bouvignes side of the Meuse continues on to this day as Leffe and Maredsous are brewed by the top two breweries in Belgium. Leffe by InBev at the Stella Artois brewery and Maredsous by Duvel Moortgat.
And speaking of bike ride, you must already see the amazing potential of a beer and bike ride in this region. I have to say that as my fingers are tapping away at my keyboard, I consider this to be an all-time great. A top 2 beer and bike ride ranking up there with the Ypres Salient & Westvleteren ride. And those are not the only Dionysian highlights!
Beer & Bike Details
- Starting Point: Leffe Abbey
- Ending Point: Leffe Abbey
- Distance: 49,3 km
- Moving Time: 3 hrs 19 mins
- Eating Place: Maredsous Abbey
This ride is not especially long; quite short actually for experienced road cyclists, but it will test your legs and stamina on a few of the monstrosities called hills. But this is all returned in kind with a long downhill section of over 15km along the Ravel, a former rail line. Of course this section is only downhill if you do the loop in a clockwise direction like I did.
Almost immediately on the bike ride you will meet Dinant’s famous rival. Today, Bouvignes is a tiny hamlet with very little to offer for tourism except the feeling of being whisked away to the distant past. For beauty and touristic pleasure, Dinant wins this rivalry hands down. It is still possible to visit the ruins of the Crèvecoeur Castle which was built during the peak of the rivalry. But on this ride, I only got a small glimpse from the village.
From Bouvignes, there is no time for a warm-up as you take on the second highest hill on the ride. At the top though are warm, pleasant views of the farmland plateau including some cows who just might be descendants of the famous Cow of Ciney.
After the peaceful farmlands, the village of Falaën with its fortified farmhouse comes into view. It is a great place to stop for a quick breather and really soak in the time warp.
A bit later on the ride, you arrive at Maredsous’ sister abbey Maredret, the home of Benedictine nuns since 1893.
A short distance from there is the next highlight.
You will be forgiven if you feel a bit disappointed to find out that Maredsous Abbey is actually not all that old. It was finished in 1892. Most abbeys in Belgium are not all that old thanks to the French Revolution. Many abbeys, like Leffe, had to shut down or were destroyed, and if they were lucky, they became revived in the 19th century. Maredsous was started from scratch in 1872 so there was never any long history, particular of beer making.
But Maredsous does something better than maybe any other Belgian abbey and that is open its arms to the visitor. With a nice cafe/restaurant/terrace, well stocked gift shop, and guided tours, it really is an immersive experience into the world of Maredsous. Maredsous serves up its delicious beer in clay goblets and while the beer isn’t made onsite, the Maredsous cheese is. Grab a table on the sunny terrace and enjoy the holy atmosphere. Afterwards, stumble over to the church which could be Belgium’s answer to Hogwarts.
Shortly after leaving Maredsous, you will find yourself entering the Ravel bikepath. Get ready for the longest and almost uninterrupted downhill ride that I can remember. I say almost because spring storms knocked a few trees down across the path and they have not all been cleared as I publish this. So once in a while, you may have to lift your bike over or duck under a tree. However don’t let that stop you.
Along the Ravel, there are a few nices things to see. The cute village of Sosoye, the ruins of the Château fort de Montaigle, and a couple railbike stations. However, it was this little stop that appealed most to my Dionysian interests.
Near the Ferme de l’ Abbaye de Moulins was this small family vineyard honesty shop where you could pull a cold bottle of their wine from the fridge and pour yourself a cup. Two euros per cup, six euros per bottle. Didn’t have room in my backpack for a bottle so I opted for the cup. First Belgian wine I have ever tried.
So with a little buzz, it was back on the bike and back to the Meuse river. There was one final leg and highlight to go, but it meant the longest climb of the day and the only red section on the elevation profile of the entire ride. The hill was a beast. But the rewards were great. The next highlight.
Brasserie du Bocq
Brasserie du Bocq is a family brewery tucked away in the village of Purnode. But they are definitely a major player in commercial Belgian beer production. This is the home of Corsendonk, Gauloise, Deugniet, and Blanche de Namur. There is a nice tasting cafe and terrace and the tour is also informative. I don’t normally prefer Belgian witbier, but on a sunny bike ride, the Blanche de Namur hit the spot.
It was here that I first learned of the duality of some Belgian beers. In order to market a beer to both the Flemish and French parts of Belgium, it is sometimes preferred to use a different name for each market. Such is the case for Deugniet (“naughty boy”) which is the name used in the Flemish part of Belgium. But when it is sold to the Wallonian market, it is called Triple Moine (“Monk”). I definitely enjoyed this duality while writing this post.
At this point it is primarily a downhill ride to the end of the tour which brings us back to the beginning and to the final highlight.
Started in 1152, Leffe Abbey has a history much like its neighbor Dinant. It has been destroyed by fire, flood, war, and the French Revolution. It was brewing beer as recently as 1735, but a 100 year sabbatical due to the French Revolution ended that tradition. The abbey has been operating again since 1902 and the fate of thirsty beer lovers was changed forever in 1952 with that ingenious marketing contract. It is not possible to visit the abbey but it is possible to have a look around some of the grounds. There is a path leading up behind the abbey which eventually climbs up to the fortress.
So there you have it. All I have to say is get out and do it. To even make this even more enjoyable, I’d recommend spending the weekend. I have done this by camping along the river at a nice campground just outside the city where you can keep you eye on Bouvignes across the river. There are a lot of other activities to do in the area such as kayaking, visiting nearby caves, and of course other bike rides or scenic drives. Every village seems to be tailor-made for postcards. And not so far from Dinant is the village of Ciney who, because of a stolen cow, changed Dinant’s fate forever. Ciney has a beer named after them and it is still on my list for a future beer and bike ride. The possibilities seem endless here in Belgium. Even after living here seven years, there are reasons to continually satisfy my Dionysian wanderlust.