There is always an element of mystery when hiking in Europe. It seems as if in its hallowed forests and winding river valleys that rocks are not just rocks, trees are not just trees. Nothing is truly as it appears because every thread of it is weaved in both history and legend. Legend and history. The difference often indistinguishable. History resides in the mind, but legend in the heart. A legend is not always something historically untrue. But if the heart recites the legend enough, it becomes as true to the mind as the simple rocks and trees standing in front of you. History enlightens, but it is the legends that draw us like magnets to the places of the world and the places of the heart. Who of us revisits our own past for the history? No, it is for the legends. The legends that flourish from our hearts recalling the moments it wants to relive again and again.
As I walked along the bank of the Amblève river near Aywaille, Belgium, perhaps my senses were absorbed in one of my own legends, otherwise I might have heard the distant thunder of a giant magical horse galloping by, carrying four men, leaping from river bank to river bank or the clamor of soldiers from Charlemagne’s army in hot pursuit. But only the peaceful din of the Amblève and the December wind filled my ears. However, at the upcoming curve in the river stood a tall cliff of exposed rock, crowned by an erect but crumbling tower, open towards the river like the backside of a child’s dollhouse. The remaining section of the tower sat precariously along the cliff’s edge as if pondering an end to its lonely existence while the branches of leafless trees reached up from below like a pleading throng of observers or perhaps Rubenesque demons of Hell welcoming another fallen angel.
I paused to look up at the tower, layers of stones, discolored over time, looking like the petrified interior of a wedding cake. The mystery of these ruins penetrated the sanctity of my inner thoughts with its profound isolation. I wondered if the molecular structure of these forlorn bricks and mortar contained the reverberations of laughter or if the doorway had ever given passage to someone bringing with them a profound love for another person in the room. Or had this once-imposing structure only witnessed warfare and the evil of men’s ambitions. Was it now left rotting with these visions for eternity?
What stood above me was the Chateau D’Amblève À Aywaille, a 10th century castle, residence of the local Lords, which was destroyed in the 16th century. That would be describing the place, though, too literally. For 500 years, the chateau has had to ponder its sad fate while its memories have decayed. Time has weathered away the chateau’s history and over the centuries, legends have seeped in like rain thru its porous stones. As I continued on with my hike, my mind returned inward to my own legends, where only sentimentality can slow the onset of time. But the mystery of the ruined chateau lingered with me.
After I returned home, I was overwhelmed with an eagerness to immerse myself into a search for an identity to that forsaken edifice. The first clue came from Baedeker’s Belgium and Holland 1881 edition, which referred to the Chateau as
…insignificant ruins…chiefly interesting from their association with the medieval legend of the Quatre Fils Aymon, who are said to have resided here.Baedeker’s Belgium and Holland (1881, p.201)
Quatre Fils Aymon. In Dutch, De Vier Heemskinderen. The Four Sons of Aymon.
It is a legend which dates back at least as early as the 12th century and was so successful that it has found its way into Dutch, French, German, and Italian folklore. True to legend form, the plot has evolved in its retelling over the centuries. Therefore, it is not possible to give a complete accurate account of the legend, but in general, it tells the tale of the sons of a Duke, one of which is a knight named Renaud, who ends up in a quarrel with Charlemagne. The brothers have a magic horse named Bayard which can carry all of them at the same time, and Bayard helps them to escape. The brothers flee to a fortress named Montessor in the Ardennes to hide out from Charlemagne. Here they heroically survive a long siege, but ultimately must surrender. For penance, Renaud must make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is this fortress which is linked to the Chateau D’Amblève.
In 1934’s A Wayfarer in Belgium, travel writer Fletcher Allen actually refers to the chateau as the “Chateau des Quatre Fils Aymon” and writes
Tradition goes beyond history, and says that this chateau, of which only a little remains, once withstood Charlemagne and his knights in a siege that endured for a year.
Although every peasant, almost, and certainly every guide, will give you the same information, until you are tired of hearing of it…A Wayfarer in Belgium – Fletcher Allen (1934, p. 181)
In one recounting of this legend, which I found in my own book collection, the stand-in for Montessor is the citadel in Dinant, which already has a link to the legend with a rock formation named after the magic horse, Bayard.
This particular recounting is written by American author Elizabeth Champney in her 1915 travel book Romance of Old Belgium. Whether her version was of her own creation or picked up during her travels is not evident, but her version has a much more modern sensibility. Now the knight Renaud falls in love with Charlemagne’s daughter, the beautiful Erembour. In this version, there is no event which brings a conflict between Renaud and Charlemagne. The conflict comes from a rival suitor, Count Ganelon, “the most treacherous of Charlemagne’s nobles”. The horse Bayard is no longer a four-seated magical horse but Renaud’s personal steed. Was this simply the figment of Champney’s early 20th-century romanticism? Had the legend evolved because it had become distasteful to show Charlemagne in a negative light? The preface of her book, written after the onset of World War I, may shed a clue on this.
A half-score of episodes is too narrow a canvas on which to depict the history of a nation. It may, however, serve to suggest the temper of its people during supreme moments of liberty and oppression.Romance of Old Belgium – Elizabeth W. Champney (1915, p. IV)
Perhaps by World War I, the people of Belgium preferred to look back on the age of Charlemagne as a time of order and harmony. Rather than cheer on a legend of rebellious brothers against a powerful emperor resulting in a bad ending, who wouldn’t prefer a good love story? Two lovers far apart and from different walks of life. One a princess, the other a humble knight. And ultimately a happy ending. It is Disney before Disney. A tale re-tuned to a time of oppression?
Today, I doubt the legend of the Four Sons of Aymon is on every peasant’s tongue like it was in 1934, but the legend does still live on in Belgium. In fact, this legend practically provides the very identity of the city of Dendermonde, whose nickname is Rosbeiaardstad, or City of the Steed Bayard. Every ten years, the city of Dendermonde has a procession or ommegang with a large horse carrying the four brothers. When you visit Dendermonde, the symbolism is everywhere. Yet, until this hike in Aywaille, it was symbolism of which I was entirely oblivious. This will surely be a subject I will re-visit in a future blog post. But I have almost forgotten about the hike.
Another way to keep a legend living on in the modern world is to name a brewery after one. That is the case for Aywaille’s own Elfique Brewery. The name is inspired by Aywaille-born author Marcellin la Garde, who wrote folkloric tales in the 19th century. Elfique is in reference to the elf-like creatures residing in an area along the Amblève river called La Belle Roche. A daughter of one of the Lords of Chateau D’Amblève drowned herself in this part of the river when a virtuous young man refused her womanly wiles. She becomes a nymph and is doomed to appear every May 1 waiting for a virtuous young man to approach her. Unfortunately, I am neither young nor virtuous and it was December when I set out by foot from the village of Aywaille to explore this legendary part of Belgium. Looks like I would be hoofing this one alone.
|Starting Point||Aywaille Train Station Parking|
|My Total/Moving Time||4h00m / 3h11m|
|Eating Place||During COVID: Bring your own food|
Post-COVID: No place to eat on the route. Many restaurants in Aywaille.
When I set out on this journey and came face-to-face with the mysteries that lurk in seemingly every corner of Europe, I had no idea that it would send me on separate chases to Dinant and Dendermonde to see for myself the embodiment of a legend, which started out as a medieval story, but after centuries breathes like history. There never were Four Sons of Aymon and certainly no magical horse. Yet there were. Does the real history of the Chateau D’Amblève really matter anymore? Perhaps we hike there to imagine the exploits of the four brothers or hoping to catch a glimpse of the lonely nymph rising up from the river. Is it not human nature to appeal to the essence of legends? History can be beautiful, but when something beautiful happens in our own lives, does it not become more beautiful when our hearts create a legend out of it? Not a falsehood, but something without boundaries, something which paints emotion into three-dimension. These are the places we revisit. And whether you are looking inwardly or outwardly, you will find plenty of them.