If there is one epicenter of the Middle Ages in Belgium, it is not the “medieval” charming canal houses of Bruges or the grand towering gothic spire of Antwerp’s cathedral. It is a remote village tucked away on a small spit of land caught in one of the many coils of the serpentine Semois River along Belgium’s border with France.
Bouillon is one of those “Old Europe” kind of towns that doesn’t feel like it could possibly be populated with real people, having real kids going to real schools. It looks like a dated cover of a 1960’s travel guide. A town whose story has been told, and now history has exiled it to a perpetual state of retirement. The Chateau Bouillon lays sprawled out above the town, an old relic which inspires both awe and befuddlement. What was so important about this crazy river bend? One could almost imagine a grizzled Duke still sitting alone in its dimly-lit banquet hall waiting for the next Prussian invasion or elderly locals eyeing you suspiciously, muttering about the Prince-Bishopric of Liege as they close their shutters. All of which, of course, are reasons why I enjoy this town.
Strolling around Bouillon, one might wonder if you stumbled across a village whose residents seem normal during the day but at night go to the church crypt to perform arcane rituals dressed up like Templar Knights. Crusader imagery is found all over town. But this is not your run-of-the-mill castle-town gimic. The Bouillon castle was actually once owned by the crusader Godfrey de Bouillon. But only briefly, as he sold the castle to the Prince-Bishopric of Liege to fund the First Crusade. He then helped capture Jerusalem in 1099 and ruled it for one year before dying. As a famous “Belgian”, Godfrey also has an equestrian statue in Brussels near the royal palace which everyone sees but few probably identify because it is stuck in the middle of traffic. Perhaps before getting too carried away with admiration, consider that when his armies entered Jerusalem, they slaughtered man, woman, and child. The sequel to those events are portrayed in the movie Kingdom of Heaven.
Bouillon is by no means a one-trick pony. Godfrey may be the most famous resident, but 300 years after Godfrey headed to the Holy Land with bloodthirsty Dark Age devotion, the Prince-Bishopric of Liege granted the castle to one of Belgium’s most notorious families, the de la Marcks. The ruler would take on the title of Duke of Bouillon and subsequently become a thorn in their benefactor’s side, including an attempted assassination of the Prince-Bishop by William de la Marck, known as the Wild Boar of the Ardennes, who was looking to expand his family’s influence. Even Holy Roman Emperor Gouden Carolus himself, Charles V, had to step in on one occasion to remind the family of their place.
Today, Bouillon still inhabits its quaint place on the tight Semois river bend, alternating between sleepy holiday and bustling day-trip mode, keeping the dust off of the names Godfrey de Bouillon and de la Marck. If you aren’t interested to tour the castle or visit the Ducal museum, you can summon up the Middle Ages by simply enjoying the local beer. Naturally, the city’s spotlight beer is the Godefroy blonde and rousse, brewed by one of my favorite Belgian breweries, Brasserie du Bocq. But the real local beer is brewed by Brasserie de Bouillon who have several varieties with inspired names such as Cuvee de Bouillon, La Medievale, and La Bouillionnaise. It is a must to visit the shop Marche de Nathalie in the city center to purchase the beers.
And that I did prior to a Beer & Hike to check out everything that Godfrey gave up in the fateful year of 1095.
|Starting Point||Golden Lion B&B|
|Eating Point||None outside of Bouillon|
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
If you prefer to avoid the sterility of luxury and like to stay in cozy places with narrow winding staircases, creaky floors, rustic decor, and a quirky flair that would feel right at home in the 1800’s, then the Golden Lion Bed & Breakfast is recommended. The breakfasts alone are worth the very reasonable rates, and they will have you looking forward to the next one by bedtime.
If you love fog, November mornings in Belgium are a great time for hiking. This morning was no exception.
Early on in the hike is the Trappist Abbey Notre-Dame de Clairefontaine for nuns. They do not brew Trappist beer, but a peek thru the shop window indicates that they still know what sells.
One of my favorite views of the hike was the open valley adjacent to the abbey.
Further on is the La passarelle du Moulin de l’Epine, a suspension bridge which allows you to cross the Semois to get a nice backside view of the L’Tombeau du Geant, or Tomb of the Giant, natural formation.
Not all legends in the Ardennes come from the Middle Ages. After a climb, you come to the viewpoint for the Tomb of the Giant, a mound of forested earth in one of the many Semois river bends. Supposedly a great Gallic warrior refused to be taken by the Roman Legions back to the gladiator arena, so he jumped to his death here at this bend. Locals then buried him at the top of the hill.
As the hike continues, it passes briefly thru the small hamlet of Botassart and then back into the forest.
After dipping down into a shady muddy valley and then back up to a plateau, there is a nice open section along a farm road.
This eventually branches off to a trail leading to the best viewpoint of Bouillion.
Now it was back down thru the woods to Bouillon’s iconic Pont de Cordemoy bridge.
I have always noticed that the best viewpoints of Bouillon are facing south, making sun glare always a constant nuisance.
Long before Godfrey squandered the splendour of Bouillon for the fame and glory of having a beer named after him, Charlemagne’s son Louis squandered the unified part of Western Europe that his father had established. It took just one generation after Charlemagne’s death for much of Western Europe to be divided up amongst his grandsons, setting in motion many of the conflicts in this part of the medieval world. Bouillon would fall somewhere in the middle in what would become known as Lower Lorraine which essentially divided the French and Germanic parts of Western Europe. It was tenuous living in this part of the world even when ruled by powerful families such as the de la Marcks. G.W.T. Omond called it the “Debatable Land” in his 1908 book Belgium.
In 1908, World War I was still six years away. At that time, it was another date that occupied the minds of the people, travellers, and historians.
Bouillon, with its mountains and woods, and its romantic ruin, being one of the loveliest spots in the Ardennes… had for many years a peaceful existence before the storm burst so near it in that eventful year 1870.Belgium by G.W.T. Omond (1908)
Before there was World War I, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, long overshadowed by the two major wars since then. In the next blog post, we will explore those shadows.
What should also not remain in the shadows are the atrocities committed by the crusaders during the First Crusade, many of whom were under the command of Godfrey de Bouillon. Perhaps we think that these critical interrogations of the memorialized figures of history are a new and modern way of thinking. However, even in 1908, the events of the First Crusade were not as tidied up for the Christian audience as we might think.
that student of history must have a very dull imagination who does not find much to think of in this narrow valley, on the frontiers of Belgium and France, where the past and the present meet, the day when Duke Godfrey rode off to plant his standard on the walls of Jerusalem, and the day when the castle looked down on the humiliation of the ruler who began his reign by making war about the Holy Places of Palestine.Belgium by G.W.T. Omond (1908)