After a brief web research, we decided for three towns – Ypres (Ieper), Tournai, and Namur. Ypres was picked for its WWI battlefields and cemeteries dotted with white crosses; Tournai and Namur came on our list because they were described as lovely historical towns with churches, castles, museums, and citadels.
Our two teenagers were skeptic to say the least and kept asking how many nights we expected to stay. I guess they feel they’ve seen enough European historical towns, churches, and castles for a lifetime. But, it was February break and most friends had left for skiing, so there wasn’t much to do at home either.
Two and a half hours drive from The Hague, and then we found ourselves in a tea salon in Ypres on a cold, foggy Saturday afternoon. We placed our order for waffles in a messy mixture of English, French, and Dutch, and luckily, the friendly waitress spoke all three languages. Belgian cappuccino has very little similarity to a classic Italian espresso with steamed milk foam. We were served a coffee topped with sweet whipped cream-from-the-can, and we discovered during our trip that it wasn’t just because we were in a tea saloon. The waffles were a bit papery to our taste. But then of course, we Danes prefer heavy pastry.
Walking in the shopping streets, we sensed the culinary difference from the Netherlands: Beer shops with more than 50 different labels, chocolate shops, delicatessen, and of course, restaurants offering the strange combination of “moules et frites”. After a cold walk, with a peek inside St. Martin’s cathedral and the war museum, our kids were ready to move on, and since it was late afternoon, we all agreed we’d better head for Tournai in order to arrive in time to find a hotel. We had already passed a war cemetery on our way into Ypres, and we decided to spare the kids for more wartime history, since this wasn’t our first visit to WWI battlefields.
Belgian towns are different from Dutch towns; less ordered and more worn down. This was also true for Tournai, although the historical center was fine. We stayed in Hotel Cathedrale which lived up to its name by being located right next to the cathedral. Rooms were plain, but clean and newly painted. We looked around for a restaurant and, as a compromise between teenagers and adults, we ended up eating Italian (forgot the name): Fairly good, but nothing extraordinary. On the town square was a huge crayons box with the inscription “Je suis Charlie”, apparently to mark the tragic terror the previous month in Paris.
Next morning, after a nice hotel breakfast, we went to see the clock tower (which turned out to be closed on Sunday mornings) and Notre Dame cathedral, which was partly covered with scaffolds. Inside, a ceremony had just ended, and the organist was playing a dramatic piece. To our surprise, the regular church goers applauded (didn’t know it was allowed in Catholic churches), and so did we.
Half of the cathedral was blocked off due to renovations, and while we were looking in between cracks in the blockage, an extremely kind elderly man addressed us in elegant English. He told us about the cathedral’s longtime renovation and its numerous alterations and additions over the years, and he let us have a look inside the first part of the treasury, even though it was closed: There were heavy gold items and weird relics in glass cabinets. We never found out who the man was, but since he was wearing a badge, we assumed he was employed by the church. If not, he was a convincing impostor.
What I mentioned before about Belgian towns is nothing compared to the highways between Tournai and Namur. These roads were extremely dangerous with large potholes and cracks everywhere. Apparently, the Belgian authorities had – at least in the short term – decided just to put warning signs instead of patching the holes.
To escape the dangerous highway for a little while and have a Sunday morning coffee, we stopped in Mons, halfway to Namur. It wasn’t easy to spot that Mons is the European capital of culture 2015; apart from sequins flowing in the streets and British flags suspended above the pedestrian street, we didn’t see any signs of special events. In fact, I only knew about it from my initial web research. The main square was bordered by restaurants and tea rooms, and we went inside, waited forever and when finally served, we only got three out of four ordered drinks. The waiter kept blinking and saying “j’arrive”, and finally, he brought the missing drink, without apology. But he was a busy man, and we were holiday makers, so no need to linger.
We drove into Namur Sunday afternoon. The sun was out, and we decided to go for a walk on the impressive citadel, originating in the Roman era (protests from teenagers, of course). Both Sambre and Meuse rivers run through Namur, and there were great views from the top of the citadel over Namur and the rivers.
A giant shiny golden turtle had been placed there as well as a golden statue of a man holding something that looked like a compass or a sundial. We didn’t bother to find out the name of the artist nor why the sculptures were there, but my husband thought he’d seen the turtle before, in Amsterdam, and this was confirmed later by googling ‘giant golden turtle’. Medieval flute music lead us to a Guy Delforge perfume shop on top of the citadel (with “free entrance”??), where there was also a restaurant.
Namur is the capital of Wallonia, and it should be quite charming with little street and lots of trendy shops and tea rooms. Unfortunately, we’d picked the wrong time to visit: It was February, Sunday (meaning shops closed), and too cold to stroll around, especially with two grumpy teenagers longing to get home. So, we skipped Namur town center and drove back to the Netherlands, determined to return to without kids later when the trees are green and the shops open!