On a beautiful late September Saturday we gathered in Dinant to cross the saxophone lined bridge across the Meuse, to take the cable car up to the imposing citadel dominating this stretch of this river. Once this was the frontier between two competing states; that of the Prince Bishops of Liege and the Duchy of Brabant.
Controlling the Meuse valley
Dinant occupies a strategic place on the river, with one of the few bridges – 30km apart our excellent guide told us – and the citadel with its cannons. Not only had the city major strategic import, it was a centre of brass making, with copper ore shipped from the Harz mountains in Germany to be smelted and alloyed with zinc from local mines along the valley.
In 1914 there were fierce battles in the town and many civilians were killed as the French, including a young Charles de Gaulle, tried to halt the German advance. In early September 1944 the city was one of the first Belgium towns to be liberated by the advancing Americans.
The citadel, in its current state rebuilt by the Dutch in 1815 on the ruins of a fortress started in 1051, has a wonderful site and forbidding appearance. It had a large garrison and we were shown the living quarters, kitchens and bakery – a favourite place to be assigned as it was always warm – as well as dungeons and armoury.
In the afternoon, the Château of Freyr
After a most enjoyable lunch, we returned to the valley, collected our cars and headed down the narrow river road, once more a path for the horses and oxen pulling the barges upstream, to the castle of Freyr.
Now, to the English, a castle is a fortification, whilst chateau is considered more akin to the fortified palaces lining the Loire. So, let’s say we drove into the avenue leading to the gardens and charming Chateau de Freyr. It is a 16/17th C manor actually, built on the site of a fortified keep. Originally built as a hollow square, the south wing was demolished in the 18th century and replaced by a beautiful wrought iron gated entrance.
Our guides, taking on the personae of members of the family, in whose ownership the chateau has remained for over 600 years, took us through both house and formal gardens, telling us stories of people and politics over the centuries. The family was remarkably successful in making good marriages, all of which brought substantial financial resources, allowing the chateau and its gardens maintained. The first recorded mention of coffee in Belgium was after a treaty negotiation in the house.
The gardens are very mathematical, somewhat austere to the English eye, but still providing, as much through the play of light and shade, corners where dalliances could take place. The orangeries then had the earliest collection of orange trees in the low countries.
A lovely day out; perfect weather, great companionship and fascinating history.
Nick FernPast Events