Paul Morris recalls a trip to Dinant, where he refused to scale the heavens and plumb the Earth’s depths. And he got wet.
In the summer of 2006 it rained. A lot. The deluge coincided with my Belgian holiday with my daughter in the Ardennes.
Coming from Scotland, I know all about rain but even I was impressed by last year’s antediluvian down-pouring. Looking out the window now, I have that feeling of déjà vu. Our tickets have arrived for a trip back home and the heavens are black.
Now, I promised myself that I would never be one of those expats — or exiles as BBC Scotland would have us — who moans about the weather just because it’s an easy target so I will attempt to recall the finer moments of our stay in Dinant, despite the fact that the sky opened up and soaked us to the skin almost every day. At times we took shelter in the nearest café and the waiters would not serve us until we stopped steaming.
Choosing your holiday destination is critical. It seems you have to tick off all the correct boxes.
Getting to Dinant
Dinant is a piece of cake to get to. One hour on the train from Brussels and you’re standing on the platform surrounded by the town’s green and luscious hills. The fortified elements of a military past – remnants of turrets and look out posts – can be seen all along the hilltops on both sides.
Wet, hence the luscious hills.
Accommodation in Dinant
We rented a little gîte, high up on the hill. Not being a driver, there was no vehicle to ferry us up and down the very steep incline. At first it was good exercise and we were glad of the enforced regime but by day two we were dreaming of a gîte closer to the town, on the straight and narrow.
In the evening on the terrasse overlooking a beautiful hilly garden, all was forgiven, and we partook of many a local delicacy, especially the region’s pâté grand-mere. At night the terrasse was invaded by snails and all manner of other creatures of the night. Ideal.
From the terrasse we could see the Citadel way down there, the little cable-car rising and falling on the quarter hour. And we decided that’s what we would do: go up there and look down on all of this. In fact we decided to do that every day but then reminded ourselves that it would scare the living daylights out of us to go up in that shaky little cabin to the skies.
We would sit in the Leffe Café watching others ascend, agreeing between ourselves that the view wasn’t that great anyway, surely. This was not helped by people regularly exiting the cabin and saying, “Wow! What a view!” and “That’s the highlight for me, dear!”
Then we came across a flyer promoting the grotto known as La Merveilleuse no less. Much more like the thing. But then again, it was the same height as the Citadel, only downwards into the earth’s core, with access via a rickety wooden staircase no doubt.
Vertigo knows no bounds. The more we discussed it the more the innocent caves became Khazad-dûm, beset by Orcs, footsoldiers of the Dark One, and Balrogs, primordial spirits of fire.
“Far below the snow-capped peaks of the Misty Mountains, deep in the roots of Middle-earth, is a place of darkness and shattered glory, a realm long-since driven to ruin and left defiled, the Black Pit, a realm of terror and gloom.”
We passed on the grotto trip. And soon the Citadel became Orodruin, Mount Doom herself, deep in the heart of the black land of Mordor, with all her attendant perils. We didn’t have to go up there. We were not charged with saving Middle Earth. We were just on holiday!
Another flyer sang the praises of la Meuse. So we took a little boat which plied its trade up and down the river. That was pleasant enough but we quickly realised that it covered the well trodden path we had already trod upon on our many long walks, except the boat was treading water, of course. Which is kind of how we felt.
Until we ventured out of town and found a strange little neighbourhood.
Dotted around, between the houses and in the lee of the castle walls, were little street games, works of art which prove that it’s not just the internet that offers interactivity. One of them was a simple stone tablet which asks you to feel the words as you read them aloud, until your realise it’s a tomb from the contagious plague that struck the district a few hundred years ago.
Another was an odd Heath Robinson contraption that invites you to turn a lever. All that happens is that a grating noise makes angry locals come to their windows, further inviting you to shut up.
Perhaps it was designed to call on folks to bring out their dead. As we stood in the torrential rain, we marvelled at the ingenuity of the artists responsible for cheering up what was no more than an ordinary little residential neighbourhood.
We returned to the centre of town, drenched to the bone, thin as wet cats, but happy now to watch the brave grinning tourists stepping from the Citadel’s cable-car. Little did they know that these two smiling landlubbers had come back among them to spread the Black Plague.