We visited Dinant for a quick weekend getaway. Dinant is in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium. It is a lovely little city in the valley of the Meuse River. The steep, narrow valley necessitated the city’s growth to be long and narrow along the banks of the river. It makes quite the picturesque setting.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the hotel La Merveilleuse which is located in a former convent. It has also been a hospital and an orphanage. Its website doesn’t really do it justice. This was a unique place to stay. It has been nicely renovated in a way that keeps its religious history visible. It is located on the same side of the Meuse as the city’s train station. It is within reasonable walking distance from the center of the city and many local attractions, assuming you don’t have mobility restrictions (it’s at the top of a steep hill).
The staff at La Merveilleuse was kind and helpful. Included in the price of our room was breakfast and a visit to the Maison Leffe, which is also located in the building (more details to follow). Breakfast was a typical, European hotel buffet breakfast (meats, cheeses, breads, yogurt, boiled eggs, cold cereal, juices, tea, and coffee). We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant one evening. The food was good but, in my opinion, a bit overpriced.
What We Did
We enjoyed taking advantage of our complimentary access to the Maison Leffe, a small museum that tells the history of the Leffe Abbey and Leffe beer. Given my husband’s interest in Belgian beers, we probably would have visited Maison Leffe even if we weren’t staying in the same building. I recommend the visit to people interested in touring Belgian beer related sites.
The Leffe Abbey does not seem to be widely open to the public, so this is the main tourist site for the brewery. It uses interactive exhibits with touch screens, videos, pictures, and scents, and ends with a tasting (included in the price). The interactive exhibits were enough to hold my son’s attention. He really enjoyed the parts where you could smell a variety of ingredients for each beer type. While I enjoyed learning the history of the abbey and Leffe’s brewing, I most enjoyed the descriptions of each brew’s ingredients and food pairing suggestions.
For my tasting, I selected the Leffe Ruby. It had a nice hint of red fruits without being as sweet as a fruity Lambic beer. My husband enjoyed the Leffe Royale Mapuche, one of their hoppier brews. You can relax and have your tasting in their cozy lounge, and can select up to three of their brews (tasting serving size) if you taste them there. We chose to take ours in a bottle to go and enjoy at home instead. We had more plans for the afternoon and the clock was ticking!
Grotte de Dinant La Merveilleuse
After our morning of learning about Leffe, we went just around the corner and enjoyed an hour-long tour of the La Merveilleuse cave complex, the Grotte de Dinant La Merveilleuse. The caves were discovered in 1904 when the city was looking to implement underground transit. It is now a tourist destination where you can see stalactites, stalagmites, cave waterfalls, bats, apparently Europe’s largest bent stalactite and non-connected column, and other unique cave features.
Our guide gave the tour in English, Dutch, and French. The tours ran every hour on the hour. The site also offers a small café and gift shop. After our tour we warmed up with soup, coffee, and hot chocolate before heading down into the city. A bonus to our café visit was that the owner’s dog and cat joined us for lunch.
Charles De Gaulle Bridge
At the center of Dinant, you find the Charles De Gaulle Bridge, the 13th century Notre Dame de Dinant, and the Citadel of Dinant. We didn’t go into the church, but we enjoyed a walk across the bridge which was adorned with colorful saxophone sculptures. Dinant is the home to the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax. Some of the best photo opportunities in the city are from the bridge and from the Citadel.
Citadel of Dinant
The entrance to the Citadel of Dinant starts at the office located just behind the Notre Dame de Dinant. You can choose to get up to the Citadel by either climbing 408 stairs or riding a cable car. We opted for the cable car. Once you get to the top you can enjoy the fortress itself, as well as a large playground area, dining options, and a nearby bowling alley and French war cemetery.
The site has been fortified since the 11th century, but the fort in its current state was built in the early 19th century. Within the Citadel itself, you can access a few museum areas on your own, including a military museum and an exhibit dedicated to explaining the World War I (1914) Battle of Dinant. Additional areas of the Citadel are only accessible with a tour guide. The tours (included in the admission cost) leave at set times and are only offered in Dutch and French, although leaflets in other languages are available to help guide you on the tour.
Other sites we enjoyed in Dinant were the Bayard Rock and the Adolphe Sax statue.
Day Trip to Orval Abbey
Dinant was a great place to visit in its own right, but was also a good base from which to visit the Orval Abbey about 100 kilometers south. Dinant also looks like a good base point to visit the abbeys of Maredsous (about 20 km away) or Chimay (about 65 km away), though we did not go to them on this trip.
Orval Abbey was founded in 1070 and became Cistercian in 1132. Much of it was ruined during the French Revolution, but it was resurrected in 1926. Its brewery creates one of only twelve official “trappist” beers in the world. It also has a dairy that produces cheese.
When visiting the Orval Abbey, you can’t visit the brewery or dairy. Admission allows you to walk the grounds of the old abbey, among the ruins, and gives you access to three exhibit areas where you can learn about the history of the Abbey and the Orval brewing process. Guided tours are only available in French and Dutch, so we didn’t take one. Retreats and opportunities to pray with the monks are also available upon request or reservation.
There is a café, A l’Ange Gardien, on the grounds (admissions to the grounds is not required to enter the café) where you can enjoy Orval brews, including “green Orval,” a lighter version of their beer, which is only available on site. You can also eat a variety of foods, many prepared with Orval’s cheese. My son said his omelet was the best he “ever ate in his whole life”. My husband and I enjoyed a sampling of local meats, Orval cheese, croquettes, potatoes baked with Orval cheese, and soup. It was a cold and rainy day when we visited, and this meal was a great way to warm up.
Walking among the ruins at the abbey was quite peaceful. They were stunning and sad and beautiful and impressive all at the same time. It is easy to see why this is a place of peaceful retreat and meditation.
What We Missed
We didn’t have time on this trip to visit the Maison Adolphe Sax (museum) or the Notre Dame de Dinant. It was cold and rainy the entire time we were there, but in better weather, it would also be fun to check out nearby Rail Bikes, adventure parks, river cruises, or kayak rentals. There are also many castles in the area, and other caves and parks located in nearby Hans Sur Lesse and at the Grottes de Han.
Dinant was a pleasant surprise for us. A last minute, spur of the moment weekend getaway turned into a nice, active weekend full of great experiences and memories. I recommend a visit here to anyone looking for a peaceful getaway or a place from which to experience Belgian beer or Walloon nature.