Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Citadel On The Meuse: Namur

Namur with the looming citadel above

Because this is Belgium and you can't let a little (or a lot) rain stop your plans, a recent rainy weekend found us exploring the citadel in Namur. I'll be honest; prior to arriving in Belgium I had never heard of Namur but we hadn't been here long before people started telling us that this small city in central Belgium was a place we had to visit while we were here. And despite the rain, I'm glad we went.

With a population of just over 100,000 people, Namur isn't large. It is the capitol of both Namur province and the entire Wallonia region. Perched on the banks of the Meuse River the highlight of the town is its citadel. It is the first thing you see as you approach the town and you simply can't miss it because simply put, it is huge and one of the largest fortifications in Europe.

The original citadel dates to 937 but over time its perimeter has been expanded with its last major addition being added under Dutch control in 1675. It started out small but as the importance and regional influence of Namur grew, so did its citadel. Tunnels were built and expanded upon, a church was built within the confines of the walls and the walls were further expanded. Because of its strategic location Namur and its citadel were at various times occupied by the Spanish, Austrians, French and Dutch. The city fell to the Germans during both World Wars with the citadel being pillaged of its iron and metals in 1940. Like so much of Europe this granite fortress has a long and storied history. And a more complete history of the citadel can be found here.

Just a small snippet of the grounds. There are tunnels
throughout these walls

As we discovered, the beauty of the vast network of underground tunnels means we could escape the heaviest of the inevitable Belgian rain. We joined a small group of fellow tourists on a Dutch and English tour of one kilometer of the underground passages. (There are a total of 8 kilometers of tunnels under the citadel which is the largest underground network in Europe). Starting at Terra Nova, the highest level of the citadel, we descended down narrow stairs and deep under the ground. The tunnels had been developed as a means for soldiers to safely traversing the citadel grounds and were used from medieval times all the way through World War II and they had been adapted as the times changed. As we descended down the hill we moved from the 17th century and into more modern times. Small windows through which cannons could be shot gave way to even smaller openings for rifles. In the aftermath of the chemical warfare of World War I the tunnels were fortified with cement to make the chambers airtight and provide safe havens should the soldiers come under a chemical attack. (This portion of the re-fortification was never completed since the Germans captured and pillaged the citadel without the use of chemical weapons in 1940 during the Battle of Belgium).

During our tour we saw small chambers that were the sleeping quarters of hundreds of soldiers. Officer quarters were "roomier" but not much more comfortable. Offices, dining areas and communication centers also filled the chambers off of the tunnels. Sidney marveled at being in a place where "the soldiers lived and fought" and by the end of the tour was pointing out the various characteristics o the tunnels. It felt as though we were walking through a maze and by the time we finally reemerged at the foot of the gatehouse I had lost all sense of direction. But as our guide lead us back up the hill pointing out the various underground spots we had visited, it all started to make sense. 

And despite the intermittent rain the grounds were beautiful. They were expansive and mysterious and we wandered from one path onto another exploring the hidden nooks and crannies that make up the citadel. At the highest point of the hill we were afforded sweeping views through the lifting clouds of the river valley below us. Because we are in the midst of recognizing the 100th anniversary of the onset of World War I, the grounds include a small temporary exhibit depicting the destruction of Namur that occurred under German occupation. Pictures really do speak one thousand words.

I wish it hadn't been so wet during our visit but we are glad we visited. And we know we'll go back --hopefully on a drier day. After all, Namur is just one hour away from Mons.

The gatehouse

A misty view of the river from
the citadel
If you go:

Terra Nova
Route Merveilleuse 64
5000 Namur
+32 (0)

Open seven days a week from 30 March to 29 September, hours vary
The "Citadelle Pass" is 9 Euro for adults, 6 Euros for children between the ages of 5 and 18, senior citizens and teachers and grants access to all of the major sites.

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