The river Meuse rolls gently through the hills and cities of central Wallonia. Ruins dot its banks, bearing witness to the countless centuries of human deeds and misdeeds that have taken place there. Dinant, one such river town, is the site of fortifications dating back perhaps a thousand years and a popular getaway spot for Belgians. I learned of Dinant just in time for the last school day off before summer vacation, and the fine spring day seemed a good time to explore this storied locale.
The Citadelle de Dinant is located on a cliff above the center of town. We chose to reach it by a short yet amazingly steep cable car ride; those more fit or less laden down with toddlers may choose to ascend the 408 steps instead. (Total number of people I saw doing that: zero.) At the top, the obligate first stop is the breathtaking view of Dinant below, with its black-onion-spired Gothic church, peaceful river, and green hills rolling off into the distance. The fortress walls extend to the edge of the steep hillside.
Our next stop was the playground, which I had noticed on a map and promised to the kids (“Hey kids! We’re going to a playground at a castle today!!” One has to couch these things properly.) I had no indication of how extensive it was, but it was a happy surprise: a small area, but with a variety of shiny new structures full of possibilities for delightfully dangerous adventures–the sort of playground that, in the name of safety, has all but disappeared from certain areas in the States. Our two-year-old had limited options but it was ideal for kids ages 4 – 14. On one side of the playground is a café, with typical fast food and the local beer available, on the other side is a French and Belgian World War I memorial cemetery, and all around are world war artifacts: big guns, a small plane, and the like. All of this lies in the shade of majestic trees, just steps away from the view of the valley. It is, in short, the perfect hilltop on which to get totally distracted from any goals you had for the day.
Eventually tearing the kids away, we visited the citadel; it consists of the old walls and a handful of tunnels. Though it dates back to medieval times, most of the history documented there is World War I-era. A multimedia exhibit describes the occupation of the town by German forces and tragic killing of 10% of the town’s inhabitants. This includes a dimly lit hallway with a soundtrack of panicking crowds–which was not too scary for our little ones—and a “sensory display room” with the clamor of battle—which would have been too much but was easily avoided. (Overall it is one of the more kid-friendly war exhibits I’ve seen, if there is such a thing.) In the courtyard we found some cannons, a display on the complete history of the fortress, a room with a collection of 20th-century, and of course another café and a giftshop. There was also a multilingual guided tour departing. We needed no more than 45 minutes to take a leisurely self-guided tour of the whole fortress.
A gently swaying cable car was waiting to glide us back down into Dinant and the further adventures which we would find there.
Getting there: The cable car leaves from Place Reine Astrid, next to the Collegiale Notre-Dame church in the center of Dinant. There is ample street parking in the area. You can also drive up to the citadel and park for free instead of taking the cable car.
Visiting Dinant with kids: Strollers are allowed, but due to gravel, stairs, and the relatively small area of the citadel I wouldn’t recommend them unless definitely necessary.
Tickets: For the cable car and the citadel, 8 euro per adult and 6 euro for ages 4-12.