Belgium // The Ardennes //

South of Dinant: the Meuse and the Lesse river valleys

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Beyond Dinant, the River Meuse loops its way south to Givet, across the border in France, and can be explored by cruise boat from Dinant. This stretch of the river is pleasant enough, but certainly not exciting – it’s too wide and sluggish for that – and neither is the scenery more than mildly inviting, its best feature being the steep, wooded cliffs framing portions of the riverbank.

The tiny settlements lining up along the river are pretty bland too, the only real exception being HASTIÈRE-PAR-DELÀ, about 15km from Dinant, which is home to the fascinating Église Notre Dame, a finely proportioned church built at the behest of a colony of Irish monks in the 1030s, although the Gothic choir was added two hundred years later. Subsequent architectural tinkering followed two attacks – one by Protestants in 1568, the other by the French revolutionary army in the 1790s – but most of the medieval church has survived intact, with a flat wooden roof, plain square pillars and heavy round arches. The triumphal arch bears a faded painting dating from the original construction and is underpinned by gallows (wooden scaffolding), which in their turn support an unusual German fifteenth-century Calvary, depicting Christ, Mary and St John standing on a dragon. Close by, the wooden thirteenth-century choir stalls are among the oldest in Belgium, with unique misericord carvings – some allegorical, some satirical and some purely decorative. Curiously, a number of them were replaced with a plain triangle in 1443 on the grounds that they were blasphemous – or at least disrespectful. Finally, next to the baptismal font are two statues of the Virgin, one of which – the one on the left in the glass case – is an exquisite sixteenth-century carving, whose graceful posture has earned it a place in several national exhibitions. After you’ve explored the church, you can pop across the road to Le Côté Meuse, a pleasant café with a good line in crepes and waffles.

Wilder and prettier, the River Lesse spears off the Meuse in ANSEREMME, and although there’s precious little point in hanging around here, it’s a good starting point for both local hikes and canoe trips; by the river, Lesse Kayaks (t082 22 43 97, whttp://www.lessekayaks.be) rents out one- and two-seater kayaks, three-person canoes and large piloted boats for up to twenty passengers. Reckon on paying €16–19 for a single kayak, €22–30 for a double, or around €30 for a three-person canoe.

Heading south from Anseremme, it’s 2.5km to the solitary Château de Freÿr, a crisply symmetrical, largely eighteenth-century brick mansion pushed up against the main road and the river. The compulsory guided tour (whttp://www.freyr.be) traipses through a series of opulent rooms, distinguished by their period furniture and thundering fireplaces. Running parallel to the river are the adjoining gardens, laid out in the formal French style, spreading over three terraces and including a maze. A pavilion at the highest point provides a lovely view over the château and river.

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