48 hours in Namur: this Belgian underdog is full of surprises
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
You want the nature and the fresh air of the Ardennes, but with some stylish and international oumph? Welcome to Namur. Where art nouveau is lifted to unprecedented heights and where an award winning cocktail bar lures the thirsty tourist inside. Cheers!
"Sorry we're full." Not quite the answer I had in mind when trying to book a table at a restaurant a few weeks before my first visit to Namur.
More and more travelers are starting to appreciate the charms of this city, ergo the hip restaurants and other hot spots fill up quickly. Hip and the Ardennes, sounds kind of weird right? After spending a few weekends in this city, I can only agree that this Belgian underdog is turning into a new-fashioned citytrip destination. At the beginning of this year Namur even finished seventh place at the presentation of the 'European Best Destination Awards'. Yes that's right, the city with the famous citadel. The area around there and a number of relevant museums, such as the Félicien Rops one, are definitely worth the visit, but this city - just a 30 minute drive from Brussels - has so much more to offer.
Dreaming of art nouveau
"I've already bought you some champagne," says Muriel when she receives us in the majestic entrance hall of her bed and breakfast Villa Balat. It's a few days before New Year and of course that means Belgian bubbles. With great care she puts the bottle next to the already extensive selection of local beers that she standardly offers for guests. Reluctantly we walk into the beautiful living room. We honestly don't know where to look first. The beauty of this building can hardly be grasped or described. I wonder how many 'oohs' and 'aahs' have already resounded against the ridiculously pleasing wallpaper.
Needless to say, Villa Balat is one of the most beautiful houses in Namur. Ideally situated at the confluence of the Sambre and Meuse rivers, a stone's throw from the centre of Namur. With only a towpath between the house and the river, this exceptional villa almost has its feet in the water. You have a great view of the sturdy citadel that clearly stands out against the landscape and the Walloon parliament.
The mentor of Horta in all his glory
The style is not 100% art nouveau, but there are a lot of elements of it in this house. The building is attributed to Alphonse Balat, Leopold II's favourite architect. Victor Horta use to be one of his pupils. A bit of name dropping never hurt anyone right? Like Félicien Rops - one of Namur's most famous artists - he learned the tricks of the trade in Namur. He was convinced that the use of form invisibly determines the soul of a building. Sounds a bit abstract, but you really have to see it to believe it! Most of the credit, however, goes to Muriel and Bernard who renovated and decorated this house with great taste and skill. Not a single statue, not a single colour, not a single doorknob seems out of place here. Even the choice of scented candles per room has been realised with a certain strategy in mind. When it suddenly smells like Sacristie in the hallway, the Villa turns into a spectacular olfactory experience as well.
With the use of only the best produce at the breakfast table, the hospitality bar is set very high here. Breakfast includes a wide selection of local products and is served from 8 to 10 am in a majestic breakfast room, overlooking the banks of the Meuse. There is no need to rush here. You can't take your eyes of the beautiful crockery, with an absolute highlight being the butter dish with matching knife. Of unprecedented beauty!
Small, medium, large: every room is worth booking!
This weekend, I booked the Félicien Rops room. When I open the slightly creaking door for the first time, I immediately notice the padded pink bed. Apparently the bed, the satin fabrics and the velvet was inspired by one of Rops' most intriguing oeuvres. I have to admit that I'm still guessing, but if I tell you that he was known for his 'nudes', you might be able to fill in the gaps. An inlaid table in Louis XV style and a striking freestanding bathtub in the stylish bathroom complete this room.
There are three rooms in total, one more spacious and more expensive than the other. The Anna Boch room is slightly smaller but makes up for this with its feminine, romantic pastel colors, including a walk-in shower in the bathroom with Art Nouveau tiles that are more than a century old. The Alphonse Balat suite on the other hand has access to a photogenic conservatory and a walk-in shower in Art Nouveau ceramic and marble in combination with an eye-catching, antique bathtub. Nice to know: the wallpaper is decorated with old flower bouquets as they were hand painted in the 16th and 17th centuries.
One moment I am looking at replicas of Rops and Klimt, the next I am sipping cocktails in an award-winning cocktail bar where the Namur in-crowd drops in for a drink or two during the weekend. When I walk in here on a busy Saturday evening, I am happy that I have reserved a table at Botanical by Alfonse!
An award-winning, modern cocktail bar with a quirky repertoire where local products and original flavor combinations captivate the hip folks that come in here.
They hand over a cocktail many inspired by a cheese and wine evening. Strange...
I take a wild guess and have a wine cocktail and I am very surprised by its freshness and special flavors. Wonderfully fresh and surprising in taste. Every so often, they change their menu. Even as a second timer you will be surprised again and again. You can also order the classics here, albeit with a personal twist. Oh yes and Alfonse, he doesn't work here; Valentin and Charlie are the creative minds behind these botanical quirky craft cocktails. Cheers!
Photos Fanny Myard
After a few alcoholic highlights, my stomach starts to growl and I long for food. I walk through the doors of Manolo Madrid. I finally got in there because I made a reservation long in advance. Yes!
A meter-long, inviting counter that could seat about 20 hungry souls, an intimate, open kitchen and a sofa or two to drink wines at ease are the first things you notice when you walk in. Then your attention is focused on a photogenic, tiled floor and sleek white tiles on the wall that also function as an interactive menu. A washable black marker determines the menu of the day.
Tapas with oumph
Choosing is losing, making a tapas selection here is no easy task. I decide to go for the culinary evergreens from the menu with the uber combo chorizo with lentils, a salivating tasty Iberico ham stew and an intensely creamy paella with seafood play the lead role in this culinary affair. I top it of with the best Spanish wines and end the evening with a delicious Crema Catalana, the Spanish version of a caramel flan.
The real food hero at Manolo Madrid must be the chef. The paella is super creamy here but his sense of humor is very very dry. With a lot of schwung and charisma, he stirs his cooking pots right in front of you and can't help it to to tell the occasional joke. Chef Carlo clearly cooks with oomph and humor and that translates into refined but nonsense tapas that appeal to many experienced taste palettes, including mine!
After a very entertaining evening, I look forward to the quiet awakening in Villa Balat the next morning. After the previously described, pleasant breakfast, Muriel uncovers the olfactory secret of her villa; the candles of Liquides Confidentiels. It's now time to spend some money and support the local economy. With a number of other top addresses handed down by the lady of the house, I head back into the city.
A niche perfumery, the kind of concept store that I did not expect here in Namur. Quentin Blyau is the driving force behind Liquides Confidentiels, a relatively young shop in the center of the city. A symbiosis actually of his two passions: perfumes and psychology. After an in-depth questionnaire and conversation about what you like to smell, what occupies you, what inspires you, he hunts down the ideal scent for you, among the various original, unique creations and compositions that he offers here.
When I enter the store on a Saturday afternoon, I immediately ask for the candles I smelled in the villa. The candles from Cire Trudon patiently await me under their protective bell jar. Since 1643, this French brand has been supplying the best candles to historical figures and nobility, and now fortunately to me too. All these fantastic scents are ever so overwhelming. I find the Carmélite (moist walls!) and Sacristie (church odor) too strong, but Abd El Kader with basil immediately brings me into a holiday mood and definitely comes home with me.
The rest of the afternoon is filled with more surprises. At Chez Sothy I enjoy a delicious Banh Mi and and I swallow it down with a drink or two in Le Collège, the oldest café in Namur. A few moments later I am trying on limited edition sneakers in L'Original Namur.
In entertaining Namur, time flies. After a quick glance at my watch, I almost forget that I wanted to take the train home at dusk. I exchange my heels for my new sneakers and I quickly head towards the Namur Central train station. About an hour later I am back in Antwerp and my new kicks perfectly symbolize the impression that the city of the citadel has left on me: exclusive, feet on the ground, craftsmanship versus modernity. The rightful winner of the seventh place on the Europeans Best Destination list.
Where to go practical
HOTEL: Villa Balat
FOOD: Manolo Madrid
SHOPPING: Liquides Confidentiels
DRINKS: Botanical by Alfonse
The best cookies in Namur
Barnabeer - the best beer bar in town
The beautiful shopping windows in Namur