Svaneti: Land of tall towers, tall mountains

 

The Lamaria Church, located above the village of Ushguli, with Mount Shkhara in the background. Like most houses in town, it has a defensive stone tower, too.

MESTIA, Georgia — The Caucasus Mountains have long lived in my imagination as one of the world’s most exotic and intriguing places.

So, it is no wonder I took up an opportunity to accompany a small group of travel agents and journalists into those

Some of the defense towers seen in the ski resort town of Mestia, in the Caucasus Mountains.

mountains, in the country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic.

It was a sunny September day when we began our sometimes-bumpy drive from the town of Zugdidi into the mountains, viewing deep ravines, trees with early fall colors and snowcapped peaks.

Our destination, Mestia, is a ski resort and starting point for trekking tours, at more than 4,500 feet above sea level. It is the chief community in a mountain province known as Upper Svaneti, home to legendary stone towers, approximately 600 of them, built for defensive purposes. [Read more...]

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Kutaisi: The Fabled Medea’s Hometown

Decorative elements on a new fountain seen on Agmashenebeli Square in Kutaisi, Georgia. Designers created oversized replicas of golden figures found in sites associated with the ancient Colchis kingdom.

KUTAISI, Georgia — Until last fall, I had never heard of Kutaisi, a city of about a quarter of a million people more than 100 miles west of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia (the country).

Street scene in Kutaisi, Georgia.

It turned out to be a pleasant place with some surprisingly charming center city attractions, and it is home to a church and monastery that are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

I visited Kutaisi in September 2012 as part of a weeklong tour for

Houses overlooking the Rioni River in Kutaisi, Georgia.

travel agents and travel journalists. We arrived after dark, which dictated the kind of sightseeing we could do before eating a fairly quick dinner.

However, nighttime was a good time to see a new fountain in the middle of town — on Agmashenebeli Square in front of the city’s theater — because it puts on quite a light show. [Read more...]

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Bruges: For a Sense of the Middle Ages

Houses on the grounds of the Bruges Begijnhof, now home to Benedictine nuns.

BRUGES, Belgium — I was so enchanted by Bruges, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities, during a visit in the 1990s that I urged a travel companion to join me this year for a return visit.

The city, in the north of Belgium, was a major trading center in the Middle Ages until around 1500 when its access to the sea, the River Zwin, silted up. The resulting economic stagnation brought most development to a halt and thus left much of the medieval city intact.

Today close to a fifth of the city’s 105,000 residents live in the Old Town, an area that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and the natural destination for any tourist.

As I noted in my book, Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, Bruges is one of a few cities often called Venice of the North. This is because of Bruges’ many canals.

Scenic view of one of Bruges’ 43 bridges and the canal that passes under it.

The starting point for getting to know the center of town, aside from a good map, is a cruise that typically follows about three miles’ worth of these canals. My friend and I boarded a motorized boat to sample the experience. This provided a preview of many points of interest and a chance to see things we would never find on our own. The cruise lasted about 40 minutes.

Our guide, a fast talker in two languages, pointed out a few houses where the windows have been bricked up. There was a time, he said, when homeowners were taxed based on the number of windows in their houses.

Therefore, some taxpayers closed off some windows with bricks to

reduce their taxes, and this was called “daylight robbery,” our guide wisecracked.

Aside from the canal cruises, Bruges is noted for the horse-drawn carriages that ferry many tourists around town.

A horse and carriage, a popular way for tourists to get around Bruges.

Almshouses from the 17th century, now the setting of a folk museum.

However, before and after the cruise, my friend and I walked from one end to the other of the compact, near-perfect medieval city center (which includes some reconstructions and post-medieval treats, too). The highlights included:

The Bruges Begijnhof, one of several such sites in the Low Countries. These establishments, dating from the 13th century, allowed women to retreat into convent-like living, usually with a service focus, but without taking life-long religious vows.

In Bruges, the begijnhof (or beguinage) is now home to Benedictine nuns.

Just the same, tourists can enter the walled complex and stroll among the white, gabled houses that in most cases face a broad central green that is dotted with tall trees that leaned noticeably. The begijnhof, it turns out, also is a charming and peaceful place to take a break from the rigors of a tourist’s life.

The central Markt, a market square that shows its age, so to speak. The Belfort, or Belfry, a striking tower overlooking

A sweeping view of the Markt, Bruges’ central square. The houses remind visitors of Holland.

the square, is as old as the square itself, dating from the 13th century. The vigorous can climb its 366 steps for great views of Bruges. The tower sits atop an old market building, the cloth hall.

Two sides of the Markt are lined with medieval gabled houses, mostly of red brick and looking ever so similar to houses on streets in Dutch towns. Bruges, in fact, is in the section of Belgium where the first language is Flemish, a Dutch language.

The Provincial Court Building, which is the central attraction on one side of Markt, Bruges’ market square. The red building at right is the Post Office, and the building at left is an attraction called Historium, which promises visitors an experience of 15th century Bruges.

However, the Markt’s piece de resistance — in my opinion — is the large and ornate Provincial Court Building, which faces the fourth side of the square — and dates from the 19th century. It was designed to harmonize with the medieval city.

The good news is, as noted, the square is an eye catcher — and I certainly stared at it a lot. The bad news is that, often, scores of other people are doing the same thing, sometimes arriving by the busload — with the buses parked right in front of the Provincial Court Building. It is better to visit Bruges in spring or fall, slightly outside the high season.

Burg Square, site of the historic Town Hall, a few steps away from the Markt. The Town Hall is another stunner, dating

The 14th/15th century Town Hall in Bruges.

from the 14th/15th centuries, with a stately building and nice older houses on two other sides of the square. An odd little park with a kind of slate-gray metallic, out-of-place shelter sits on the fourth side.

The medieval Church of Our Lady, said to have Belgium’s tallest church spire.

Among numerous churches, the Church of Our Lady. Built in the 13th to 15th centuries, it is billed as having the tallest church spire in Belgium.

A charming spot called Wijngaard Square. It is the site of, among other things, a red-painted building housing a restaurant called Vivaldi and a fountain with a horse’s head emerging from each of two sides. I particularly liked this piece of real estate.

Finally, in Bruges, it seemed possible to buy just about everything one looks for in

The bright red Vivaldi restaurant on Wijngaard Square in Bruges.

Belgium. Countless shops sell chocolate, tapestries, waffles (as street food) and lace, a thing Bruges is particularly noted for.

We opted not to tour a lace-making factory, ditto for a folk museum housed in almshouses. It was sunny at the time and it was more satisfying to stay outdoors and move about.

The article and photos are by Nadine Godwin, the author of Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia, which was published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Mtskheta: Polishing a Historic Jewel

Overview of Mtskheta, a museum town outside of Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. The town sits at the confluence of two rivers. The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and its walls are clearly visible at the heart of town.

MTSKHETA, Georgia — This town of only 9,000 was the capital of the kingdom of Iberia from the third century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. Now considered a museum town, Mtskheta is only 12 miles north of Tbilisi, the capital of modern Georgia in the southern Caucasus Mountains.

The town is particularly important locally because a Mtskheta-based king and queen were the first Georgians to adopt Christianity. That was in the fourth century.

Its historic religious structures also are sufficiently appreciated internationally to appear on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. [Read more...]

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Prague: Castle Hill, Lesser Town

The quintessential view of Castle Hill, seen from Old Town, with St. Vitus Cathedral standing out over all the surrounding buildings of the Prague Castle complex.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Part of the Czech capital sits on the aptly named Castle Hill. A wooden fortress was built here in the ninth century, and the site has been a seat of government ever since.

It also is one of the city’s several hills.

Because of Rome’s history, seven seems to be the more auspicious number when counting hills, and Prague is one of many cities described by their fans as built on seven hills. Other boosters claim Prague was built on nine hills.

These truly trivial factoids are in my book, “Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia,” published by The Intrepid Traveler.

Regardless of the count, Castle Hill is the one to see.

Castle Hill and Lesser Town (meaning smaller town) are parts of the UNESCO-protected historic center of Prague. Sightseeing highlights from these sections, west of the Vltava River, appear here. The Old Town and New Town, east of the river, are covered here.

Prague was created in the 18th century by merging these four towns and is now a city of 1.3 million. Both written reports are based on a recent press trip.

 Castle Hill

Castle Square, which is the entry point to the Prague Castle complex.

My press group traveled by tram up to Castle Hill from Lesser Town. This delivered us to the Prague Castle complex, which had been easy to see throughout our previous day of sightseeing east of the Vltava, largely because of the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral.

We arrived just as a ceremonial changing of the guard was under way. However, it was not all that exciting because the men were dressed in modern military uniforms. I am a sucker for period costumes.

• As for St. Vitus, given we were visiting on a Sunday, we couldn’t enter the cathedral — an irony considering that, according to our guide, the Czech Republic is only 20 percent Christian and largely atheist. However, I loved seeing the cathedral’s exterior under good sun, and was particularly taken with the side entryway, a set of three archways topped by extensive mosaics depicting the Last Judgment.

Side view of St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex. Three archways at lower right are decorated with colorful mosaics depicting the Last Judgment.

St. Vitus is impressive for its size and its gothic structure. It took a long time to build, too, from 1344 to 1929. Its full name is a mouthful: St. Vitus, St. Wenceslas and St. Adalbert Cathedral.

• We walked through the oldest part of the castle precinct,

Vladislav Hall, which is part of the Old Royal Palace on in the Prague Castle complex in Prague.

Vladislav Hall, which dates from 1487-1500 and is part of the Old Royal Palace. Nowadays, the hall is used only for special events. It has few furnishings and provides a nice feel of stepping into the past.

One of its rooms is the place where a group of Protestants pushed Catholics out a window (the defenestration) in 1618. This triggered the Thirty Years War, which went badly for the Protestant-leaning Czechs who were forced, under the Hapsburgs, back into the Catholic fold. (The men tossed out the window survived their tumble.)

Signage forbade photography in this gothic hall, but people were taking photos everywhere, unhindered, so we did likewise.

One of Franz Kafka’s residences, No. 22, on Castle Hill’s Golden Lane.

• Another stop on our hilltop rounds was the charming little Golden Lane, which dates from the 16th century and got its name for the goldsmiths who once lived and worked here. In addition, the writer Franz Kafka lived in one of the tiny (now colorfully painted) houses that are attached to the outer castle walls.

The Golden Lane was reopened to the public in mid-2011 after a year-long restoration effort. In the wake of that, visitors have to show their castle entry tickets to enter Golden Lane, a first in my experience.

Also, as part of the restoration, nine houses were set up to illustrate the daily life of long-ago Golden Lane occupants. Seven others are shops. The largest of the houses had housed a fortuneteller!

 Lesser Town

On leaving the castle complex, we walked down the hill, past the city’s only and recently revitalized vineyard, into Lesser Town, which was founded in 1257.

The courtyard of the Augustine Hotel in Prague’s Lesser Town. The hotel was created from seven buildings including a monastery.

The deluxe Augustine Hotel, our home for two nights, was located in this part of Prague. Between 2006 and 2009, seven buildings, several with historical significance, were combined, creating a hotel with sections in varied shapes. Related interior features included, in my room, beams running across slanted walls.

The oldest component was the 13th century Augustinian St. Thomas Monastery. For that matter, five Augustinian monks still live in a surviving part of the monastery.

Visiting museums or centuries-old businesses is good, but overnighting at a hotel created from preexisting structures is an unbeatable way to see the less-obvious aspects of a UNESCO-protected area.

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Prague: Old Town, New Town

The Charles Bridge at night.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — I never pass up a chance for a review visit to Prague, the Czech capital and one of the world’s most beautiful cities. The entire historic city center (more than three square miles) is a UNESCO heritage site.

So it was that I joined a press group for a recent two-day visit.

Highlights included the following:

• Charles Bridge, the city’s oldest, was built by King Charles IV in 1357. Now restricted to pedestrians, the bridge offers great views of both banks of the Vltava River.

It is four carriage lanes wide, one-third of a mile long and further distinguished by towers on each end and 30 baroque statues lining its sides. Less obviously, raw eggs were used in its mortar.

My press group crossed on a sunny May day. Crowds clustered around the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. Following local tradition, they touched the statue to make wishes and ensure return visits. I couldn’t get near it.

In addition, vendors sold souvenirs, and the occasional puppeteer entertained.

 Old Town

The Tyn Church of Our Lady, with spires rising well above Prague’s Old Town Square.

• The Old Town Square — a few blocks from the bridge — has many show-stopping sights, beginning with the obvious: the Astronomical Clock on the Old Town Hall Tower and the twin-spired Tyn Church of Our Lady, which rises well above the piazza.

The Storch House, dating from the 14th and 15th centuries, with a painting of King Wenceslas on horseback.

Those who cast their eyes a bit lower find more. My favorites were the Storch House, decorated with a painting of King Wenceslas; the Minute House, Franz Kafka’s sgraffito-covered childhood home, and the Kriz House, a beautiful red home that was incorporated into the Old Town Hall (which is no longer a town hall, by the way).

The square’s dramatic Jan Hus statue recalls the days when most Czechs were Hussites (reformers who preceded Luther).

Minute House, Franz Kafka’s childhood home, in Old Town Square. It is covered in sgraffito, i.e., designs created by scratching away parts of a surface layer (such as plaster or clay) to expose a different colored ground.

At our group’s visit, the square, which dates from the 12th century, was firmly in the 21st with a huge outdoor TV screen at one side. The square was jammed with fans watching the Czech team compete in an ice hockey tournament. Outdoor cafes were doing a booming business, as was any vendor selling beer.

I returned later for photography, once in the much quieter early a.m. and the next

Crowds of tourists, in the foreground, wait for the Astronomical Clock to strike the hour, a time when figures representing the 12 apostles will appear. The Tyn Church of Our Lady is in the background.

evening around 6 p.m. A different crowd — tourists, this time — was standing below the Astronomical Clock waiting for figures of the apostles to emerge as they do every hour between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

• Prague’s Jewish quarter, in the Old Town, dates to the 13th century although today’s look reflects much later redevelopment (1893-1913).

Visiting the quarter is fascinating but sobering. Our guide said Prague counted 120,000 Jews in 1939, but has 2,000 now.

The 13th century Old New Synagogue still holds services, making it Europe’s oldest active synagogue.

Because a Jewish American colleague wanted to attend services there, I attended as well. That was 1988. When we exited Old New Synagogue, he said the service was as much a mystery to him as it was to me.

Aside from the impenetrable service, I remember the synagogue most for being astonishingly tiny.

On this year’s visit, we had a look at the 16th century Maisel Synagogue, now a museum. Our guide said Hitler had tapped Maisel to be the Museum of an Extinct Race, or some such name.

The Old Jewish Cemetery, in Prague’s Old Town.

Very nearby, the Old Jewish Cemetery, where tombstones are pressed together and often askew, is believed to hold 100,000 who were buried, up to 12 layers deep, between the 15th and 18th centuries.

For Jewish heritage tourists, there is much to see in Prague, including a Kafka Museum and former Kafka homes.

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Vancouver: West Coast Beauty

Part of the Vancouver skyline and anchorage for pleasure boats, as seen from Stanley Park’s seawall.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — I had never seen Vancouver, billed as one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, so any excuse to visit seemed like a good one.

I tacked two days of sightseeing in the West Coast city to the front end of a rail trip in western Canada and invited a friend to join me.

The exterior of the Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver.

We arrived in perfect weather, and our luck held. This was September.

Vancouver isn’t a terribly large city (population: 600,000; greater Vancouver: 2 million-plus), but it is big enough that a city-center hotel is very helpful. We selected the Shangri-La Hotel, which allowed us to walk to many of our preferred attractions and activities.

• Sometimes walks were longer than projected (we were new to town, after all!),

The market area on Vancouver’s Granville Island — which is really a peninsula.

such as the 45-minute jaunt to Granville Island Market.

The so-called island, accessible via Granville Street Bridge, sits in False Creek between two parts of greater Vancouver. However, it is really a tiny peninsula, and False Creek is an inlet — which may explain the name.

Granville Island is charming with theater, galleries and shops, often in repurposed factories, and home to lots of pleasure boats, some available for rent.

This place felt like a cross between a seafaring community and a resort town, plus, with the big market halls, it is a food-shopping destination for locals.

One shopper told us the colorful pipes seen meandering across the landscape have no function; they are decorative, meant to recall the area’s industrial past.

There was even a place to exchange currency, but then this place is very, very close to the U.S, border.

The colorful Aquabus, providing transportation across False Creek. Granville Island is in the background.

Eventually, we returned whence we had come, crossing False Creek on a colorful

Shops on Granville Island are often in refurbished former factories, and walkways are enlivened with colorful pipes such as the blue pipe seen here. The pipes celebrate the island’s history as an industrial area.

example of public transportation, the floating Aquabus.

• We booked an hourlong harbor cruise aboard a paddle wheeler called the Constitution, an effective way to get better acquainted with the city’s geography and appreciate its scenic setting.

Besides looking at an astonishing display of private boats, plus clubhouses, scullers, skyscrapers, cargo gear and even a floating Chevron gas station, we saw seals sunning themselves.

Our narrator pointed out the convention center and said it has the largest living roof in North America.

The paddle wheeler, Constitution, one of several vessels operated by Harbour Cruises for sightseeing, lunch and dinner cruises.

The cruise was great fun. A tugboat captain showed off by turning his boat in circles for us, then our captain responded by making a circle with our boat. This was not typical, our narrator said.

• We walked straight from the cruise into Vancouver’s thousand-acre Stanley Park. Park visitors can sightsee from a horse-drawn carriage.

Some take the time to walk, jog or cycle the 5.5-mile length of the park’s seawall, for a green inner city experience and quality time gazing toward the ocean.

My goals were less grand. We walked the seawall long enough to spot the park’s display of totem poles, some brightly colored,

The display of totem poles seen in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

others not so much, but each with a story.

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Seeing America (and a Queen) in London

Queen Elizabeth II, seen waving a gloved hand, rides in her carriage to Parliament.

LONDON — I went to London recently to visit friends, but I cannot be underfoot at a host’s home all day every day.

So, for variety in my London experiences, I planned a few sightseeing excursions that generally wouldn’t float to the top of anyone’s must-see list. Most of my choices had American themes.

• The Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street behind the Charing Cross railway station is the only extant house where American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin lived. No U.S. residence has survived, but Franklin lived in the London house for 16 years over an 18-year period before the American Revolution.

The interior of the Benjamin Franklin House in London.

About a decade ago, I visited this site, but there was nothing

A reenactor, playing the part of Polly Stevenson, daughter of Ben Franklin’s landlady, at the Benjamin Franklin House in London.

much to show except the building itself, a Georgian structure typical for its early 18th century origins.

It has been restored and now offers the Benjamin Franklin House Historical Experience. The experience is available five times from noon to 4:15 on Wednesdays to Sundays.

The program involves one on-site costumed reenactor playing the daughter of Franklin’s landlady, with voiceovers for Franklin and the landlady. The aim is to tell the Franklin story in his words with various themes, and appropriate visuals, attached to each room. There is very little furniture in the rooms.

Franklin was involved in so many things (as a scientist, philosopher, writer, postmaster, as well as diplomat) and so much occurred to shape American history in his life that it helps to be somewhat acquainted with the history to follow these presentations.

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Antwerp: Home to Painters and Printers

A statue of a Roman soldier, Silvius Brabo, said to be Julius Caesar’s nephew, atop the Brabo Fountain, at the center of the Grote Markt, or Great Market. Guild houses and other traditional-style Flemish houses form the backdrop.

ANTWERP, Belgium — This Flemish city is a sizeable commercial center, and it was the home of one of the world’s best-known artists, Peter Paul Rubens.

Interior of the Antwerp train station.

Those are wildly different reasons for coming to town, but both come to the tourist’s attention fairly quickly.

A friend and I arrived in Antwerp by train, where the station is next to the city’s Diamond Museum and the diamond district.

However, we had other priorities and walked toward the historic city center, passing through some rather dark and drab streets under overcast skies.

Soon enough, we were at the Rubens House, which the artist designed and built in the early 17th century.

Now a museum, it sits on the amusingly named Wapper Square. Part

Garden at the Rubens House, which is now a museum.

of the square is given over to a glass-sided building with a sizeable room accommodating ticket sellers, books and other printed material, storage space for backpacks (which are not allowed in the house) and a shop with a separate entry.

The house — a mansion, in fact — featured many large fireplaces in various rooms, a kitchen that did not seem big enough to me, a serving room next to the family dining room plus bedrooms with short beds, set up in a way that allowed Rubens and his family to sleep in a partial sitting position, a custom of the times.

Rooms included the artist’s large studio, now effectively an art gallery. One of Rubens’ students was Antwerp-born Anthony van Dyck.

Aside from its reflection of obvious affluence and evidence of how the fortunate minority lived in Rubens’ time, the house was compelling for the opportunity to see many Rubens paintings.

But, in time, my friend and I set off for something more.

Our wanderings, always ultimately pointed toward the city center, took us to a square named for the writer, Hendrik Conscience (seriously).

It was the city’s first spot of conviviality on our day’s rounds. I refer to the restaurants in charming small buildings with seating outside. There was plenty more of this to come.

The full length of the Antwerp Cathedral, seen from Groen Square, with numerous small houses abutting the side of the building.

From here, we walked down a narrow, and equally charming, street past the back of Antwerp’s cathedral. Small buildings were set against the side of this big church with several outdoor eateries at hand.

Then, suddenly, we were in the church square, lined with still more little houses and outdoor eating/drinking spots.

Visitors could enter the back of the cathedral without paying an entry fee and see the whole interior quite well — and hear the organ music that entertained us all. The brick interior is a bright (if that is the right word) creamy white, which apparently had been cleaned recently.

The cathedral square is minutes from the Grote Markt, or Great Market, site of the Town Hall and the goal of any self-respecting sightseer.

The market square is encircled by old houses, with their de rigueur cafes, and many former guild houses, now used for

Some of the many outdoor cafes that dot the heart of Antwerp.

A corner of the Grote Markt, or Great Market, showing part of the Antwerp Town Hall at left and a selection of the city’s guild houses at right.

modern purposes behind the historic facades.

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Namur: Military History Meets Modern Life

Namur houses reflected in the Sambre River.

NAMUR, Belgium — Namur is not exactly a household name. In fact, I knew little of this city until I was planning a trip to Belgium meant to include some destinations in the French-speaking parts of the country, meaning places south of Brussels.

Namur’s biggest claim to (tourism) fame is a hilltop citadel, which sits on a V-shaped piece of land where the city’s two rivers, the Meuse and Sambre, meet.

The city of 30,000 people also is the capital of Wallonia, or the southern, French-speaking region of Belgium. (Greater Namur counts 110,000 inhabitants.)

Namur is not quite an hour south of Brussels by train, making it easy to get to for a sightseeing sojourn of a few hours. It would be more rewarding to stay longer, but my schedule was forever too tight.

I traveled with a friend and we carried a map of the city. Good thing, because — atypically for a European city — we could not find a tourism information desk in or near the railroad station.

We found our way, just the same, not a difficult matter because Namur’s center is small. We headed toward the nearest river, and soon, we could orient ourselves by spotting the citadel, which sits on a steep cliff almost 400 feet above Namur and covers 19 acres.

We climbed well up into the citadel site, in part for the great views of the city and its rivers.

But there is the citadel itself, dating from the Roman era, but rebuilt several times. It is immediately notable for huge

Houses on the Meuse River, seen from Namur’s citadel. A part of the fortress is at left, and the dome of Saint-Aubain Cathedral is visible in the background.

ramparts that were not to be toyed with in their heyday, but the fortress and its grounds were transformed into a park in the late 19th century.

We hoofed it, but visitors have other options. For one, a tourist train makes it easier to get around and snatch time at various attractive vantage points.

And visitors, on a guided tour, can visit a large network of underground tunnels, essentially a buried military base originating in the 16th century. Other tours take in the fortress’ medieval features including a “Life in the Castle” exhibition.

However, after our survey of the grounds and the surrounding area, we dove into the city.

Artwork illustrating Wallonian life can be seen in the courtyard of Namur’s City Hall.

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