Dinant (pop. 12,500) is a historic town spectacularly sited along impressive stone cliffs near the confluence of the Meuse and Lesse Rivers. The region of Dinant is the tourist heart of Wallonia, with Dinant serving as its main hub.
Dinant was the hometown of Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), the inventor of the saxophone. Leffe, the local beer named after the Abbey of Leffe in Dinant, is one of the best known Belgian beers worldwide.
Notwithstanding its small size, Dinant has a remarkably vivid history. The town was the southermost outpost of the powerful Hanseatic League and the only one in the Meuse valley. Since the split of the Carolingian Empire, and for the next 900 years, Dinant was an enclave of the Prince-bishopric of Liège lying right in the midst of what would become the Burgundian, then Habsburgian Netherlands. This extraordinary position was the the source of innumerable conflicts with the neighbouring Marquisate of Namur and County (later Duchy) of Luxembourg. For this reason, the region of Dinant has more medieval fortresses than anywhere else in the Low Countries.
Origins and early Medieval period
The region of Dinant was settled since prehistory. The city's name comes from the Celtic word "Divo-Nanto", meaning 'Sacred Valley'.
During the Roman period, the Condroz region where Dinant is located had the highest density of Gallo-Roman villas in Belgium. St. Maternus, the first bishop of Cologne, established an oratory in Dinant in the early 4th century.
The Franks minted coins in Dinant since the 6th century, an activity that was pursued well into the Middle Ages. St. Monulph (549-597), seventh Bishop of Tongeren-Maastricht and founder of the Church of Liège, was born in Dinant, son of the local lord named Randace.
In 870, the Treaty of Meersen dividing the Carolingian Empire between Charles the Bald of the West Franks and Louis the German of the East Franks, split Dinant in two parts: one allocated to the County of Namur, and the other to the Bishopric of Liège (soon to become a Prince-Bishopric).
Under Emperor Otto III (980-1002), Dinant was exempted from the right of tonlieu (i.e. the tax on goods sold at markets). The town specialised in the production of copperware, known to this day as dinanderie. The coppersmiths from Dinant became the most famous in the Meuse valley.
The Danish Vikings invaded and sacked the region in the 9th century, prompting Dinant to raise its first fortifications. The earliest written mention of the castle on the cliff above the city (where the citadel now stands) dates from 1040, when it was reconstructed by Nitard, Prince-Bishop of Liège (meaning that another castle had existed beforehand).
Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV (1050-1106) conferred most of the rights on Dinant to the Principality Liège, but the County of Namur kept a few of them. Dinant became one of the 23 Bonnes Villes (literally "Good Towns") of the Principality Liège. In 1059, along with the citizens of other Bonnes Villes in the region (Huy, Thuin, Fosses-la-Ville), the Dinantais ran havoc the County of Flanders in retaliation to the sack of Liège by the Flemings.
Late Medieval period
The 13th century was a turbulent one. Several wars opposed the Prince-Bishopric of Liège to the County of Namur and Duchy of Brabant. Around 1215, pantheistic philosopher David of Dinant was persecuted for heresy. In 1228, a huge rock fell from the cliff on the collegiate church, killing over 30 people. In 1238, Prince-Bishop John of Eppes was killed during the siege of nearby Poilvache.
The Dinantais revolted against the Prince-Bishop to defend their privileges in 1231, and obtained a charter of rights in 1252. Nevertheless, they revolted again in 1255, when Prince-Bishop Henry of Guelders tried to impose new restrictions on coppersmiths.
From 1275, the War of the Cow caused upheaval for 3 years in the Condroz region, between Dinant, Namur and Huy. The powerful Guy of Dampierre, Count of Flanders and Namur, was defeated at Dinant in 1275.
In 1277, thanks to its good relationship with Cologne, Dinant became the first and only member of the Hanseatic League without a port, and the sole Walloon city to join the confederation.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, copper goods from Dinant were traded in Leuven, Bruges, Arras, Paris, Lyons, Milan... In 1329, King Edward III of England allowed them to sell their products on the other side of the Channel, and Dinant even got its own dock in London.
Another major war started in 1297, remembered in Belgian history as the War of the Awans and the Waroux (1297-1338), named after the two rival seigneuries a few kilometres outside of Liège. These events coincided with the war between Dinant and Bouvignes, a stronghold of the County of Namur just north of Dinant, which had been cheeking the Liegeois for quite some time. The Montorgueil Tower was built outside Dinant during the conflict. Bouvignes, however, resisted the assaults of 1319, and peace was signed in 1322.
In 1348, Dinant and Huy plundered Marche, Han-sur-Lesse and Lomprez in yet another war. In 1406, the people of the Principality of Liège took up arms against Prince-Bishop John of Bavaria, and troops from Dinant seized the fortress of Bouillon from the Prince-Bishop. The Bonnes Villes were defeated in 1408, and Dinant was condemned to pay a ransom to recover 50 hostages, and to tear down the Montorgueil Tower. Emperor Sigismond cancelled the sentence in 1417.
In the 15th century, Dinant was a city of 25,000 to 30,000 inhabitants (i.e. 2 or 3 times more than today), defended by heavy ramparts with eight city gates. It was described by a contemporary chronicler as a rich and powerful merchant city. Apart from copper, the city was also highly reputed for its engraved tombstones and liturgical items.
In 1422, the quarrelsome and jealously independent Dinantais insurrected once more against their Prince-Bishop, John of Heinsberg.
In 1421, Count John III of Flanders had sold the County of Namur to Philip III the Good, Duke of Burgundy. This brought a new, stronger opponent to the eternal struggle against Dinant's neighbour. As could be expected, war soon broke out, and in 1430 the Burgundians were besieging the Montorgueil tower, while the Dinantais destroyed Poilvache for good. The Montorgueil tower was eventually demolished in 1445, upon order of the John of Heinsberg.
Philip the Good's nephew, Louis of Bourbon, was appointed Prince-Bishop of Liège in 1456. But the population rejected him, and he was force into exile in Maastricht in 1464. Tensions between Dinant and Bouvignes continued, and in August 1466, the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, started the siege of Dinant. This event mark the darkest moment in local history. The city was completely pillaged and burnt down, killing 800 citizens and expelling the survivors. Every stone left from the rubbles was removed, and Charles ordered to pour salt on the ruins in order to prevent any reconstruction, in the same way as Scipio had done in Carthago. This tells us a lot about Dinant's strength and reputation at the time. Salt, however, did not prevent the reconstruction of the city after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.
Renaissance to modern times
A hard recovery and rebuilding of the city ensued in the 16th century. Unprecedently, Dinant tried to avoid wars by paying ransoms. On 8 July 1554, during the war between Spain and France, the French seized the city (except the castle) and plundered it. As bad as it was, Dinant's fate was more enviable than that of its rival Bouvignes, seized the same day. Bouvignes' inhabitants were slaughtered, and the women had to throw themselves from the cliff to avoid rape and disgrace (see Crèvecoeur).
The 500-year old bridge of Dinant was destroyed by a flood in 1573 and rebuilt next year. The plague and starvation wiped out most of the local population in the late 1500's.
The Counter-Reformation brought a new wave of religious orders into the city : the Carmelites in 1605, the Jesuits in 1608, the Capuchins in 1613, and the Ursulines in 1625. The economy was seriously disturbed by the political situation in the Low Countries in the 17th century. Louis XIV's expansionist ambitions led to the capture of Dinant in 1675, and its incorporation to France by the Treaty of Nijmegen (1678). The Treaty of Rijswijck (1698) retroceded Dinant to the Principality of Liège.
In 1789, the citizens of the Principality of Liège started a full-scale revolution against the episcopal dictatorship. French Revolutionaries were greeted as brothers, and the territory of modern Belgium annexed to France in 1792. The French reorganised the region, and Dinant became a district capital within the Département de Sambre-et-Meuse, forerunner of the modern province of Namur.
In August 1914, the 3rd Saxon division of the German Imperial Army marched over the Meuse Valley in order to break the French lines. Post-war French president Charles de Gaulle, who was a Sub-Lieutenant at the time, was wounded at the Battle of Dinant, his very first military confrontation. 674 inhabitants of Dinant (10% of the population) were summarily executed by the German imperial troops.
Notre-Dame Collegiate Church
In 938, Richer, Bishop of Liège, transformed the royal abbey into the Notre-Dame Collegiate Church. After several destruction in 1228 ans 1467, The Collegiate Church of Our Lady was finally reconstructed in 1471-72 and its bulbous roof was added in 1566.
Perched 100m above the city, Dinant's citadel was built in 1820, although earlier fortifications dating back to 1051 were destroyed by the French in 1703.
It played an important role in fighting the invading German troops in 1914.
You will have to climb 420 steps carved in the rock to reach the top, or use the cable car if you don't feel like it.
Abbey of Leffe