Another summer day in Belgium, another adorable town nestled in the hills along a river with a castle to visit. Thankfully those are not things that we really ever get sick of, we discovered when we dove into exploring Bouillon the other weekend.
To get there, after leaving the highway we twisted and turned through unassuming rural sprawl—from the gas stations to the ruined barns to the hardware and garden stores spread across rolling hills, I almost felt like I could have been back home in Virginia. But then the descent into the river valley began and we were transported back in time.
The main draw to Bouillon is the castle, which is an extensive structure and could easily take two or three hours to explore. Your ticket includes a falconry show. It is definitely a show for visitors’ amusement, not a skill demonstration (I had mixed feelings about it; the birds seemed healthy enough, but it did not seem like a great situation for them to be performing every day.). There are a few exhibits sprinkled through the castle grounds, but the main attraction is definitely walking amidst the impressive fortifications, through tunnels, and up and down ancient staircases. The views are spectacular as well.
Driving down into town from the castle, we spied an idyllic grassy riverside park nearby with an extensive playground. We did not have time to stop, however, because the kids had one goal in mind: a ride on a swan boat. La Semois is a narrow, gentle river here with the castle of Bouillon securely nestled inside a hairpin turn. The going rate was 5 euros per person per hour. We drifted up and down the river in the warm afternoon sun (I say “drifted” because my husband was doing all the hard work paddling and I was relaxing!) until, predictably, both of the kids needed a restroom.
After our boat ride, we took a quick stroll through the artisans’ market that was set up along the water and chatted with the vendors about how unspeakably hot it was (around 80 and sunny). We struggled to find a restaurant that was serving dinner before 8, but finally ducked into one of those massive Italian places where they had Il Divo on the sound system and Il Padrino on their shirts. In a pleasant surprise, our dinners were all good.
The similarities between Bouillon and Dinant are pretty obvious—they’re not even very far apart from each other. But the two towns have a different flavor. Unlike the large tourist boats that share the Meuse with smaller rentals in Dinant, here the only watercraft are paddle boats. Though its castle is bigger, Bouillon is smaller than Dinant and has a more intimate feeling; it’s a hidden gem in this corner of Belgium, a stone’s throw from the Ardennes. And it’s another lovely option for a summer escape from the city.
Tickets: Castle tickets at 7 euro for adults and 5 euro for children 3 and over.