Bouillon’s fame rests on the exploits of Duke Godfrey, the most famous Belgian crusader, who left his fortress on a rocky spur overlooking the town to join the First Crusade to Jerusalem. Now the oldest mediaeval remains in Belgium, his castle attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, who also enjoy the Ducal museum and Archéoscope housed there. Afterwards, you can float down the River Semois, which winds through the town, in a kayak or a pedalo. Then have a look at the Animal Park or enjoy views of the surrounding countryside from the network of footpaths, and, finally, relax over a meal in one of the many cafés and restaurants, before settling down for the night in one of the hotels or campsites. Must-see annual events include the Mediaeval Festival in August, the “Grand Raid” mountain-bike race in September and the Hunting Festival in November.
In the footsteps of Godfrey at the castle
The mighty fortress we see today is not the first fortification built in Bouillon. Another rocky spur overlooking the town, accessible via waymarked footpath n° 1 was the site of the “Ramonette”, a hexagonal tower built in 1044 on the orders of Duke Gozelon of Lothringia. Duke Godfrey’s castle, which he mortgaged to Bishop Otbert of Liège to finance his participation in the crusade, was built lower down the same outcrop. Below the castle, the town was surrounded by walls of which a few ruins remain, behind the Provost’s house in the Rue des Ecoles. Emperor Charles V besieged the castle in 1521 and then dismantled it to prevent its occupation by his enemies, before returning it to the Bishop. It was rebuilt and extended in the sixteenth century by George of Austria, Prince-Bishop of Liège.
The reconstructed tower offers splendid views of the castle’s defences, the town and the meandering River Semois. Vauban, Louis XIV of France’s military engineer, dug out a gunpowder store in the rock, and rebuilt the town’s ramparts from 1677 onwards. Today we can admire Vauban’s work in the Dauphin, Brittany and Burgundy bastions, the arsenal and the extraordinary flights of stairs. In 1815, when modern Belgium was part of the Netherlands, the fortress was converted into a barracks and some of the mediaeval buildings were destroyed to make way for a guardhouse and an artillery platform
A museum at the heart of the town
At the heart of the town is the Ducal Museum, which explores the history of the Duchy of Bouillon. Housed in two beautiful seventeenth-and-eighteenth-century townhouses, its rich collections bear witness to arts and technology from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century. One section of this museum is dedicated to the Crusades and the Crusader Kingdoms. A model shows what the original castle at Bouillon looked like, so that its architectural development can be understood. There are many paintings by Semois artists, including Albert Raty, who was born in Bouillon, on display in the museum. The iron industry which enjoyed a boom here in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be explored through hundreds of exhibits, including a famous “maka” or huge forge hammer. Saint Eligius, patron saint of metalworkers, is still venerated in Bouillon in an impressive annual procession and distribution of blessed bread.
Re-live history at the Archéoscope
Located in the former convent of the Sepulchrine Canonesses on the bank of the River Semois, the Godfrey of Bouillon Archéoscope offers an audio-visual show with special effects that re-creates the departure of the First Crusade. Exhibitions trace the development of defence systems and the history of the Semois region, the town of Bouillon and the convent.
Artists in Bouillon
Despite being a quiet town in the Ardennes on the River Semois, Bouillon has attracted some famous visitors, including Casanova, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Paul Verlaine. Then there was the famous actress Madeleine Ozeray, who was born in Bouillon and was the partner of the actor and director Louis Jouvet. Pierre Rousseau, a printer from Toulouse, set up shop in Bouillon with the right to print works that had been banned in France, such as the supplements to the Encyclopaedia by Diderot and d’Alembert, or Voltaire’s novels and stories.
Commercial, bubbling town
Today, Bouillon is a particularly enterprising and bubbly (“bouillonnante” in French) place at weekends and in the summer when it welcomes many window-shopping tourists, who also enjoy hiking, walking, mountain-biking and kayaking.