If you ever wanted to find yourself on the pages of a storybook, take a trip to Durbuy. Located in Belgium’s Wallonia region, south-east of Brussels, this picturesque city is filled with winding cobbled streets and timber-frame houses, surrounded by emerald-green rolling hills. But there’s more to Durbuy (pronounced Dur-bwee) than its fairytale looks, this medieval village is in fact “la plus petit ville du monde” (the smallest city in the world).
Durbuy’s city status dates back to 1331 when John I, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, bestowed the title. Ramparts were raised all around the tiny town, creating the world’s smallest city. If you’re wondering just how small it really is, you can walk from one side of the city to the other in five minutes. These days Durbuy includes 41 villages and hamlets under its umbrella but at the heart is still the original city, the layout of which hasn’t changed since the 14th century.
We – me, the three kids and my sister – visited Durbuy for four days in May. And, despite the fact that I was born in Belgium and that I spent a significant part of my childhood living near Brussels, it was my first time to the city. If I’m entirely honest, I had never even heard of Durbuy before I was invited to visit! But what a wonderful surprise Durbuy turned out to be. This is such a fantastic destination for families; a place to wander medieval streets, discover mysterious stones, embark on a myriad of outdoor adventures and eat like a king.
[DURBUY] We’ve got a lot of love for this place! Take a look at what we got up to in the smallest city in the world. #AmazingWallonia
Posted by globetotting.com on Tuesday, 17 July 2018
Things to do in Durbuy
Start your trip like we did, with a picnic by the big rock at the end of town. For those with an interest in geology, the straight and symmetrical ‘Roche de la Falize’ is an excellent example of the ‘waves’ (synclines and anticlines) formed by tectonic movements. Even if you’re not terrible interested in rocks, however, it’s still worth looking at the dome-shaped rock and its layers of limestone; if nothing else because its some 360 million years old! You can pick up bread, cheese, ham and more for a picnic a la Francaise from the Boucherie Bodson, located just behind the Tourist Office.
Take a train ride
The best way to get a feel for the city, and to really understand just how small it is, is to jump on board Le petit train touristique. This tourist train winds its way through the city streets and up to a viewing tower positioned above town. Climb to the top and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views over Durbuy including the château and the topiary gardens. The train leaves approximately every hour between 1pm and 5pm during the week and between 10.30am and 5pm on weekends and the entire journey lasts 30 to 40 minutes. Adults cost €6 and children aged between 4- and 12-years-old are €4.
Visit the Topiary Park
Once you’ve seen the city from above, make your way to Durbuy’s topiary park, located alongside the river Ourthe with perfect views of the castle. Home to some 250 topiary figures, the park covers one hectare and is the largest of its kind in Europe. It’s a fun place to discover for kids with animals and figures crafted from Boxwood plants (Buxus). Favourites with my children included the kayakers and the squirrels (there’s also Pamela Anderson sunbathing!). Kids are given an activity booklet as they enter with plenty of games and activities to keep them busy – plus a prize at the end. The park is open daily 10am to 6pm expect for November and December when the park shuts at 5pm and 4pm respectively. The park is closed in January.
Walk the Streets
The Durbuy Tourist Office has a very good walking tour map that details the history of the town and some of the buildings. Even if you don’t have a map, however, it’s an easy town to wander around and I can guarantee that you won’t get lost! Enjoy discovering the family-run shops and restaurants as you meander, including the guaranteed kid-favourite, Bonbon Chic. This pretty sweet shop sells locally made traditional chocolates and more modern candies like Beanboozles; you’ll struggle to get the kids out. There’s a lovely-looking antique shop that sells fun things like old metal Tintin lunch boxes on Rue des Récollectines. Unfortunately it was shut when we visited (it’s only open on weekends). Most of the city streets are pedestrianised, meaning that it’s easy to wander with young kids.
Become a goat herder
One of the activities that my kids loved the most during our trip to Durbuy was our afternoon with Géradine, owner of Chèvrerie de Borlon. Géradine, along with her husband and three sons, live in the nearby town of Borlon where they own a goat farm. Géradine is the driving force behind the farm – she’s wanted a goat since she was eight-years-old! After time spent living and travelling abroad and a stint learning to make cheese at a nearby prestigious fromagerie, Géradine established her own farm in 2017. She now has 22 female goats (she’s hoping to get 30 in total) and makes her own cheese daily.
What is especially wonderful about a visit to Chèvrerie de Borlon, however, is Géradine herself. She’s funny, engaging and really interesting having travelled the world and settled back in Belgium with her family. As a mum herself, she’s also brilliant with children joking with my kids that she has “the most beautiful goats and the best goats cheese in the village”… because she has no competition. Visits to the farm have to be arranged in advance but there is no hard and fast format; you can spend a half-day milking goats and taking them to the field or opt for a longer, full-day experience. Some people just want a two-hour visit with the goats and this can also be arranged.
We arrived in the late afternoon and walked with Géradine and her eldest son up to the field where the goats roam during the day. Imagine my city kids’ surprise when, all of a sudden, the herd of goats came trotting down the road having let themselves out of the field because they could sense rain! Back on the farm, the kids helped to feed the goats and put them in their pen.
Have an adventure
Durbuy has a lot of adventure activities to offer families including mountain biking, hiking and kayaking. It also has the Adventure Park. This adventure and nature park, located on the outskirts of town, is outdoor kiddie heaven and features almost any activity you can imagine. Here, you can zip down a tubing slide, whizz along a zipwire, navigate the bike park, jump from a wooden tower onto a giant inflatable bag, go rock climbing and much, much more.
At the heart of the adventure park is a giant playground, which was ideal for my youngest who despite thinking that he is 13 years old is, in fact, just three. From here you can climb up and make your way across wooden bridges and onto large, bouncy nets. Entrance is colour-coded with different coloured wristbands giving you access to different activities. There are also additional activities such as laser tag and an escape room, which are sold separately. For more information on the Adventure Park, take a look at their website.
One of our other highlights during our time in Durbuy was the day we spent with Riveo. This river centre is an educational and conservation centre dedicated to the River Hotton. Located in the town of the same name, the centre opened 11 years ago and now welcomes groups, schools, individual visitors and more to teach them about local life on the water. We met our guide Frédéric on a sunny Tuesday morning and followed him to the nearby river where he taught us how to fish. Again, for my city-living kids this was such a fun activity and Frédéric was patient and engaging with the children as they put bait on their hooks and waited for the Crussian Carp to bite. As it turns out, my sister has something of a hidden talent for fishing as she caught fish after fish after fish. My somewhat competitive kids tried their hardest to match her record but without success!
Riveo also offer fly fishing for more experienced fisherfolk as well as larvae fishing, to monitor the quality of the water. Larvae fishing is usually done with school kids. The centre work with lots of schools from Brussels and Holland. The Riveo centre has a small aquarium, a fantastic River at Night exhibition and a mini golf course.
Not far from Riveo are the Grottes de Hotton, the Hotton Caves. There are more than 1,000 caves in Belgium and this particular one was first discovered in 1958 after an explosion of a nearby quarry revealed a small hole in the earth. Cavers entered the narrow opening and took three days to navigate their way through and find another way out.
These caves are a true adventure. Formed by rain water (rather than river water), the natural cave system is 7km long in total (the tour only covers 1km) and reaches a depth of 70m below the surface (there are 580 steps to get down and a lift to help bring you back up). Entrance to the caves is by guided tour only and our guide was entertaining and informative; he also knew exactly how much information to share with the kids before their attention started to wander. On our underground tour we learn that stalagmites and stalactites only grow 1cm in 100 years and how to recognise the characteristics of a rain water caves, such as the drapery effect you see on the stones as opposed to the smooth surfaces found in caves shaped by river water. We even saw a layer of ancient seabed resting in what is now part of the ceiling in the cave network; you could even see shells embedded in it, which was absolutely incredible given that it was some 390 million years old!
As is par for the course with cave systems, there are various shapes thought to look like an animal or human and the Grottes de Hotton is no exception; during our hour-long tour we saw a rabbit, an old man and an elephant camouflaged within the rocks.
Tours are held four times a day on weekdays and eight times a day at weekends and take approximately one hour. It drops to 12C at the bottom of the cave so make sure to bring a jumper. It’s also wet and muddy so do wear proper trainers or hiking shoes. Keen spelunkers might like to try the ‘alternative’ route through the caves, which involves making your way down a plastic tube and into a 12m deep pit before crawling through narrow openings and fissures until you make your way out – an activity that takes around 5 hours. It’s traditionally only allowed if you’re part of a cave club (and, in my opinion, a little bit mad!).
As you drive from the river centre to the caves, make sure to stop by the English Cemetery en route, for British soldiers who died in WWII.
Search for mysterious stones
The nearby town of Wéris is known for being one of the prettiest towns in Wallonia and as one of the biggest megalithic sites in the country. A small but informative museum in the centre of town details what is know about these mysterious stones that date back to a time before the pyramids were built. Traditionally used as burial sites, a few of these megalith (big stones) and dolmens (graves) remain in the area today. There are a number of walks in the surrounding countryside that takes you past some of these standing stones; the museum sells maps detailing these walks. We attempted the shortest walk, a 5km route, but turned back after the first megalith – walking with a three-year-old is challenging when you don’t have a pushchair or kiddie backpack. Still, the countryside is beautiful and the sheer size and age of the rocks are fascinating. If you have bigger kids, it’s well worth trying out one of the walks.
Places to stay in Durbuy
There are a number of hotels in the city centre to choose from however, I would recommend that you stay outside of town. We spent two nights at Chez Tante Alice, an absolutely charming B&B located 14km from Durbuy itself. Owned and managed by Marie-France (who is as welcoming as her hotel), the house was the original home of her Aunt Alice and today offers four double bedrooms for guests. There are three double bedrooms upstairs and a further one downstairs. There are two living areas for guests to use as well as access to the well-tended garden – you’ll notice that Marie-France has very green fingers! The rooms all enjoy a literary theme and are named after regional writers.
One of the highlights of staying here are the breakfasts that are prepared by Marie-France. Expect homemade yogurts, fresh bread, local cheeses and hams and an array of homemade jams in a variety of flavours (rhubarb and banana was just one of the jams on offer when we stayed). Served in Marie France’s conservatory, overlooking the garden, it really was the perfect way to start the day.
Our second two nights in Durbuy saw us under canvas, but fortunately given my beginner camping credentials, we were under luxury canvas with an ensuite bathroom! Located above the Adventure Park is a new glamping option for visitors to Durbuy. The tents are the kind of high-end luxury tents traditionally used in African safari camps and there are two categories, Bali and Shaksha. The Bali tents are simple but comfortable, have shared bathrooms and can sleep four, six or eight people. The Shaksha tents on the other hand, come with a private, raised wooden deck where my sister and I could enjoy a glass of wine once the kids had gone to bed, a double bed as well as a bunk-bed and the all-important (for me, at least!), ensuite bathroom. At the heart of the camp grounds is a dining hall and you can reserve meals as well as organise to have breakfast delivered to your tent. There’s also a large playground at the heart of the camp grounds.
How to get to Durbuy
Durbuy can be easily visited as a day trip from Brussels, Liege or Luxembourg. Truth is, however, that Durbuy is a destination in its own right and you could easily spend several days to a week here exploring all that the area has to offer families.
Durbuy is best visited by car; you can get a train from Brussels to one of the neighbouring towns but then you are reliant on buses to get around. Either bring your car over from the UK, travelling via the Eurotunnel, or hire a car in Brussels. You’ll also want a car to explore the area.
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Disclosure: We were guests of the Belgian Tourist Office Wallonia during our time in Durbuy. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own.