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Civilian Heritage

The Belle Epoque of Meuse villas   (Text by H. ETIENNE)

The Namur - Dinant line was officially inaugurated for passenger transport on 10 October 1862. In those heroic times, the 28km journey between these two towns on the Meuse still took one hour in spite of the "easy" route along the river, due to the very modest power of the steam engines at the time.

At the turn of the 20th century, due to its economic, social and cultural situation, the Upper Meuse took on a certain bourgeois feel, becoming a place for holiday homes.

The rediscovery by many artists of the landscape, river and Meuse contours (in particular the famous Anseremme artists' colony, including Félicien Rops), the medical fashion for being in the "open air" leading to the appearance of the sanatorium, villas and residences, plus Leopold II's policy, which tended to stimulate the role of the Dinant region as a holiday destination (offering a casino and boating) were all factors in this.

These buildings, which were known as chalets or cottages at the time, have an obvious symbolic function. Certain owners chose to call them "chateaux".

Some villas were occupied only in season. Many bourgeois families lived there only temporarily, during the summer season and sometimes until the autumn, at harvest time and the beginning of the hunting season.

They went back into town to their business with the onset of the colder weather.

What kind of lifestyle did they bring? What were the leisure activities of these well-off people? The possibility of independent and organised walks to explore the monumental and natural heritages aroused curiosity. Walks became a way of life. Tennis arrived from England and began to gain its first converts amongst the well-heeled. There were not yet many courts, but a few private parks had these facilities. There was particular enthusiasm for cycling. In the early 20th century, the first cars appeared and with them, the first rallies. The more peaceful past-time of fishing attracted many enthusiasts. Holidaymakers appreciated water sports, bathing and boating. Many families had a boat which they enjoyed taking onto the water. Due to the expense of their equipment and maintenance, racing boats attracted rich young people for the most part.

Private life was an important part of pleasure; people showed off their comfortable interiors to chosen friends, or enjoyed the splendour of the gardens with their families, in the welcome shade of their terraces. The men, and sometimes the women too, were not above donning gardening gloves. When tired of these bucolic pleasures, they would sample the pleasures of city life, such as games or worldly evenings in a fine Dinant restaurant.

Decors and shapes: The first thing to note when observing Meuse villas is the inspiration provided by local traditional styles. Casement and mullion windows, timber frames, high saddleback and pavilion roofs and iconic corner towers are all forms that are reminiscent of earlier centuries. If one word were to be required to define the style of the villas, there is no doubt that it would be "neo-traditional". For this reason Art Nouveau, for instance, which was flourishing at the turn of the 20th century, is scarcely found in these constructions. Horta himself, who spearheaded the movement and designed eight country houses in Belgium, did not give it much place in the latter's design, deeming the extravagance of urban decors to be inappropriate in this context.

Naturally, the materials are to the fore, drawn from the local ground and beneath: brick, limestone and sandstone, slate and timber. New materials such as steel were used only rarely, as were noble materials such as marble.

Efforts were however made with the decor, in particular with the use of colour, which played an extremely important role. Everything was coloured, including the roof tiles, which could be green or yellow. The brick walls were very often painted, and sometimes even had bands of different shades, or panels and chequers. The facades were built from masonry, often alternating sandstone and limestone in the same quest for colour. The timber components, of which there were many on the balconies, galleries and roof edges, were also painted, never varnished or left "au naturel".

The decor was the result of the treatment applied to the materials, how they were used or the way they and their colours alternated. Face-fixed decor was not common. There were no sgraffiti but from time to time, exceptionally, there might be a sundial or the name of the villa on a ceramic plate.

The buildings are often rectangular, and sometimes square; there are virtually no L-shaped buildings and even less U-shapes. Towers capped with a high pavilion roof were added to corners. Two living levels, set above high cellars which were almost above ground, were covered by the roof, which usually had a large number of dormer windows. As precedence was given to the views rather than which way the house faced or exposure to the sun, as is the case today, many terraces, balconies and bow-windows are to be found on all sides of the houses.