The hot sun of a mid-August day beats down on a motley flotilla as it makes it way down the River Meuse through the town of Dinant, Belgium. One of Europe's lesser-known festivals, La Regate des Baignoires, the International Regatta of Bathtubs, was, as the local tourist board cheerfully admits, a promotional stunt dreamed up to bring visitors to this sliver of a town wedged between steeps cliffs and the Meuse River about an hour from Brussels.
The town of Dinant lies along the chic part of the River Meuse. Here riverbanks are either sweeping lawns dotted with tangles of wild roses. It offers visitors a breathtaking experience. Dominated by a sharply-rising, stone cliff topped by an expansive, 11th-Century citadel, which looks down directly onto the imposing, 13th-century 'collegial' Church of Notre Dame with its bulbous main tower, it received its charter in 1152. Its present form dates from the early 19th Century.
This particular afternoon, people spill over the bridges and riverbanks in the heart of Dinant beneath its Citadel high on the cliffs above, all anxiously awaiting the bizarre flotilla making its way untidily up the placid Meuse River. Some sit on blankets, others on chairs, and still others at tables brought down to the riverbank by local café owners.
Now in its 20th year, the bathtub regatta is down home, creative entertainment for the whole family. The fundamental rule of this nautical festival is that each craft must have at least one bathtub at its core. Often, it's hard to see the tub, but it must be an integral part of the design. Regatta rules also forbid motors, as well as the deliberate sinking of fellow competitors.
Prize categories seem to be as bizarre as some of the craft in the race. Though crafts can win prizes for speed and technical endeavor, they can also win for beauty, novelty, and representation of the town. Local businesses, such as a local butcher, sponsor them. Watching as five muscular young men wielding meat cleavers paddle their raft slowly along the route while dousing each other with buckets of water, the crowd cheers them on as a pirate raft sporting a sail and crew dressed in eyepatches and dresses, slowly catches up.
Speed is a joke at this regatta. Perhaps, it would be better to give a prize to the slowest boat. But that's what makes this festival so intriguing. While the tub crafts meander upriver, townsfolk in their own boats and the media in theirs slowly run circles around them. Of course, the mid-summer heat and all that water help to produce antics which keep the scores of spectators sitting at tables on shore entertained while drinking cold Belgian beer.
Leading the way upriver is what looks like an ostrich boat, complete with water pouring through the beak of the ostrich figurehead that adorns the craft. Following that is the aforementioned butcher boat, and not far behind, two cyclists propel their craft by pedal-power. Contraptions of every size and shape make their way upstream. And to cool off, participants throw buckets of water at each other.
Even the beer-drinking spectators aren't protected from getting a dousing, as contestants hurl buckets of water their way. It ends up as one big free-for-all and fun for all who attend. This year's regatta is slated for August 15.
It's ironic that such a raucous festival should be held in a town with such a long history of suffering. Louis XI and Charles the Bold used it as a battleground. The latter was also the Duke of Burgundy, and one method of achieving that title was to sack poor Dinant, tie its 800 residents back to back, and then push them into the river.
But Dinant is best known not for its suffering but as the center for copper and brass work called dinanderie. Artisans have been hammering out chandeliers, candlesticks, pulpits, etc, for church and home since the second century. And they're still at it today. Though the high point of this ancient art came in the Middle Ages, Charles of Burgundy put a stop to it when he sacked the town in 1466. It took 400 years to get it going again, but today, visitors can see the coppersmiths at work, using nearly identical methods, by walking through town while keeping an ear open for the ring of a hammer.
Because of its flourishing economy, Dinant was able to defend itself against the archdiocese of Liege only to sustain substantial damage during World War I and II. Only the Citadel and the Church of Notre Dame, with its two incomplete towers, have been preserved.
Since the regatta is held during the afternoon, visitors can tour the Citadel, which towers atop steep chalk cliffs to a height of 330 feet, and its arms museum, a reminder of the town's long military history, during the morning. It can be easily reached by means of a cable car or a road. While they're up there, they might want to prowl its subterranean passageways to discover its mysterious past. Or perhaps music lovers might want to visit the house museum of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, born in Dinant in 1814. Or, they might want to travel the Meuse in the comfort of a steamer to enjoy the scenic wonders of the Meuse Valley.
But after the festival, visitors and townsfolk alike settle into cafés to devour couques, delicious gingerbread-like pastries that come in all sorts of shapes, accompanied by rich, dark Belgian coffee.
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