By Greca Durant,
September, the Walloons of Belgium celebrate regional pride and traditions through the grand “Fêtes de Wallonie.”
Belgium, a Western European country inhabited by 10 million people, is partitioned into three autonomous regions: Régions Wallonie, Flamande and Bruxelles-Capitale. Each one has its own seat of parliament and capital, an elected set of ministers and other civil servants to run the communities.
A very distinct feature marks this division: language. The Flamands speak Flemish/Dutch; the Bruxelloise are bilingual Flemish-French speakers or multilingual Flemish-French-English-German, plus their Bruxelloise dialect; and lastly, the Walloons of Région Wallonie, the French-speaking commune. This part of Belgium also harbours a tiny Germanophone population, living in Eupen, on the German border.
François Bovesse Initiates the Grand ‘Fétes de Wallonie’
It was in the 1920s, when renowned lawyer and politician, François Bovesse, started to nurture the thoughts of organizing a grand celebration paying homage to the Walloon region, her people, her traditions, culture and riches.
With the creation of the ‘Comité de Wallonie’ in 1923 (renamed ‘Comité central de Wallonie’), charged with the management of the festivities in the Walloon capital of Namur, Bovesse’s dream came true.
According to Barbara Witkowska of Télépro, the festival of Wallonnie is considered to be the most intense manifestation of deep-rooted Walloon pride and identity. It is also the region’s way of commemorating and honoring the memory of those who perished during the two world wars, through folkloric and artistic presentations, and giving special mention to ‘walon,’ a medieval language still spoken by many Walloons.
Namur’s Men on Stilts (Les Echasseurs de Namur)
A unique element of the Festival of Wallonie, most probably not seen in other parts of the world, is the battle of men on stilts or ‘Les Echasseurs de Namur.’ A variant of fencing, the combat on stilts is a 600-year-old Namurois tradition, according to Samuel Sinte of ‘vers l’avenir.’
Witkowska adds that according to legend, Count Jehan de Flandre punished the subjects who refused to pay taxes, which prompted the Namurois to send emissaries to the Count’s court, to ask for pardon. But Count Jehan refused to meet with them, and allegedly said that whether the emissaries arrive on foot, on horseback, by boat or by chariot, no pardon would be given. The Namurois, being creative and resourceful, arrived on stilts, and obtained absolution. The rest is history, as one says.
Monsieur Claude Willemart, the President of the ‘Comité central de Wallonie,’ heads the organization, Les Echasseurs de Namur.
Highlights of the Festival of Wallonie (Les Fêtes de Wallonie)
The week-long celebration resembled a massive party, with hundreds of thousands of visitors circulating around the different action stations, and stalls offering ‘pèket’ or ‘pècket,’ the region’s favorite fruit-, flower- or tea-flavored gin.
The main activities took place at Place Saint-Aubain, Place d’Armes and Place du Grognon. Music was provided by European chartbusters like Ghinzu, Slimy, Jeronimo, Helene Segara, and Loulou Players, the Belgian rock/blues/punk duo who created a techno-electro version of ‘Li Bia Bouquet,’ Namur’s national anthem.
A host of cover bands namely Abbey Road, Blossom Babies, Waka, and Mad Radios regaled listeners with their own versions of top hits from the Beatles to Nirvana.
The Walloniades at Place Saint-Aubain featured popular games from the olden days, like sack and wheelbarrow races, balloon-bursting, pole-climbing, giant darts and potato-peeling contests. La Caracole-Namurois offered more fun and laughter via its legendary snail race.
This year’s honorary guest was the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, the producers of the illustrious golden bubbly, champagne, and specialities such as cheeses from Langres, rose biscuits from Reims, white sausages from Rethel, truffles from Haute-Marne and other gastronomic delights