Belgium’s southern reaches are a striking contrast to the crowded, industrial north, for it’s here in the south that the cities give way to the rugged wilderness landscapes of the Ardennes. Beginning in France, the Ardennes stretches east across Luxembourg and Belgium before continuing on into Germany, covering three Belgian provinces en route – Namur in the west, Luxembourg in the south and Liège in the east. The highest part, lying in the German-speaking east of the country, is the Hautes Fagnes (the High Fens), an expanse of windswept heathland that extends from Eupen to Malmédy. But this is not the Ardennes’ most attractive or popular corner, which lies further west, its limits roughly marked by Dinant, La Roche-en-Ardenne and Bouillon. This region is given character and variety by its river valleys: deep, wooded canyons, at times sublimely and inspiringly beautiful, reaching up to high green peaks. The Ardennes’ cave systems are also a major pull, especially those in the Meuse, Ourthe and Lesse valleys, carved out over the centuries by underground rivers that have cut through and dissolved the limestone hills, leaving stalagmites and stalactites in their wake.
The obvious gateway to the most scenic portion of the Ardennes is Namur, strategically sited at the junction of the Sambre and Meuse rivers, and well worth a visit in its own right. The town’s pride and joy is its massive, mostly nineteenth-century citadel – once one of the mightiest fortresses in Europe – but it also musters a handful of decent museums, some good restaurants and (for the Ardennes) a lively bar scene. From Namur you can follow the Meuse by train down to Dinant, a pleasant – and very popular – journey, before going on to explore the Meuse Valley south of Dinant by boat or taking a canoe up the narrower and wilder River Lesse. From Dinant, routes lead east into the heart of the Ardennes – to workaday Han-sur-Lesse, surrounded by undulating hills riddled with caves, to prettier Rochefort, and to St-Hubert, with its splendid Italianate basilica. The most charming of the towns hereabouts, however, are La Roche-en-Ardenne to the northeast, a rustic, hardy kind of place, pushed in tight against the River Ourthe beneath wooded hills and renowned for its smoked ham and game; and Bouillon, a picturesque little place whose narrow streets trail alongside the River Semois beneath an ancient castle. Bouillon is situated close to the French frontier, on the southern periphery of the Belgian Ardennes and within easy striking distance of some of the region’s most dramatic scenery, along the valley of the Semois. If you’re visiting the eastern Ardennes, the handiest starting point is big and gritty Liège, an industrial sprawl from where it’s a short hop south to the historic resort of Spa and the picturesque town of Stavelot, with its marvellous carnival. You can use Spa or Stavelot as bases for hiking or canoeing into the surrounding countryside and to venture into the Hautes Fagnes, though the attractive little town of Malmédy is slightly nearer.