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.Read More
Walking, biking and canoeing along the River Lesse
Walking, biking and canoeing along the River Lesse
The Dinant tourist office sells the Institut Géographique National’s map Dinant et ses Anciennes Communes, which shows fifteen numbered circular walks in the Dinant area, each of which has a designated starting point at one of the district’s hotels. Also shown on the map are one cycling circuit and five mountain bike routes, the latter ranging from five to forty kilometres in length; to see the most attractive scenery you need to get out on the longer routes 19 and 20. The 5km Walk 5 takes in much of the locality’s most pleasant scenery, weaving its way along and around the River Lesse between the hamlets of Anseremme and Pont à Lesse. It involves some reasonably testing ascents, whereas GR route 126 offers about three hours of gentle walking along the Lesse between Houyet and Gendron-Celles, both of which have a train station. Take the train timetable along with your picnic and you can plan to arrive at Gendron-Celles in time for the return train to Dinant. The 8km Walk 8 is not one of the more spectacular routes – much of it is over tarmac road – but it does allow you to visit a couple of places of some interest. From Gendron-Celles train station, the route leads about 2km northeast along a country road – and beside a small tributary of the Lesse – to Vêves, whose fifteenth-century château is perched on a grassy mound overlooking the surrounding countryside (whttp://www.chateau-de-veves.be). With its spiky turrets and dinky towers, the château is inordinately picturesque, but the interior is disappointingly mundane – mostly eighteenth-century period rooms. A couple of kilometres further on, Celles is one of the prettier villages hereabouts, gently filing up the slope of a wooded hill, underneath the huge tower and Lombard arches of the Romanesque Église St-Hadelin. There’s a sporadic bus service from here to Dinant, or you can return to Gendron-Celles train station via the Bois de Hubermont. If you’re driving, note that Celles is on the N94, about 9km east of Dinant.
The standard itinerary for potential canoeists and kayakers begins at Anseremme, where most take the train (or special minibus) to either Gendron-Celles (for the 11km 3hr paddle back) or Houyet (21km; 5hr). If you’re travelling by train to begin with, you can go straight to Gendron or Houyet from Dinant and pick up a boat there – but remember that advance reservations are well-nigh essential. The Lesse itself is wild and winding, with great scenery, though be warned that it sometimes gets so packed that there’s a veritable canoe log jam. Consequently, it’s a good idea to set out as early as possible to avoid some of the crush – though if you’re paddling back from Houyet you really have to get going early anyway. Both Gendron-Celles and Houyet train stations are metres from the river – and the boats – and also make good starting points for hiking the surrounding countryside.
Walking the Hautes Fagnes
Walking the Hautes Fagnes
Large parts of the Hautes Fagnes are protected zones and are only open to walkers with a registered guide. Three- and six-hour walks in these areas are arranged by the Centre Nature Botrange on most weekends from March to November (€4–6). Each walk is organized around a feature of the local ecology, from medicinal plants to the endangered tetras lyre bird. In summer the walks can feel a bit crowded, and the guide’s patter is normally in French or German, but they’re a good way to see some genuinely wild country that would otherwise be off-limits.
To see some of the moorland on your own, ask staff at the centre for their free map (Ronde de Botrange) showing footpaths in the area. Many of them run along the edges of the protected areas, giving you a chance to see something of the fagnes even if you can’t get on a guided walk. Dozens more local routes are marked on the Promenades Malmédy map, also available from the centre or from any local tourist office, though most are south of the Hautes Fagnes around Robertville, Xhoffraix and Malmédy. The varied 11km route M6 can be picked up in Botrange, crossing the heath as far as the main road before dropping down through the woods and along the river to Bayhon, returning through some attractive, almost alpine scenery. From M6 you can take a detour north to incorporate the Fagne de la Poleur, or cross the main road and join route M9, which winds through the woods to Baraque Michel and then cuts south across the moors on the edge of the protected Grande Fagne.