A tongue of land jutting south into France, the Botte de Hainaut (Boot of Hainaut) is a natural extension of the Ardennes range further east, if a little flatter and less wooded. It’s mostly visited for its gentle scenery and country towns, among which Walcourt and Chimay are the most appealing – the former graced by a handsome basilica, the latter by a charming château and perhaps the prettiest main square in the whole of Wallonia. The Boot’s one and only train line runs south from Charleroi to Walcourt, Philippeville and ultimately to Couvin; local buses fill in most of the gap, with a good service between Charleroi, Couvin and Chimay, but to tour beyond the towns you’ll need a car. The other complication is that apart from campsites, accommodation is extremely thin on the ground. Chimay is your best bet, but consider making advance reservations in all cases, either direct or via the main regional websites: wwww.botteduhainaut.com and the more comprehensive wwww.paysdesvallees.be.
More about Belgium
Find out more
COUVIN, just 5km south from Mariembourg, was one of the first settlements in Hainaut to be industrialized, its narrow streets choked by forges and smelting works as early as the eighteenth century. In the event, Couvin was soon marginalized by the big cities further north, but it has battled gainfully on as a pint-sized manufacturing centre. Tourism has also had an impact, as the town lies at the heart of a popular holiday area, a quiet rural district whose forests and farmland are liberally sprinkled with country cottages and second homes. Long and slim, and bisected by the River Eau Noire, Couvin is short on specific sights, but it does possess a good-looking if small old quarter, set on top of a rocky hill high above the river and main road, where you’ll find the boringly modern main square, place du Général Piron. About 3km north of town, in a lovely spot that’s difficult to reach without your own transport, tours of the Grottes de Neptune (wwww.grottesdeneptune.be) last an hour and take you part of the way by boat on an underground river, before wowing you with some typically dramatic music and light shows.
It’s best known for the beer brewed by local Trappists, but the small and ancient town of CHIMAY, 14km west of Couvin, is a charming old place in its own right, governed for several centuries by the de Croy family, a clan of local bigwigs who continue to occupy the Château des Princes de Chimay in the centre of town. A considerably altered structure, it was originally built in the fifteenth century, but was reconstructed in the seventeenth, then badly damaged by fire and partly rebuilt to earlier plans in the 1930s. Today the main body of the building is fronted by a long series of rectangular windows, edged by a squat turreted tower. Tours are led by the elderly Princess Elizabeth de Croy herself, who is an engaging and personable guide and speaks excellent English. She’ll show you the old chapel in one of the turrets, lots of family portraits (right up to the present day), a hotchpotch of period furniture and – the highlight – the carefully restored private theatre, modelled on the Louis XV theatre at Fontainebleau, where you can watch a short film on the family and the property. Many of the de Croy family were buried in the Collégiale des Saints Pierre et Paul, a mostly sixteenth-century limestone pile with a high and austere vaulted nave. The church’s walls crowd the town’s slender Grand–Place, an eminently bourgeois and exceedingly pretty little square surrounding the dinky Monument des Princes, a water fountain erected in 1852 in honour of the de Croys.