Home of the EU, and for most people Europe’s most boring country, Belgium is hardly the most obvious choice for an activity holiday. Yet the thickly wooded hills of its southernmost region, the Ardennes, are one of the country’s biggest surprises: sharply scenic, with peaks of exposed limestone, criss-crossed with waymarked footpaths, busy with wildlife, and cut through by fast-flowing rivers, it’s a hiker’s and kayaker’s – even a climber’s – heaven.
First off, just walk. There is fantastic hiking all over the Ardennes, and at La Roche-en-Ardennes you can undertake any number of relatively easy hikes that loop out from the town; Rochefort, too, whose most popular walk is named after the Belgian King Albert I who was famously killed in a climbing accident in the Ardennes in the 1930s, is a great centre for both easy and more difficult treks. But at Rochehaut, northwest of Bouillon, the hikes get more serious, indeed the paths that follow the valley of the Semois river are definitely not for the fainthearts, with some very steep climbs, some of which you have to negotiate by means of handrails and fixed ladders, ropes and footbridges. But it’s well worth the effort, and the scenery is so spectacular, looking down on the sweeping meanders of the river, that you have to pinch yourself that, yes, you’re still in Belgium.
Scramble down to Bouillon from here for a spot of kayaking – a good place to start if you’re new to the sport. There are several outfits renting craft, and they’ll let you loose downriver and then pick you up at the end of the day, though be warned that in high summer it can be crowded and the water levels very low. If you’re still feeling energetic, spurn the outfitter’s minibus, and walk back to Bouillon, picking up one of any number of trails that lead back to the town, and maybe even stopping for a beer on the way. You may need to wade through some fast-flowing rapids to get served, but, hey, that’s Belgium.