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 theHautes 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 Valleysouth 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-Ardenneto 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 Spaand 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.
Bouillon and aroundBeguiling BOUILLON, close to the French border on the edge of the Ardennes, some 50km southwest of La Roche, is a well-known and quite handsome resort town, enclosed in a loop of the River Semois and crowned by an outstanding castle. It’s a relaxed and amiable place, and an excellent base for exploring the wildly dramatic scenery of the countryside around, in particular the Semois river valley.
Bouillon's châteauBouillon’s pride and joy is its impossibly picturesque Château, set on a long and craggy ridge that runs high above town. The castle was originally held by a succession of independent dukes who controlled most of the land hereabouts. There were five of these, all called Godfrey de Bouillon, the fifth and last of whom left on the First Crusade in 1096, selling his dominions (partly to raise the cash for his trip) to the prince-bishop of Liège, and capturing Jerusalem three years later, when he was elected the Crusaders’ king. However, he barely had time to settle himself before he became sick – either from disease or, as was suggested at the time, because his Muslim enemies poisoned him, and he died in Jerusalem in 1100. Later, Louis XIV got his hands on the old dukedom and promptly had the castle refortified to the design of his military architect Vauban, whose handiwork defines most of the fortress today.
It’s an intriguing old place, with paths winding through most of its courtyards, along the battlements and towers, and through dungeons filled with weaponry and instruments of torture. Most visitors drive to the entrance, but walking there is easy enough too – either via rue du Château or, more strenuously, by a set of steep steps that climbs up from rue du Moulin, one street back from the river. Among the highlights, the Salle de Godfrey, hewn out of the rock, contains a large wooden cross sunk into the floor and sports carvings illustrating the castle’s history; there’s also the Tour d’Autriche (Austrian Tower) at the top of the castle, with fabulous views over the Semois valley.
Semois valley hikesYou can see the countryside around Rochehaut and Poupehan on foot by doing a half-day’s circular hike from Rochehaut to Poupehan and back again. From Rochehaut, take the path out of the southern end of the village, which leads into thick forests high above the river, from where a series of fixed ladders help you to negotiate the steep slopes down to the water. This is by far the hardest part of the walk, and once you’re at the bottom you can follow the easy path to Poupehan; from there, take the path that follows the river north back up to a quaint bridge over the river to the hamlet of Frahan, a huddle of stone houses draped over a steep hillock and surrounded by meadows. From here various paths will deliver you back up to Rochehaut on its perch high above.
DinantSlung along the River Meuse beneath craggy green cliffs, DINANT, 30km from Namur, has a picture-postcard setting, its distinctive, onion-domed church of Notre-Dame lording it over the comings and goings of the barges and cruise boats. The Romans were the first to put the place on the map, occupying the town and naming it after Diana, the goddess of the hunt, but the town’s heyday came much later, in the fourteenth century, when it boomed from the profits of the metalworking industry, turning copper, brass and bronze into ornate jewellery known as dinanderie. Dinant’s prosperity turned rival cities, especially Namur, green with envy, and they watched with some satisfaction as local counts slugged it out for possession of the town. They may have been even happier when, in 1466, Charles the Bold decided to settle his Dinant account by simply razing the place to the ground. One result of all this medieval blood and thunder was the construction of an imposing citadel on the cliff immediately above the town, and, although Dinant was sacked on several subsequent occasions and badly damaged in both World Wars, the fortress has survived to become the town’s principal attraction.
Nowadays, Dinant makes a healthy living as a base for the tourist industry on the rivers Meuse and Lesse, its cruise boats, canoes and kayaks providing watery fun and games for thousands of visitors – though frankly the scenery is not nearly as wild as you’ll find deeper in the Ardennes, whilst the town itself is quickly exhausted.
By boat from DinantDespite its serpentine profile, the River Meuse south of Dinant is not especially scenic, though the town’s boat-tour operators still drum up lots of business for their river cruises. There are several different companies, but all boats depart from avenue Winston Churchill, one block from the main street, rue Grande; prices and itineraries are pretty standard whichever company you choose. Two good bets are the cruises to Anseremme, where you can hike off into the surrounding countryside, and Freÿr. There are also boats north along the Meuse to Namur on Sundays from mid-July to late August.
Sax Appeal in DinantDinant’s most famous native is Adolphe Sax (1814–94), the inventor of the saxophone. Saxophiles will want to have a look at the musician’s old home, at rue Adolphe Sax 35, marked by a commemorative plaque and a neat stained-glass mural of a man blowing his horn (sadly it’s not open to the public), along with a statue of the king of cool reclining on a bench outside. For more sax appeal, take a left off Grand Rue onto rue en Rhée for the enjoyable Maison de la Pataphonie, at no. 51 (t082 21 39 39), which among other things supplies an interactive journey into the life and sounds of Sax but bear in mind it’s popular and you need to book in advance.
La Roche-en-Ardenne and aroundAbout 30km northwest of Bastogne and 25km northeast of St-Hubert, LA ROCHE-EN-ARDENNE is amazingly picturesque, hidden by hills until you’re right on top of it, and crowned by romantic castle ruins. It’s a strange mixture: a hidden place, geographically cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by some of the wildest scenery in the Ardennes, yet it teems with people during high summer (most of whom come to get out into the countryside on foot or by canoe). Near here too, is Durbuy, a pretty little place with excellent accommodation and great walking, and the Grottes de Hotton, one of the best of the many Ardennes cave complexes.
The Grottes de HottonThere’s a touch of Jules Verne about the Grottes de Hotton. The deepest of the Ardennes cave systems, they’re well worth the short trip from la Roche – and not just on a rainy day, either. Tours last an hour and take you 75m underground, where a fast-flowing river pours through a canyon almost 40m deep and just a few metres wide – an awesome sight. There are stalactites and stalagmites galore, again among the best you’ll see in all of Belgium’s caves, including patches of rare and peculiar specimens that grow horizontally from the rock.
The caves are about 2km from the centre of the sprawling village of Hotton – they’re well signposted but only reachable on foot or by car; from the main riverside rue de la Roche, follow route de Speleo Club de Belgique.
Walking, cycling and canoeing in the Ourthe valleyThe tourist office in La Roche sells a rather rudimentary walking map (Carte de Promenades), with a dozen circular walks marked in the vicinity. The longest and most attractive of these is the 13km Walk 5, which takes about six hours and is mildly strenuous. It starts on rue Bon Dieu du Maka, near place du Bronze, and rises steeply before levelling out through the woods above town and across fields of wildflowers. The walk follows GR route 57, dropping sharply to the river at Maboge, where several cafés offer lunch, then rejoining the main road for 500m until it turns left alongside a tributary of the Ourthe as far as the farm at Borzee. From here the route is easy to find, again heading through the woods with fabulous views, but when it descends towards the town keep your eyes peeled for a right and then an immediate left down an unpromising footpath that drops you onto the main road by the river. From here, take the second right for a final gentle stretch above the road, with good views over the town. Allow around three hours’ walking time for the 13km; to extend the route by an hour or so, pick up Walk 12 at Borzee, joining Walk 11 as far as the small town of Samree and returning through the forest to La Roche.
If you’re after a shorter hike, follow Walk 4, a 6km route that takes about two hours. From the tourist office, head for place du Bronze and before you cross the bridge turn left on rue Clerue, and sharp left again up rue St Quolin. Turn left at the top and follow the road round to St Margaret’s Chapel, built in 1600 and once connected to the castle by an underground passageway. Just left of the chapel, a scramble up the steep slope leads up to a lookout point with views over La Roche, while continuing up the footpath brings you to the attractive but often crowded Parc Forestier du Deister. If you continue through the park you’ll rejoin Walk 4, looping briefly north and then dropping back to town, all along the roadway. Alternatively, GR route 57 provides a full half-day’s walking between La Roche and the hamlet of Nadrin, a distance of around 15km. Nadrin is home to a belvedere – actually a high tower with a restaurant attached – from which you can see the River Ourthe at six different points on its meandering course in and out of the tightly packed hills. The return journey can be completed by bus, but this only runs twice daily, so be sure to check times with the tourist office before you leave.
Cycling, canoeing and other activitiesObviously enough, renting a mountain bike allows you to see more of the surrounding forests: eight circular routes are set out in the Carte des Circuits Cyclotouristes, on sale at the tourist office. Bikes can be rented from Ardennes Aventures by the north bridge. They also organize canoeing trips on the Ourthe, bussing you (or letting you mountain bike) to Maboge for the 10km paddle downstream to La Roche (€15 per person, €30 with the bike ride), or to Nisramont for the strenuous 25km river trip (€20). They also organize river rafting and cross-country skiing in the winter.
LiègeThough the effective capital of the Ardennes, and of its own province, LIÈGE isn’t the most obvious stop on most travellers’ itineraries. It’s a large, grimy, industrial city, with few notable sights and little immediate appeal. However, it’s somewhat hard to avoid if you’re visiting the northern Ardennes and, once you’ve got to grips with the place, has a few pleasant surprises, not least the excellence of its restaurants. Certainly, if you’re overnighting here, give yourself at least half a day to nose around.
For most of its history, Liège was an independent principality; from the tenth century onwards it was the seat of a long line of prince-bishops, who ruled over bodies and souls until 1794, when the French revolutionary army expelled the last prince-bishop, torching his cathedral to hammer home the point. Later, Liège was incorporated into the Belgian state, rising to prominence as an industrial city. The coal and steel industries hereabouts date back to the twelfth century, but it was only in the nineteenth century that real development of the city’s position and natural resources took place, principally under one John Cockerill (1790–1840), a British entrepreneur whose family name you still see around town – though unfortunately for Liège and its workers, its industries are now in steep decline. Another name to conjure with is Georges Simenon, the famously priapic crime writer who spent his early life here – the tourist office has a leaflet describing a “Simenon Route”.
MalmédyAbout 8km northeast of Stavelot, and connected to it (and Trois Ponts) by regular buses, the bustling resort of MALMÉDY is a popular tourist destination, its attractive streets flanked by lively restaurants, smart shops and cheap hotels. There’s not much to the town, but it’s a pleasant place to spend a night or two and makes a relatively inexpensive base for the Hautes Fagnes. Malmédy is also home to the Cwarmê, one of Belgium’s most famous festivals, held over the four days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. The main knees-up is the Sunday, during which roving groups of masked figures in red robes and plumed hats – the so-called Haguètes – wander around town seizing people with long wooden pincers derived, it’s thought, from the devices that were once used to give food to lepers. The Musée du Cwarmê on place de Rome has displays on the carnival, although at time of writing it was closed to visitors. The town’s compact centre runs from here to the main square, place Albert 1er, off of which is the imposing but somewhat plain eighteenth-century cathedral, surrounded by a clutch of fancy Germanic buildings.
Namur and aroundJust 60km southeast of Brussels, NAMUR is a logical first stop if you’re heading into the Ardennes from the north or west, and is refreshingly clear of the industrial belts of Hainaut and Brabant. Many of Belgium’s towns and cities have suffered at the hands of invading armies and the same is certainly true of Namur, so much so that from the sixteenth century up until 1978, when the Belgian army finally moved out, Namur remained the quintessential military town, its sole purpose being the control of the strategically important junction of the rivers Sambre and Meuse. Generations of military engineers have pondered how to make Namur’s hilltop citadel impregnable – no one more so than Louis XIV’s Vauban – and the substantial remains of these past efforts are now the town’s main tourist attraction. Down below, the centre crowds the north bank of the River Sambre, its cramped squares and streets lined by big old mansions in the French style and sprinkled with several fine old churches and a handful of decent museums. There are some top-flight restaurants here too, but despite a substantial student presence, the nightlife is a little sedate, not that you’d guess if you visit during one of the town’s main festivals: in particular, the four-day Namur en Mai (wwww.namurenmai.be) packs the streets with jugglers, stilt-walkers and all sorts of spectaculars, and also showcases the talents of some internationally acclaimed performers.
The Trésor du Prieuré d’OigniesThe pick of the town’s museums is also its smallest, the Trésor du Prieuré d’Oignies, housed in just one small room of a convent at rue Julie Billiart 17. It’s a unique collection that comprises examples of the exquisitely beautiful gold and silver work of Brother Hugo d’Oignies, one of the most gifted of the region’s medieval metalworkers. From the eleventh to the thirteenth century, the Meuse valley was famous for the skill of its craftsmen, who worked in an essentially Romanesque style but evolved a more naturalistic and dynamic approach to their subject matter, a characteristic of early Gothic. Hugo was an innovator in the art of filigree, raising the decoration from the background so that the tiny human figures and animals seem to be suspended in space; and niello, in which a black mixture of sulphur or lead is used to incise lines into the gold. The pieces here are elaborately studded with precious and semiprecious stones and display an exquisite balance between ornament and function, depicting minute hunting scenes, with animals leaping convincingly through delicate foliage, engraved with a Christian dedication, or embossed with a tiny picture of the artist offering up his art to God in worship. In particular, look out for the intricately worked double-crosses, the dazzling reliquary cover for St Peter’s rib, the charming songbird and goblet of St Marie of Oignies, and a magnificent cover for a Book of the Gospels. The free audio-guide in English helps to make sense of it all.
Rochefort, Han and aroundA few kilometres upstream from Houyet, to the southeast, lies one of the Ardennes’ most beautiful regions, centring on the tourist resorts of Han-sur-Lesse and Rochefort. The district offers one or two specific sights, most notably the Han-sur-Lesse caves, as well as a scattering of castles, but the real magnet is the splendid countryside, a thickly wooded terrain of plateaux, gentle hills and valleys, and with quiet roads perfect for cycling. The best base for these rural wanderings is Rochefort, a middling sort of place with a good range of accommodation – and few of the crowds that swamp Han-sur-Lesse. By public transport, access is easiest from Namur; take the train to Jemelle, from where it’s about 3km west to Rochefort, 6km more to Han; there is an hourly bus service linking all three.
Han-sur-LesseJust 6km southwest of Rochefort, the busy village of HAN-SUR-LESSE has got one thing going for it, the Grottes de Han, rue J. Lamotte 2 (wwww.grotte-de-han.be). Discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the caves measure about 8km in length, a series of limestone galleries carved out of the hills by the River Lesse millions of years ago. The caves are actually just outside the village a little way downriver, but special trams (no extra charge) leave from a central ticket office in the heart of the village. Tours leave every half an hour during summer (hourly in April, Sept & Oct), last around an hour and are well worth it, although you visit only a small part of the cave system, taking in the so-called Salle du Trophée, the site of the largest stalagmite; the Salle d’Armes, where the Lesse reappears after travelling underground for 1km; and the massive Salle du Dôme – 129m high – which contains a small lake. After the tour, you make your own way back to the village on foot, which is a five- to ten-minute walk.
For an insight into how the caves were formed, head to the Musée du Monde Souterrain, at place Théo Lannoy 3; it’s behind the tourist office and church, across the street from the caves’ ticket office. A section of the museum explains the process, while others display the prehistoric artefacts unearthed during a series of archeological digs in and around the caves. Most were found where the Lesse surfaces again after travelling through the grottoes – among them flints, tools and bone ornaments from the Neolithic period, as well as weapons and jewellery from the Bronze Age.
RochefortA small, fairly undistinguished place, the pocket-sized town of ROCHEFORT is an excellent base for exploring the western reaches of the Ardennes, with a decent range of accommodation and other facilities. The town follows the contours of an irregularly shaped hill, with its long and pleasant main street, rue de Behogne, slicing through the centre from north to south. The ruins of the medieval Château Comtal perch atop a rocky outcrop off to the right of rue Jacquet, but were closed for renovation at the time of writing. In any case there’s not much to see beyond the views – just the remains of the old walls, a couple of wells and, in the small park just below the entrance, the eighteenth-century arcades that were added to prop up the château’s fashionable formal gardens.
Walking, cycling and canoeing around RochefortCrisscrossed by rivers, the handsome countryside around Rochefort provides lots of opportunities for walking, canoeing and mountain-biking. Walkers need the Institut Géographique National’s map, Rochefort et ses villages (on sale at the tourist offices in Rochefort and Han), which lists almost thirty numbered walks, as well as eight routes for mountain bikers and three for cyclists. Kayaks Lesse et Lomme in Han rents out mountain bikes and regular bikes, and organizes excursions involving a combination of canoeing and cycling; mountain bikes can also be rented from the tourist office in Rochefort.
Walks from RochefortThe Résurgence d’Eprave – Walk 12 – is one of the most scenically varied, a 12km circular route. Take rue Jacquet out of town past the château and the route is signposted to the right, through Hamerenne with its tiny Romanesque chapel of St Odile, and across fields full of wild flowers, to the River Lomme. Follow the riverbank to the spot where the River Wamme emerges from underground to join the Lomme; don’t try to cross the river but double back and turn right for the stiff climb uphill past the Eprave Grotto for grand views over the cornfields. Fifteen minutes’ walk further on, the village of Eprave has a restored mill with a working water wheel and, opposite on rue de l’Aujoule, the Auberge du Vieux Moulin, an immaculate four-star hotel with ultramodern rooms, which makes a delightful place to stay or eat (t084 37 73 18, wwww.eprave.com; €121–150). The restaurant is open daily in July and August, but closes on Sunday and Tuesday evening as well as all of Monday at other times of the year; the menu is firmly nouveau, with main courses beginning at about €17. The walk back to Rochefort from here is rather dull, following the road, and you may want to retrace your steps, or join Walk 4, Grotte d’Eprave, to Han for the hourly bus back to Rochefort. A couple of good shorter walks around Rochefort include Walk 7, Lorette, a thirty-minute climb up through the woods above town, taking in the Lorette chapel and some decent views over the castle. Head up rue de Lorette towards the caves and turn left, keeping to the left where the track is signposted. The 6km Walk 10, Abbaye de Saint Rémy, goes the other way out of town, across the bridge and cutting north off the main road through some thickly wooded scenery as far as Abbaye de St Remy, where they produce Rochefort Trappist beer, before looping back to Rochefort.
Canoeing and kayaking on the River LesseTo mess about on the river, canoes and kayaks can be rented from Kayaks Lesse et Lomme, near the bridge in Han (t082 22 43 97). They have a few canoes and pedal boats for splashing around town, but it’s much more scenic and fun to join one of their excursions. The shortest (and least expensive) trip is the two-hour jaunt by kayak to Lessive, 6km away, and 4km back by bike (about €20 per person, €30 for two, all-inclusive). The longest is to Wanlin, 19km by kayak and 13km return by bike or bus. You can start the shortest trip anytime between 10am and 4pm; for Wanlin you have start between 10am and noon. Incidentally, in high summer the water level on the Lesse can drop low enough to make canoeing impossible; call ahead to confirm.
South of Dinant: the Meuse and the Lesse river valleysBeyond Dinant, the River Meuse loops its way south to Givet, across the border in France, and can be explored by cruise boat from Dinant. This stretch of the river is pleasant enough, but certainly not exciting – it’s too wide and sluggish for that – and neither is the scenery more than mildly inviting, its best feature being the steep, wooded cliffs framing portions of the riverbank.
The tiny settlements lining up along the river are pretty bland too, the only real exception being HASTIÈRE-PAR-DELÀ, about 15km from Dinant, which is home to the fascinating Église Notre Dame, a finely proportioned church built at the behest of a colony of Irish monks in the 1030s, although the Gothic choir was added two hundred years later. Subsequent architectural tinkering followed two attacks – one by Protestants in 1568, the other by the French revolutionary army in the 1790s – but most of the medieval church has survived intact, with a flat wooden roof, plain square pillars and heavy round arches. The triumphal arch bears a faded painting dating from the original construction and is underpinned by gallows (wooden scaffolding), which in their turn support an unusual German fifteenth-century Calvary, depicting Christ, Mary and St John standing on a dragon. Close by, the wooden thirteenth-century choir stalls are among the oldest in Belgium, with unique misericord carvings – some allegorical, some satirical and some purely decorative. Curiously, a number of them were replaced with a plain triangle in 1443 on the grounds that they were blasphemous – or at least disrespectful. Finally, next to the baptismal font are two statues of the Virgin, one of which – the one on the left in the glass case – is an exquisite sixteenth-century carving, whose graceful posture has earned it a place in several national exhibitions. After you’ve explored the church, you can pop across the road to Le Côté Meuse, a pleasant café with a good line in crepes and waffles.
Wilder and prettier, the River Lesse spears off the Meuse in ANSEREMME, and although there’s precious little point in hanging around here, it’s a good starting point for both local hikes and canoe trips; by the river, Lesse Kayaks (t082 22 43 97, wwww.lessekayaks.be) rents out one- and two-seater kayaks, three-person canoes and large piloted boats for up to twenty passengers. Reckon on paying €16–19 for a single kayak, €22–30 for a double, or around €30 for a three-person canoe.
Heading south from Anseremme, it’s 2.5km to the solitary Château de Freÿr, a crisply symmetrical, largely eighteenth-century brick mansion pushed up against the main road and the river. The compulsory guided tour (wwww.freyr.be) traipses through a series of opulent rooms, distinguished by their period furniture and thundering fireplaces. Running parallel to the river are the adjoining gardens, laid out in the formal French style, spreading over three terraces and including a maze. A pavilion at the highest point provides a lovely view over the château and river.
SpaSPA, about 30km southeast of Liège, was the world’s first health resort, established way back in the sixteenth century: Pliny the Elder knew of the healing properties of the waters here and Henry VIII was an early visitor, but it was Peter the Great who clinched the town’s fame, heralding it as “the best place to take the waters”. Since then the town has given its name to thermal resorts worldwide, reaching a height of popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was known as the “Café of Europe”, being graced by monarchs, statesmen, intellectuals and aristocrats from every corner of the continent. Later the town went into slow decline – when the poet Matthew Arnold visited in 1860, he claimed it “astonished us by its insignificance” – but Spa is now on the way back following the opening of a new thermal complex, Les Thermes de Spa, on the hill overlooking the resort. Furthermore, the town below still preserves an endearing sense of faded distinction and continues to draw a loyal clientele of elderly locals, whilst also making a good base for excursions into the Hautes Fagnes, a short drive to the south and southeast.
StavelotThe small and tranquil town of STAVELOT rambles up the hill from the River Amblève. It grew up around its abbey, which ran the area as an independent principality until the French revolutionary army ended its privileges at the end of the eighteenth century. The town was also the scene of fierce fighting during the Ardennes campaign of the last war, and some of the Nazis’ worst atrocities in Belgium were committed here.
These days it’s a pleasant old place, the pretty streets of its tiny centre flanked by a battery of half-timbered houses that mostly date from the eighteenth century. The best time to be here is for its renowned annual carnival, the Laetare, first celebrated here in 1502 and held on the third weekend before Easter, from Saturday to Monday evening; the main protagonists are the Blancs Moussis, figures of which you’ll see adorning various Stavelot houses. There are also festivals of theatre and music in July and August respectively, with performances in the abbey buildings.
The Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft BelgiensTo the east of Spa, the pleasant but unexceptional little town of Eupen is the capital of the German-speaking region of Belgium, or Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens, a pint-sized area pushed tight against the German border that’s home to around 75,000 people and enjoys the same federal status as the other two linguistic areas of the country. Once part of Prussia, the area was ceded to Belgium by the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I in 1919, but German remains the main language (and is still spoken somewhat in neighbouring Malmedy and other areas), and the area has its own tiny parliament and government. Eupen itself certainly has a distinctive Rhineland feel, but that aside there’s precious little reason to visit.
Spa-FrancorchampsJust outside Francorchamps, the race circuit of Spa-Francorchamps is renowned as one of the most scenic and historic venues in the motorsports world. Formerly a 14km-long road circuit, races used to take in the whole of the surrounding area, to Malmédy and Stavelot and back, but now those towns serve as dormitories for the thousands who come here to enjoy the racing every year. The highlight by far is September’s Belgian Grand Prix, but the circuit is busy almost every day between March and November, hosting all kinds of events, some of which are free. Anyone can visit, and most of the time there’s free access to the paddock and pit lane, as well as the panoramic top-floor brasserie. It’s also possible to see more of the circuit – the media centre and race control room, for example – by way of the regular guided tours that are run on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at 2pm (t087 29 37 00, wwww.spa-francorchamps.be).
St-Hubert and aroundST-HUBERT, about 20km southeast of Rochefort, is another popular Ardennes resort, albeit one with an entirely different feel from its neighbours, largely on account of its solitary location, up on a plateau and surrounded by forest. A small town with just six thousand inhabitants, it’s well worth a visit, though after you’ve explored its star turn, the basilica, and maybe hiked out into the surrounding woods, there’s not much to detain you: the town centre is too dishevelled to be particularly endearing and the lack of quality accommodation may make you think twice about staying.
Basilique St-HubertThe Basilique St-Hubert is easily the grandest religious edifice in the Ardennes and has been an important place of pilgrimage since the relics of the eponymous saint were moved here in the ninth century. A well-respected though shadowy figure, St Hubert (c.656–727 AD) was, according to legend, formerly Count Hubert, a Frankish noble whose love of hunting culminated in a vision of Christ between the antlers of a stag, after which he gave his money away and dedicated his life to the church, and was later canonized as the patron saint of hunters and trappers. The first abbey here predated the cult of St Hubert, but after the saint’s relics arrived, the abbey – as well as the village that grew up in its shadow – was named in his honour. In medieval times, the abbey was one of the region’s richest and a major landowner; it was suppressed by the French in the 1790s, but the abbey church – now the basilica – plus several of the old buildings survived, and flank the grand rectangular piazza that leads to the basilica’s main entrance.
From the outside, the basilica’s outstanding feature is the Baroque west facade of 1702, made of limestone and equipped with twin pepper-pot towers, a clock and a carving on the pediment depicting the miracle of St Hubert. Inside, the clear lines of the Gothic nave and aisles have taken an aesthetic hammering from both an extensive Baroque refurbishment and a heavy-handed neo-Gothic makeover in the 1840s. It’s impressive more for its size rather than for any particular features, but do take a look at the choir stalls, typically Baroque and retelling the legend of St Hubert (on the right-hand side) and St Benedict (on the left), as well as the elaborate tomb of St Hubert, on the left at the beginning of the ambulatory, carved in the 1840s (King Léopold I, a keen huntsman, picked up the bill). Above the tomb is the only stained-glass window to have survived from the sixteenth century, a richly coloured, wonderfully executed work of art.
Walking, biking and canoeing along the River LesseThe 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 (wwww.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.