The high plateau that stretches north of Malmédy up as far as Eupen is known as the Hautes Fagnes (in German, the Hohes Venn or High Fens) and is now protected as a national park. This area marks the end of the Ardennes proper and has been twinned with the Eifel hills to form the sprawling Deutsch-Belgischer Naturpark. The Hautes Fagnes accommodates Belgium’s highest peak, the Signal de Botrange (694m), but the rest of the area is boggy heath and woods, windswept and rather wild – excellent hiking country, though often fearsome in winter.
Some 7km north of Robertville, on the road to Eupen, the Centre Nature Botrange (t080 44 03 00, wwww.botrange.be) provides a focus for explorations of the national park. A bus runs to the centre from Eupen, but otherwise you’ll need your own car to get there. At the centre, multilingual audio-guides steer you around a permanent exhibition, Naturama, which describes the flora and fauna of the area and explains how the fagnes were created and how they’ve been exploited. The centre also rents out skis in winter and runs organized hikes.
Further up the main road is the Signal de Botrange, Belgium’s highest point, though the high-plateau nature of the Hautes Fagnes means it doesn’t feel very high at all. A tower marks the summit, offering a good panorama over the fagnes, and there’s a restaurant that’s ultra-popular with coach parties and walkers alike.
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.