Heading for the Hills in Southern Belgium
This is the land of Tintin
Belgium isn’t all billiard-table flat. Drive southwest and change up and down the gearbox for an enervating tour of the gloriously wooded Ardennes.
Looking for a motoring holiday with a difference, that’s easy to access in a place which is full of people who speak pretty good English and yet is very much abroad?
Welcome then to the delightful Ardennes hills of Wallonia, in the South of Belgium.
No region of comparable size offers so much variety – of scenery, of culture, and of activities – and all of it within a few hours easy drive of the Channel ports. You can pack a staggering amount of memories into a weekend here but there’ll be plenty still on offer to make you wish you’d made it a week-long visit instead.
This is the land of Tintin, of Inspector Maigret and of Hercule Poirot. And, yes, it’s easy to name 10 famous Belgians – indeed, starting with Eddy Merckx, René Magritte, Adolphe Sax and Jean-Claude Van Damme, I got to nearly 40 before I stopped counting!
Wallonia hosts a wealth of colourful religious celebrations and exciting sporting events staged through the year. One of course is the F1 GP in Spa Francorchamps (Cfr Competition).
This is hill-country at its most glorious, with vast plateaus dissected by steep-flanked river valleys that are liberally dotted with prosperous little towns and hamlets set next to huge forests where you can really lose yourself in getting close to nature. The roads are generally well surfaced and beautifully engineered as they straddle lofty ridges and plummet down into deep valleys. It’s the kind of motoring experience that makes you want to keep on driving all day.
There are castles aplenty dotted around this much-fought-over cockpit of Europe. Worth visiting among these are Château de Freyr, centred on breathtaking Versailles-inspired gardens; the romantically moated Annevoie, with its superb water gardens, and Jehay, with its remarkable archaeological collection and a park adorned with spectacular sculptures.
It was here that the Emperor Napoleon raised many of his most formidable regiments while Waterloo, on the southern edge of the region and tantalisingly close to Brussels, saw his ambition crash to an end in 1815. It was through these same pine-clad hills that Hitler’s formidable Panzer divisions broke the American lines in the massive 1944 winter counter-attack which has gone into history as The Battle of The Bulge and whose memorials, war graves and battle sites can provide an evocative theme for a motoring tour with a difference.
The strategic crossroads town of Bastogne – site of an epic siege and the place where the embattled US commander, General McAuliffe, rejected a German call for his bedraggled 101st Airborne forces to surrender with the memorable one-word riposte “Nuts!” – has thought inspiring memorials and museums while in La Roche en Ardenne there’s a neat little museum dedicated to the often overlooked British contribution in thwarting Hitler’s final desperate fling.
If you’re fighting your own personal battle of the bulge you can ditch the flab via exhilarating walks and mountain bike trails, rafting the tumbling white-waters of the River Lesse, sailing the Eau d’Heure man-made lakes in their spectacularly forested setting or, in winter, exploring some of Europe’s finest cross-country ski trails. You don’t have to do it all on your own – the locals proudly claim to offer a bigger selection of professionally organised outdoor activities than any other area of comparable size anywhere on the Continent.
Reasonably priced accommodations are abundant in an area where hospitality is a way of life. Reliable branded chain hotels, quirky family-run establishments, cosy farmhouse B&Bs, luxurious country manor houses and glorious châteaux are there in abundance to extend a welcome – and there’s the self-catering option too.
You might want to make a detailed plan and book ahead or you could opt to follow your nose and simply turn up and wander, like I did, as, outside the high holiday season it’s unheard of not to be able to find a bed for the night.
For true motoring buffs there’s the wonderful Spa Francorchamps track museum at Stavelot Abbey worth a visit.
When it’s all over, there are lots of evocative souvenirs to take home – from those wondrous beers, each brand having its own distinctive glass, to farmhouse cheeses, the famed Ardennes ham, waters from Spa (the original spa town), Belgian chocolates, exquisite lace, woodcarvings, pottery and artefacts unearthed in the profusion of bric-a-brac and antiques shops.
Have a safe trip!
Top Image - © WBT - Gabriele Croppi
Middle Image - © WBT - J.P. Remy
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