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Surprising Wallonia

L’abbaye Des Rocs © WBT-Emmanuel Mathez

The mainly French-speaking region of Wallonia is the least populated and most unspoilt of the three, with some breathtaking landscapes and the nearest thing in the Low Countries to a mountain. Away from its two vibrant cities of Liège and Charleroi, it’s a region of picturesque towns, green hills and valleys; spectacular festivals and carnivals whose origins have been lost in the mists of time; magnificent châteaux and gardens; first-rate spa centres and golf courses, and a wealth of exciting outdoor activities for families and thrill-seekers. Food and drink play an important part in Walloon life: its cheeses, pâtés, chocolate and beer combine the excellence of French cuisine with the generous portions of Germany. Easily accessible from the UK – by rail to any station in the region; by plane, or with a motorway drive of less than two hours from Calais - Wallonia is an ideal destination for short breaks or long weekends away. We are proud to introduce to you to some of the things that make Wallonia unique: places, people, traditions and activities that capture its often quirky character and make the region different from anywhere else. The French (and Walloon) word for unusual or strange is insolite – but in a good way. Read on and you’ll get the picture. Happy reading!


Ducasse d’Ath © Office de Tourisme d’Ath



Considering Wallonia covers less than half the area of one of the smallest countries in Europe, its location at one of the crossroads of the continent has ensured a rich and tempestuous history. For more than 2,000 years, one great power after another has passed through it, colonised it, invaded it, occupied it, or in the case of England’s Henry VIII, owned a portion of it. All this means that the geography of Wallonia can be seriously complicated in places. For instance, one little-known enclave, flanking Wallonia’s border with the Netherlands and Germany, has belonged to the Spanish, the Habsburgs, France, Prussia, Germany and finally - less than 100 years ago - to Belgium itself. But while each new visitor has left a permanent footprint, Wallonia has survived with its essential spirit intact.

Perhaps this explains why the region has retained so many ancient and (to the outsider) bizarre annual festivals, with origins that historians are at a loss to explain. Take the three small towns of Binche, Stavelot and Ath. For hundreds of years, the inhabitants have been setting aside long weekends in the spring or summer to dress up and parade for no obvious reason at all.


At Binche, in the three days leading up to the start of Lent, normal life is set aside for a joyous carnival of music, dancing and marching, featuring strange clown-like performers known as ‘Gilles’, who don wax face-masks, wooden shoes and brandish sticks to ward off evil spirits. And that’s just in the morning. After lunch, they re-appear wearing exotic hats made out of ostrich

plumes, and hurl oranges into the crowd of onlookers. Apparently oranges are a symbol of good luck. This has been going on since the 14th century, but no-one is really sure what any of it means. However, UNESCO was sufficiently impressed to declare the carnival at Binche ‘a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.’ Another festival dating back to the Middle Ages, and leaning heavily on biblical legend, is held in Ath over the fourth weekend of August. It, too, has found a place on UNESCO’s exalted list. On the Saturday the dominant figure is Goliath, who begins in triumph by celebrating his marriage to a suitably demure young maiden, but ends the day less happily after his epic battle with David, when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. On Sunday, a spectacular procession trundles through town, involving

Stavelot-Laetare © FTPL - P. Fagnoul

giant dolls, floats, dance groups, bands and two especially eyecatching creatures: a two-headed eagle and a magical horse. Could there be a sensible explanation for all this? This is Wallonia there is none. Since 1502, the town of Stavelot in the Ardennes has staged a carnival - the Laetare - on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Lent is a period of self-denial and, in some cases, fasting for Roman Catholics, and by the fourth Sunday they’re obviously in need of some light relief. Enter les blancs Moussis – scarylooking creatures wearing white, hooded costumes and masks with long, red, pointed noses. They do a bit of dancing, and hit anyone within range with inflated pigs’ bladders. In most years, more than 30,000 folk head into Stavelot (normal population 2,200) for the privilege

of possibly being struck by one. The highlight of the day is a fusillade of confetti, fired into the throng by cannons. It’s estimated that more than five tonnes of multi-coloured paper is used, and to keep the environmental lobby happy, all of it is recycled. Another more serious, more religious but equally spectacular procession – the Doudou - is held in Mons every Trinity Sunday, and is described in detail elsewhere in these pages. Separately, Mons contains one small but unique feature that perfectly illustrates Wallonia’s knack of creating a timeless legend out of, well, not very much. Outside the entrance to the Town Hall is the figure of an iron monkey, which is easy to miss unless you go looking for it. The monkey’s origins (surprise, surprise) are obscure, but locals insist that rubbing its head will bring you good

fortune and the granting of your most fervent wish. Over the centuries the monkey has been caressed so often by hopeful hands that its head has been polished to a sheen, which tells you that untold numbers of visitors have favoured tradition and superstition ahead of common sense. Does it work? Like so many Walloon legends, no one can say – but few are able to pass the monkey without rubbing its head, just in case it does. By Frank Partridge (pages 4-11)


EXPLORING THE GREAT OUTDOORS Compared with much of the densely populated Low Countries, Wallonia is a haven of greenery: forests, river valleys, rolling plains and appealing hill country: ideal territory for hikers, bikers and kayakers, who come here in numbers to enjoy the rambling, the cycle tracks and the watersports on fast-flowing rivers that descend from the hills to the Meuse. But being Wallonia it offers two unusual outdoor pursuits which you will never encounter in the UK – or anywhere else. ©

One of these is ‘rail-biking,’ which involves pedalling along railway lines for fun. Happily, there are no oncoming trains to encounter because rail-biking takes place on disused lines, with purpose-built open wagons that can be pedalled by families or groups of up to four along several kilometres of disused track. There’s a beautiful 4km riverside section near Dinant, and another 7km of track in the wild Hautes Fagnes in the Ardennes, where you pedal from one disused station to another: two in the front doing the hard work on the way there; two in the back admiring the scenery. Then you change places for the return journey, with the whole excursion taking about three hours. Another quirky but imaginative use of Wallonia’s disused railways and canals is the RAVeL network, which consists of around 1,000km of former track and towpath (roughly the distance between London and Inverness) for the use of cyclists, horse-riders, roller-skaters and any other type of non-motorised transport. The paths are all smoothly paved or asphalted, making them especially popular with the more sedate type of cyclist.


Ravel © WBT Bruno D’Alimonte

One of the most remarkable sights on Wallonia’s many waterways lies on the Canal du Centre, which played an important part in the region’s 19th century industrial development by connecting the rivers Meuse and Escaut. The problem facing the canal-builders was that one river flows at an altitude of 240 feet higher than the other. A flight of locks was a possible solution, but so many locks would have been needed that it would have added hours to the journey. In the 1880s a British company was commissioned to build one of the world’s first boat lifts, in which the weight of a boat in one mobile tank perfectly counter-balances the weight of water in the other. In 1888, the first lift opened, raising or lowering canal craft by 51 feet, and three more lifts were added in 1917 to complete the link. The construction was so advanced for its time that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, by which time it had been replaced by the gigantic Strépy-Thieu lift nearby, which covers the 240 feet ascent/ descent in just seven minutes, and is one of the largest boat lifts in the world. Strépy-Thieu has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right. Pedestrians can take a one-way ride on the lift, while its venerable predecessors have been restored and are occasionally pressed into service to move small, recreational boats from one river to the other.

Strepy Thieu Boat lift © WBT S.Wittenbol


FANTASY CASTLES AND GARDENS Belgium has more castles per square mile than anywhere in the world. Many of them are open to the public; some offer overnight accommodation, and almost all are enhanced by sumptuous gardens or rolling parkland.

Lavaux-Sainte-Anne © ValdeLesse

There are too many châteaux to single out here, but the group of three within half an hour of the riverside town of Dinant illustrates their charm and variety. Veves might belong in a fairytale – a turreted, 15th century fantasy overlooking the village of Celles. Lavaux-SainteAnne has dramatic stone towers and curious, bulbous roofs, while Freÿr – on a bend of the Meuse – is notable for its classical, riverside gardens and fountains, a maze measuring 6km and a grove of sweet-smelling orange trees, which have flourished in its walled micro-climate for more than 300 years. The interior is decorated with stunning pieces of furniture and fine art.

The most picturesque of Wallonia’s castles is arguably at Bouillon, sitting proudly on a craggy ridge overlooking a sharp loop of the river Semois. The last of the dukes who gave the town its name sold the castle in 1096 to raise funds of the First Crusade, which successfully captured Jerusalem three years later. Later, the castle was refortified by Louis XIV of France, but that’s another story in Wallonia’s tempestuous history.

© WBT David Samyn

Countess Berthe © O.Lefèvre


Every country with such rich echoes of the past should have a haunted castle, and Wallonia has one of its own. From time to time, a stately spectre is said to appear on the ramparts of the forbidding castle at La Rocheen-Ardenne, where the ruins are dramatically set in the cliffs that dominate the town. The ghost in question is that of Countess Berthe de La Roche, heiress to the local lord’s estate, who fell to her death following a jousting tournament which was won by a vengeful Countess in disguise, who had made a pact with the devil. Sceptics point out that the ghost tends to restrict her appearances to summer evenings when most tourists are in town, enjoying some of the local brews.

WINE? AND WHISKY? IN WALLONIA? Dwarfed by Germany and France – two of the world’s leading wine producers - one might expect Wallonia to concentrate on what it does best, and develop its prodigious range of craft beers: there’s more than one commercially available Walloon brew for every day of the year. Not a bit of it. Wine has been produced in Belgium since the Middle Ages, and as many as 50 grape varieties can survive the cool climate by being planted in walled or sheltered vineyards, on south-facing slopes, or near patches of forest to protect them from the elements. There are a number of winegrowers in Wallonia, whose output is increasing every year, and one region near Liège has been awarded its own appellation – les Côtes de Sambre et Meuse – which guarantees the quality of its wines.

Domaine du Chenoy © Maxime Weemans

Not far across the North Sea lies Scotland, the world’s leading producer of whisky. Again, a sensible business advisor would surely try to dissuade any local entrepreneur from opening a distillery in Wallonia, given such strong competition from a near neighbour. But that’s exactly what wine-maker Etienne Bouillon did, building a distillery in the Hesbaye area in order to produce Wallonia’s first single malt whisky. Etienne even went to Scotland to source two copper, 19th century stills that were being replaced by a distillery on Speyside. The result of many years of labour is Belgian Owl, made from local spring barley and water that takes up to 20 years to permeate the underlying limestone, which gives it purity and, in Etienne’s words, “the unique flavours of Wallonia.” Belgian Owl went on sale for the first time in November 2016. It sold out immediately, and there is now a waiting list for supplies - even though a bottle of the three-year-old costs €85. Next year, production at the Owl Distillery will double. The Owl Distillery © WBT Emmanuel Mathez


© Quartier Latin

SURPRISING PLACES TO SPEND THE NIGHT In an off-beat place like Wallonia, you don’t have to search hard to find accommodation that’s decidedly out of the ordinary. There are plenty of ‘normal’ hotels, guest houses and B&Bs, of course, but we decided to round off this introduction by highlighting a few of the quirkier ones. A number of former religious buildings in the region have been converted into outstandingly good hotels, full of history and atmosphere. The Quartier Latin in Marcheen-Famenne was once a Jesuit complex, built in the 18th century and sensitively restored in modern times so that the new facilities (including a spa, restaurant and shops) blend perfectly with the original buildings. An even more ambitious design project has transformed an old convent near the centre of Mons into the cutting-edge Dream Hotel, which mixes stark black walls and carpets, and bold, fantasy murals with many of the convent’s original features, including some astonishing stained glass and an ecclesiastical window that stretches over three floors. The contrast between a sombre old place of worship and the shiny, halogen-lit zinc bar could not be greater – and guarantees a memorable experience whether you approve of the daring conversion or not! On the subject of space travel, the highly-praised Euro Space Centre, about an hour’s drive south of the regional capital Namur, offers fascinating residential programmes


Dream Hotel © Gil De Angelis

© Euro Space Centre

catering for young space fans (and their families) from the UK, as well as Germany, France and Holland. The programmes, lasting between two and six days, are suitable for budding astronauts from the age of eight upwards, and include

realistic training on flight simulation machines, a reproduction of the US Space Shuttle’s cockpit, and educational activities both inside and outdoors. The Space Centre is unique in Europe, but then – for so many reasons – so is Wallonia.

ARTY STREETS IN CHARLEROI For heritage with a modern twist, there is no better example than Charleroi, the largest city in Wallonia, which has had a thorough facelift in recent years and now rivals Brussels for the quality of its street art. While the buildings of many other cities are disfigured by garish graffiti that verges on vandalism, Charleroi makes a virtue of the technique by staging an international street art festival very two years. Among the permanent works around town are images of famous Belgian cartoon characters that adorn two metro stations, while many a bare wall, gable end or rooftop – and even the pillars supporting the inner ring-road are a riot of colour and creativity.

© Emeline Gervai

Charleroi - Fresque Sozyone Gonzalez © WBT J.P.Remy


© Emeline Gervai

A number of place-names in Wallonia correspond with English words or pronunciations but don’t mean the same thing at all. The best known is the Hainaut village of Silly, which was named after the river Sille that flows through it. A part from taking a snap of the signpost, visit the local brewery (Brasserie de Silly) and try its delicious ‘Silly Beer’. Other surprising Walloon place-names are My, Spy, Bra, Ham, Dave, Ways, Peck and Champion. But the strangest of all is a township in Namur province that delights in the name of Wierde. Perhaps this confirms what many visitors think about Wallonia. It’s a bit different, a bit ‘weird’ in fact – but in a wonderful way.


Mons & Tournai

Ducasse De Mons - doudou © WBT Anibal Trejo

COLOURFUL DOUDOU The very name makes you look twice! The Ducasse de Mons, popularly known as the ‘Doudou’, is to the city of Mons what carnival is to Rio. This UNESCO designated festival combines music, food and drink over a few days around Trinity Sunday (late May to mid-June). The festival’s origins can be traced back to 1349 when Mons was touched by the plague. The reliquary (container of holy relics) of St. Waudru, the patron saint of the city, was paraded through the streets. Soon after, the plague miraculously receded. Almost every year since, the procession has been re-enacted. Today, each Trinity Sunday, the Shrine of St. Waudru is carried through the streets on the ‘Car d’Or’, a golden dray, pulled by draft horses. An enormous crowd then gathers in the main square to watch the battle of ‘Lumeçon’ as St George, on horseback, fights and slays the dragon. It’s quite an event! By Stuart Render


Ducasse De Mons - doudou © WBT Anibal Trejo

GOOD LUCK MONKEY If you love a mystery, head to the Hôtel de Ville in the centre of Mons. Sitting on the outside wall is the Guardhouse Monkey, a small, cast-iron statue. A good luck charm and a symbol of the city, its origins are unclear. Some say it was a blacksmith’s ‘masterpiece’, a demonstration of skill. One report has it that the monkey was a pillory, a place where naughty or wayward children would be taken to be publicly shamed. What is undoubtedly true is that rubbing the monkey’s head with your left hand while making a wish will provide good luck. Well, probably! By Stuart Render

Mons - Monkey statue © WBT J.P.Remy

Mons - Collegiale Sainte Waudru © Visitmons Gregory Mathelot


BLIND DATING, WALLONIA STYLE Wallonia has had its own version of blind dating more than a century before it became a TV hit in the UK. Described more demurely by the locals of Ecaussines, near Mons, as a ‘Matrimonial Tea Party’, the event has been held over the Whitsun weekend since 1903. The venue is held at the nearby château. Single men have to fill in a register, describing their qualities and their ideal partner. Then the young ladies of the town, or ‘The City of Love’ as it becomes for the weekend, invite all the hopeful young men to tea for the introductions. In a typical year, as many as 600 females take part. All of them get in free, whereas the men have to pay €10 for the privilege, although they do get a drink included to give them bon courage to approach the girl of their dreams. Sadly, the register dos not record how many of them have succeeded in their quest since 1903, but some of them must have done because every year they keep on coming!

© Soignies-festif

By Sue Heady

© Soignies-festif

© Soignies-festif


GET STEAMING BEFORE DRINKING Wallonia never fails to surprise the curious visitor. While modern brewing is highly computerised, one Walloon brewer turned his back on the new technology to preserve a piece of the past. In the town of Pipaix, in Hainaut province near the French border, Jean-Louis Dits runs what is probably the world’s last brewery to be powered by steam.

In the late 19th century, steam breweries were commonplace, but they would have disappeared for good if Jean-Louis hadn’t decided to rescue some equipment (dated 1895) that was bound for the scrapheap. He reconditioned the 12-horsepower steam engine, repaired the pulleys, belts and gears – and since 1984, dressed in the traditional brewer’s leather apron, he has been turning out a variety of excellent beers. An enormous paddle stirs in the malt and hot water, and the Brasserie à Vapeur becomes as hot as a sauna as the steam engine goes full throttle. Afterwards, the engine has to be taken apart, greased, and put together again for next time. It’s hard and uncomfortable work, but Jean-Louis is proud to have preserved a small slice of history: “Every day when you get to brew here is a good day,” he says. This unique slice of history is open to visitors every brewing day: the last Saturday of the month. By Frank Partridge

Pipaix - Steam brewery © WBT Gabriele Croppi

Pipaix - Steam brewery © WBT Bernard Boccara


WALLONIA’S ‘ENGLISH’ OUTPOST For five years in the early 16th century, the border town of Tournai, notable for its five-spired cathedral, belonged to England. It was captured from the French (who controlled the region at the time) after a siege in September 1513. Ten days later the young king Henry VIII rode into town to view his latest acquisition, and ordered an extensive fortress to be built on the bank of the river Escault. Only a single round tower – Tour de Henri VIII - survives to this day. The English occupation of Tournai was short-lived. Peace was made with the French, and the town was returned to them in 1518. Henry had other business on his mind. Tournai remains the only town in Belgium that was once an outpost of England. By Frank Partridge

© Visit Tournai


Tournai - Pont Des Trous ©


Waterloo & Beyond

The Mont-Saint-Jean Farm © FTBW.jpg

THE MONT-SAINT-JEAN FARM THAT BECAME A MICRO-BREWERY Mont-Saint-Jean Farm has played many roles in its long eventful history. In the Middle Ages, it became a hospital when the owners donated it to the Order of St John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller, who provide care to the needy, whatever their religious beliefs. It has also served as a working farm, with various families initially leasing the land, then buying the property in its entirety. Since the early 18th century, Mont-Saint-Jean Farm has witnessed several big battles, the most famous of course, being the Battle of Waterloo (which Napoleon referred to as the Battle of MontSaint-Jean).

1846 and 2014, when it was acquired by Anthony Martin, head of John Martin Brewery, who is of British descent. Martin has made it his mission to save the historical site and give it a new lease of life. No longer operating as a farm, it is in the process of being turned into a world-class tourist attraction. A micro-brewery has already been installed to produce Waterloo Beer in the style of the one created in Wellington’s honour in 1815. Additionally, a restaurant run by

It played a key role in the 1815 battle, as the Duke of Wellington established a field hospital there that treated no less than 6,000 wounded soldiers; as a result, the farm became known as “the English hospital”. When Wellington finally defeated Napoleon, he was given the newly-created title Prince of Waterloo in recognition of his success. In his honour, local brewers named their top-fermented dark beers “Waterloo”. Mont-Saint-Jean remained in the same family ownership between


Commemoration of the Battle of Waterloo © Olivier Cappeliez

renowned chefs who use the beer in various dishes, a shop selling local produce, a museum dedicated to the English Hospital and a hall in an historic barn that can be rented for events have been created. There are also plans to develop a children’s theme park, an educational farm, a living horse museum and a bicycle rental service, to enable visitors to explore the surrounding countryside. By Sue Heady

© JP DeVogelaere

CYCLING ROUND THE CLOCK If you had enough of cathedrals and castles built by kings and emperors, let me take you on a completely different journey. We’ll go to Louvainla-Neuve, the newest Belgian city, in the Waloon Brabant. This lively student city built from scratch in the 1970s gets particularly busy in the last week of October, when a huge student festival takes over the place. Les 24 heures vélo (The 24-Hour Bicycle Ride) is a sports competition that comes bundled with a big party. From 1 PM on Wednesday through 1 PM on Thursday, dozens of teams compete in a bicycle relay race, on a circuit that spans the whole city. Around them, there are various concerts, DJ sets and lots of fun activities.

© Adrian Petrescu

There are three categories of teams in the competition. The race teams aim at completing the most laps. The humanitarians raise funds for various causes. But the quirkiest are the folk bike teams, who customise, paint and decorate their bikes according to their specific theme and usually create large, improvised moving structures. Depending on their creativity, expect to see anything from cartoon characters to fire engines or castles... running on bicycle wheels. More than 40,000 people attend the festival each year, making it the most animated night in the city. By Adrian Petrescu © PBW



THE FORGOTTEN VEGETABLE FESTIVAL IN THE BRABANT WALLON The Pumpkin Festival (or Fête aux Potirons), as it is known, takes place every September in TourinnesSaint-Lambert. It might, on first appearances, seem an unlikely subject matter for a festival, but delve a little deeper into the history of Tourinnes-SaintLambert and the surrounding area and it begins to make sense: from medieval times to the middle of the 20th century, agriculture was the driving force in the local economy, so naturally pumpkins and a whole host of other “forgotten” vegetables are celebrated by residents for providing their community with a living. The festival starts on the Saturday evening, with a dinner followed by dancing, and then the fair itself takes place on the Sunday. Highlights include folkloric presentations, regional food specialties such as chutneys incorporating local vegetables, craft stalls selling items branded with pumpkins, good



regional beers, and, of course, competitions judging the biggest and best decorated pumpkins. If it seems a long way to go for a load of old pumpkins, then combine it with a trip to the wonderful 12th century abbey at Villers-La-Ville,

which sits in 36 hectares of gardens (including a Pharmacy Garden), and you have the makings of a wonderful day out into the Walloon countryside! By Sue Heady

© AbbayedeVillers-laVille


Namur & Dinant

Namur © C. Leeuwe - Otn

THE SNAIL-PACED CAPITAL With its grand parliament building, a strategic location nestling between the Meuse and Sambre rivers, and protected by La Citadelle, an immense military fortress, the proud city of Namur makes a majestic capital of Wallonia. But behind the grandeur of this facade, the visitor quickly discovers that this is very much a laid-back destination, a hidden secret that is perfect for a few days of slow, unhurried visiting. Namur’s official symbol is, after all, the snail. You will quickly discover that sitting out on the terrace of an historic cafe like the 17th century Ratin Tot, sipping an abbey-brewed Maredsous, or taking a couple of hours for a lazy lunch sampling delicious Namur specialities in the romantic bistrot, Le Temps des Cerises, are just as much of a pleasure as discovering more classic sights like St Aubin‘s baroque cathedral, the medieval Unesco World Heritage belfry and the ancient romanesque St Jean church. And if the sun is out, why not plan a picnic at the top of the Citadel? On the main shopping street, Rue


© Ville de Namur - P.Lavandy

des Anges, delicatessens are filled with local specialities; wild boar sausage and tasty smoked ham from the Ardennes, organic cheeses like Cochon’nez or Abbaye de Floreffe, while adventurous foodies should try snail terrine d’escargots, made with

Namur’s famous Petits Gris variety. The Citadel is a lot bigger - and higher - than it looks, quite a trek up winding paths through a thickly wooded landscape. The fortifications are immense, masterminded by Vauban, the military genius behind the success of France’s Louis XIV. But today the soldiers have all gone, and this vast park is a paradise for kids, a venue for art exhibitions and concerts, and even a perfume laboratory ( open to visitors, where Guy Delforge, a local Namurois, creates scents that are sold in chic boutiques all over the world. The views from the Citadel make the long walk worthwhile, offering a panorama that spreads over Namur and the hills and forests of the Ardennes. And the final surprise right at the summit that typifies Wallonia’s quirky view of the world, is an arresting sculpture of a monumental bronze turtle, bravely ridden by a tiny figure, who it turns out is a self-portrait of the works’s creator, provocative Belgian artist, Jan Fabre. Entitled ‘Searching for Utopia’, which should inspire any visitor to Namur to seek out all the city’s hidden secrets.

Wépion - Strawberry museum © Christian Genard

STRAWBERRY FIELDS GALORE A lazy bike ride out of Namur along the picturesque banks of the Meuse river soon leads to the village of Wepion, renowned as Belgium’s strawberry capital. In the harvest season, the roadside is lined with stalls selling these irresistible fruits, and Wepion boasts its own quaint Musee de la Fraise, dedicated to their exceptional strawberries, commercialised since the 17th century. What is their secret? Locals talk about the special powers of the soil, the fog that regularly rolls over the strawberry fields from the Meuse, and above all, the traditional picking technique, where the stem is precisely broken to ensure there is no finger contact with the strawberry itself to prevent bruising. By John Brunton

© WBT Denis Erroyaux


Dinant - Bathtub Race © Maxime Weemans

THE BATHTUB RACE IN DINANT “Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the midday sun”, but it is mad Belgians and their bath-tubs who head out onto the River Meuse every August in an attempt to win Belgium’s Bathtub Regatta in Dinant. Established in 1982, the Bathtub Regatta sees over 20 teams compete in the 1km race down the Meuse. All entrants must do is launch a riverworthy vessel that consists of at least one bathtub, which is often obscured by elaborate fixtures and fittings used for floatation and or decoration; dinosaurs, houses and cars have all been seen in previous years! Certain rules do exist: motors are banned and craft lacking a bathtub are disqualified as are teams who attempt to sink opponents’ tubs. However, it’s not just about the first tub over the finishing line, as tubs are also judged on their creativity and originality; the scores are then combined and the winning tub revealed. Meanwhile, on the river banks, huge crowds gather to laugh at the outrageous boats and their teams, while enjoying a Belgian beer or two. Both participation and attendance are free. By Sue Heady


Dinant © Maxime Weemans

Annevoie © Hallet Jacques


emerge from the castle, sometimes in couples, sometimes alone, and parade slowly through the gardens, that are at the heart of this unique event. The hand-made costumes and masks, which can take up to a year to complete, are utterly magnificent, each design different from the next.

Take an exquisitely elegant 17th century water garden. Introduce sumptuous costumes full of vibrant colour and spectacle, and infuse with mystery and romance. Sprinkle with a touch of magic and you have a visitor experience unlike any other.

This is a photographer’s paradise, as those in costume will stop and pose (and they are very good at posing!), and then continue their stately progress around the gardens. It’s possible to engage in conversation, guiding your chosen couple or individual to pose by a tree, or alongside a lake or fountain. Twice a day, there’s a parade of all the costumes.

Each May, the Jardins d’Annevoie, located on the Meuse valley, midway between Namur and Dinant, host the Venetian Costume Festival. The gardens, the brainchild of the owner-designer, Charles-Alexis de Montpellier, display his love of English, Italian and French garden design. The result is undoubtedly romantic. There are some 20 ornamental pools with 50 water jets, fountains and cascades all fed by gravity. A ‘Grand Canal’, a grotto and the presence of the Chateau d’Annevoie (not open to the public) add the final touches to a place that enchants and beguiles in equal measure. But it is the 100 or so people in full Venetian carnival costume who, during each morning of the festival,

A range of Venetian masks and related food products provide the requisite souvenirs. The Jardins d’Annevoie are well worth a visit at any time of the year, but if you’re looking for quirky and unusual, and a truly memorable experience, the Venetian Carnival Festival is unlikely to disappoint. © Stuart Redner

By Stuart Render


© M.Lanckmans

© Bauduin Haine

HITLER’S UNKNOWN BUNKER In the history of WWII, the hamlet of Brûly-de-Pesche is often overlooked. But this sleepy backwater, near to the French border, was where, for three weeks in 1940, Hitler directed the second stage of his French campaign. On the 28th, Hitler left Brûly to fly to his new HQ in the Black Forest. Today, visitors to this site of remembrance can see two thoughtprovoking museums. One focuses on Hitler’s visit and the consequences on the local population. The other reveals the fascinating and inspiring story (and related artefacts) of the 250 men and women of the local resistance movement who hid in the same forest for nearly three years, sabotaging the enemy’s lines of communication. By Stuart Render


Nismes - Le Fondry des Chiens © Christian Genard

FONDRY DU CHIEN The Fondry des Chiens, which was once mined for iron ore, is a natural rock formation of biological interest close to the village of Nismes in the Viroin valley. A gorge about 20 metres deep has been carved out of the predominantly limestone landscape over thousands of year by rainfall erosion, leaving behind huge boulders with soft curves.

The Fondry has been declared a nature reserve on account of the rare and fragile eco-system that has developed in this natural microcosm. Orchids (usually found further south) proliferate and there is an abundance of wildlife, including plenty of butterflies, lizards and birds. By Sue Heady

Bastogne & Durbuy

GOING NUTS IN BASTOGNE Like so many other parts of continental Europe, Wallonia spent the years 1940-44 subjugated and occupied by an irresistibly greater power. As you have just read on the previous page, Wallonia even became the temporary headquarters of Hitler himself, who, in May 1940, established a secret bunker HQ at Brûly-dePesche, from where he supervised the surrender of France. By late 1944, however, the tide was turning and the advancing Allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand. Then, just before Christmas, Hitler launched a surprise counterattack in the Ardennes, which took both the American and British armies by surprise. While the British were regrouping in the Netherlands, the Americans were first in the firing line, and one of the bloodiest battles of the war was waged over the following three weeks, in bitterly cold and wet conditions. It would go down in history as ‘The Battle of the Bulge’. The Walloon town of Bastogne, where the US 101st Airborne Division was based, became the epicentre of the engagement. German tanks and troops had made light of the difficult Ardennes terrain and had surrounded the town. Defeat for the Americans seemed inevitable, and on 22nd December a German messenger was sent to Bastogne with a message demanding their immediate surrender. The acting commander of the 101st, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, took one look at the note and replied with a rebuttal that would go down in history: ‘To the German commander. Nuts! From the American commander.’ The US force, and the town itself, took heavy punishment from the air raids and tank attacks that followed, but they held firm, and when the enemy’s advance eventually became bogged down by a combination of impassable roads and lack of supplies - and the British arrived to close the defensive ring - Hitler’s last fling was doomed. Today, Bastogne is an

Mc Auliffe © FTLB PWillems

© Ville de Bastogne

evocative, living memorial to one of the key engagements of WW2, and a shrine for veterans and descendants of the many thousands who lost their lives defending the town and delivering peace, at last, to Belgium. And there’s a delightful Walloon touch to the modern-day commemorations. Developing the ‘nuts’ theme, on the weekend before Christmas local dignitaries throw handfuls of walnuts – imported, appropriately, from California - from a town hall balcony to the crowd below. Some of the revellers head afterwards to Le Nut’s, a brasserie in Bastogne which specialises in Airborne Beer, as a lasting homage to the liberators of 1944. The proprietors can be forgiven for their grammar because this fine brew is served in ingeniously crafted ceramic drinking vessels, in the shape of GIs’ helmets. By Sue Heady

© FTLB PWillems


Panorama - Durbuy © WBT JPRemy

Durbuy Topiary © WBT JPRemy

of ducklings, welcome visitors to this unique park beautifully laid out over one hectare.

Durbuy © Piers Smith Cresswell

TOPIARY GARDEN Picturesque Durbuy is known as “the smallest city in the world”. An important industrial and commercial centre in medieval times, the town was elevated to the status of city by John I, Count of Luxemburg and King of Bohemia in 1331. These days, this tiny little city of just over 11,000 inhabitants is a hive of cultural and touristic activity. Pretty pedestrianised cobbled streets wend their way between 17th and 18th century houses, leading to Durbuy’s church St-Nicolas des Récollets, while the 11th century Durbuy castle with its high defensive walls dominates the skyline.


One of the reasons Durbuy remained small was its location: stuck between the River Ourthe and the anticline of the Falize rock, there was nowhere else for it to expand. Today, this means that the city is also an adventure playground, with easy access to riverside walks, forest hikes and mountain bike tours, kayaking, rock climbing and zip wiring, as well as 18 holes of mini golf and a challenge park. One of the city’s main attractions is the Topiary Garden, beside the river Ourthe, which is the largest of its kind in the world. Open to the public since 1997, over 250 topiary sculptures, from jockeys on horses to a row

Durbuy’s idyllic rural location has attracted artists and artisans in their droves; they create amazing works from wood, stone, glass, paper and more. It is rare to find a weekend in the year when an exhibition or festival is not taking place; it could be Durbuyssimo, a country festival, a craft fair, the Sculpture Symposium, a Christmas market or a flea market. If it is not artistic, it will have a food association, because the tiny city of Durbuy is also renowned for its gastronomy, with a wide range of restaurants recognised by Michelin and plenty of local producers, such as Markloff beer, Ozo goats’ cheese, Saint-Amour jams and Grandhan tarts. It may be small, but Durbuy certainly packs a punch! By Sue Heady

© Scalp Pascal Schyns

FANTASY INTERIORS The ‘Balade des Gnomes’ is a hotel like no other. Located in Heyd, not far from Durbuy, it was originally just a restaurant called La Gargouille (The Gargoyle), set in a 19th century farmhouse full of charm and mystery, but then the owner decided to create 11 weird and wonderful rooms beside it. The name of the hotel (Walk of the Gnomes) and of each individual room gives an indication of this property’s uniqueness. “The forest hut,” “On a section of the moon,” “The stars of the desert,” “Hutta di zobabou-bou,” “The legend of the trolls,” “The monk’s despair” and

“The island of Macquarie “are just some of the rooms, all with interiors to match their particular theme. Perhaps the most unusual is “The Trojan Horse,” a duplex with medieval-inspired décor that has been built within a stand-alone wooden horse. Perfect for families, it has a double bedroom and two kids’ bunk beds. While the owner fulfilled his wildest dreams to create the Balade des Gnomes; guests can now dream while sleeping in the wildest of interiors! By Sue Heady

© Scalp Pascal Schyns

THE ‘BRAME DU CERF’ It is hard to describe the ‘brame’ (or call) of a deer during the mating season, which lasts from midSeptember to mid-October. Part grunt, part cough, almost a sneeze, it is unlikely to be forgotten once heard, which is why it is something of a tourist attraction in the forests of the Ardennes. Although it is best to use a guide to explain the mating ritual before heading out into the wilderness to listen to the “brame”, followed by the noise of clashing antlers as the stags fight for the right to mate the doe, it is also possible to visit one of 10 free “listening” areas. Late evening during a full moon and early morning when there has been a hard frost are generally accepted as the best times to witness the emotive cry of the king of the forest. © Domain of Han - Guy

By Sue Heady


La Roche-en-Ardenne

© Dominik Ketz

THE SOUP FESTIVAL Gastronomic festivals are always popular – some celebrate the wine harvest, others the truffle season – but every September in Rocheen-Ardenne, it’s humble soup that people come together to honour. Soup is a real leveller, enjoyed as much as a simple meal at home as it is a gastronomic delight in a high-end restaurant. And at the Soup Festival in Roche-en-Ardenne, participants get to try both, as soups are prepared by both experienced Rochois restaurateurs and enthusiastic amateur chefs. Taking place over two days, there is always a traditional food market on the Saturday at which local celebrity chefs offer soup tastings (entry to the festival is free, visitors pay a small charge for a “tasting bowl” into which samples are ladled), followed on Sunday by the hotlycontested soup competition when everyone has a chance to make their mark. There is also a craft market, live music and plenty of entertainment, providing the perfect ingredients for a great festival... By Sue Heady

© FTLB P.Willems


La Roche Soup Festival © FTLB P.Willems


Liege & Spa

Liege - Christmas Village © WBT J.P.Remy

CHRISTMAS MARKETS Visitors to Liege in the month of December can be forgiven for thinking they have stumbled into Santa’s Grotto, as the city’s joyous Christmas Village celebrates every day of the whole month. Occupying the city’s landmark square, the immense Place Saint-Lambert, this festive Christmas Village of some 200 jolly wooden chalets draws a mammoth million visitors every year. Each of the chalets has its own tempting speciality. Food is a big attraction, with chefs offering pretzels and mulled wine, waffles topped with hot chocolate and a mountain of whipped cream, a glass of Rufus sparkling wine, Wallonia’s answer to Champagne, or an artisan beer from Liege’s very own craft brewery, Curtis, made in a nearby

Wonck Cave © JM Leonard


medieval convent. Kids are spoilt for choice, with a skating rink, circus acts and artisans presenting a myriad of tempting Christmas novelties to take home. And don’t forget this is not a classic Christmas Market like those all over Germany and Alsace, but an authentic Village, with its own Christmas Mayor, Town Hall and Post Office, even a toboggan run. For something completely different to Liege’s Village, just a 20 minute drive away, the sleepy hamlet of Bassenge hosts what must be one of the world’s strangest Christmas festivities, over just a single weekend in the middle of December. Follow the crowds of Christmas revellers towards a tiny hidden entrance that leads down into a maze

Wonck Cave © S.I Bassenge

of flint caves and hollowed-out underground galleries that date back some 2,000 years. Welcome to the Grottes de Wonck, which have served as a refuge for the local population during the difficult days of the last two World Wars, and today are for the most part, taken over by farmers who use the unique subterranean climate to cultivate a host of different mushrooms. Two large caves and almost a kilometre of passages, though, are set aside for the annual Artisans Christmas Market, transformed into a magical, fairytale venue filled with 80 craft stalls selling hand carved toys, dolls and a myriad of decorations for the tree, perfumed candles, jewellery and knitted Xmas sweaters. And there is even a below-ground restaurant where the speciality dish is naturally the delicious mushrooms grown in the caves. By John Brunton

© Marc Verpoorten

NOCTURNAL NIGHT The majestic Citadel of Liege has guarded over the city since the 13th century, sitting 100 metres high above the meandering Meuse river. But every year, on the first Saturday of October, as the sun slowly sets, the waves of ‘coteaux’ hillsides descending down from the Citadel to Liege’s historic centre, refuse to fall into darkness. Instead a magical, fairytale illumination of some 22,000 candles and flaming torches light up the never-ending Montagne de Bueren staircase of 374 steep steps that plunge down from the Citadel, as well as a labyrinth of courtyards and alleyways, historic monuments, and ancient convents and cloisters, medieval terraces, hanging gardens and orchards, with narrow paths weaving through fields and meadows. This is La Nocturne des Coteaux, a unique event inaugurated over

twenty years ago that for a single night turns Liege into a romantic City of Light. What began as a tranquil festival essentially for the local Liegeois now attracts some 50,000 visitors, with English, Italian, German and Spanish mixing in with the gentle Walloon dialect. The illuminations are still burning brightly after midnight, with spectators entranced by musicians, street theatre, art displays that are performed right up to the St Leonard quay of the Meuse, with a dazzling firework display lighting up the sky at 10.30pm. A local resident sums up the atmosphere perfectly, saying, “with the fluttering candles covering every corner of the old city, time just seems to stand still during the Nocturne. This is something everyone should experience once in their lifetime.” © Marc Verpoorten

By John Brunton


WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE IN SPA The bubbling waters of Spa, which has given its name to thermal resorts the world over, have been attracting visitors to eastern Wallonia since Roman times. The mineral water has been bottled since the late 16th century, and can be obtained free of charge at wells and fountains around the town. Spa’s main spring, housed in a pavilion named after spalover Peter the Great of Russia, delivers more than 20,000 litres every day. What makes the cloudy water so special? It contains iron, bicarbonate of soda and other essential minerals used in the treatment of rheumatism and lung and heart ailments. Fittingly, the theme of water has given Spa one of the most unlikely museums you will find anywhere. Thermes de Spa © WBT Jeanmart

Tucked away in the old quarter of town is a Laundry Museum, devoted to the history of washing, soap and everything connected with laundering down the ages. It might seem an unpromising subject, but the story the museum tells is fascinating. Twenty rooms cover the history of washing, highlighting the desperately hard working and living conditions endured by our ancestors, who lacked the labour-saving white goods we take for granted today. The museum has tracked down some of the earliest washing machines (made of wood) and displays some unlikely products that were used to clean clothes before the invention of detergent - such as plants, dried fruits, coal and even urine. By Frank Partridge

© Laundry Museum


Manoir des Lebioles © WBT Jeanmart

THE MANOIR DES LEBIOLES The motto on the Manoir de Lébioles crest says it all: “Plus Valet Quam Lucet” (“There is more to it than meets the eye”). Built between 1905 and 1910, Manoir de Lébioles was once a family home that was used as a backdrop for glamorous events, such as concerts, gala balls and plays by the National Theatre of Belgium, through much of the 20th century until the 1980s when it was converted into a hotel. Manoir de Lébioles – considered one of the most beautiful buildings of architectural note in the region – underwent an extensive renovation project in 2006, returning the “small Versailles of the Ardennes” to its former glory, while introducing state-of-the-art luxury and modern comforts. This update, coupled with its location nestling majestically amid the woods of the Ardennes close to the historic town of Spa and discreet first-class service, make the hotel a natural choice for those seeking rest and relaxation. By Sue Heady


Eastern Cantons

© Dominik Ketz

ONE STONE: THREE FRONTIERS Fixing the precise boundaries of eastern Belgium has proved a headache for politicians, geographers, historians – and most of all to the people who live there. One part of the Pays de Herve in the east has belonged to three different nations, and for more than a century, to no nation at all.

© Dominik Ketz


These days, Wallonia, the Netherlands and Germany come together at a boundary stone near the 50-metrehigh Baudouin Tower, where a glass lift has been built to give visitors a bird’s-eye view of the densely forested landscape. But it wasn’t always so simple. From 1816 until the end of World War 1, the ownership of a small, triangular-shaped district was claimed by all three countries – because it contained a valuable zinc spar mine - but remained defiantly independent. ‘Neutral Moresnet’ had its own flag, and became the

equivalent of a modern duty-free tax haven, with a casino and shops that accepted four currencies as legal tender. In the early 20th century efforts were made to found the world’s first Esperanto-speaking state in Moresnet, but the war put an end to that. Eventually, at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, Moresnet was awarded to Belgium, along with some previously German territory that includes the towns of Eupen and Malmedy. This anomaly persists today. German is the second official language of Wallonia, and is widely spoken in the Eastern Cantons. The German Speaking Community has its own government, based in Eupen, with a ‘Minister-President’ in charge. To the visitor it feels more German than Belgian, but the inhabitants are Belgian – and proud of it. By Frank Partridge

GOLFING WITH THE CATTLE Wallonia has a fine selection of golf courses, suitable for every level of player from the beginner to the low-handicapper. But not everyone is comfortable with the game’s somewhat elite image, with strict rules about dress, etiquette on the course and behaviour in the clubhouse. And the equipment and green fees can be pricey too.

Stoumont - Monville Farm © Marie Monville

A handful of farmers in Wallonia have introduced a sport that is unlikely ever to feature in the Olympic Games: farm golf. This bizarre relation of ‘proper’ golf is one for all the family. You put on heavy boots or wellingtons and the oldest clothes you can find, and use a specially designed wooden club to hit an oversize leather ball across the fields, slopes, fences and ditches, hopefully avoiding the puddles and cow pats – not to mention the cows themselves! Most courses have 10 holes, which are made by placing a bucket in the ground with a flagpole alongside. A fine example is the course at Monville Farm in Stoumont, high up in the Ardennes, which runs for about 1,700 metres and offers wonderful views of the Amblève Valley and scattered villages below. For a handful of Euros, farm golf is a light-hearted and convivial way to enjoy the countryside – and it gives keen youngsters an early taste of the real game. By Frank Partridge

‘ALPINE’ WALLONIA One of the most surprising features of largely low-lying Wallonia is that it has a flourishing skiing industry, with as many as eight centres in the Ardennes and the wild Hautes Fagnes plain. What this part of Wallonia lacks in altitude – the highest ski-run is only 530 me tres above sea level – they make up with distinctly Alpine weather conditions in the winter months. The ski centre at Ovifat even calls itself ‘Ski Alpin Ovifat’! The best downhill resort is at Mont des Brumes, between Francorchamps and La Gleize, which has four lifts and a run of about 1,000 metres, including a hair-raising ‘red run’ section. Who would have expected that in one of the ‘Low Countries’? There is also excellent cross-country skiing in the Hautes Fagnes natural park, near Wallonia’s highest point at Botrange. ©

By Frank Partridge


GETTING HIGH IN BOTRANGE Wallonia is extremely proud of its high places, which distinguishes it from Flanders, the Netherlands, eastern France and western Germany. Until the Treaty of Versailles, the highest point in Wallonia was at Baraque Michel, 674 metres above sea level, but when the Treaty awarded Belgium 31 new localities as reparation for the war damage it had suffered, Baraque Michel was eclipsed by the Signal de Botrange, at a towering 694 metres. It’s not actually a peak: just a section of elevated ground in the Hautes Fagnes. But the new mark wasn’t enough. In 1923, a small mound (the Butte de Baltia) was built to raise the height to exactly 700 metres. Those extra six metres may seem insignificant, yet the landmark attracts thousands of visitors every year. Named after the general who ruled the new territories in the early 1920s, a flight of stone steps enables you to climb up the mound, and when you reach the top you can proudly say you’re looking down on the whole of Belgium. By Frank Partridge

© Dominik Ketz







Antwerp Bruges










Villers-la-Ville Tournai Mons


Namur Binche


Durbuy Dinant La Roche-en-Ardenne


Bastogne Saint-Hubert



© WBT – Serge Matterne

Produced with the co-operation of the Belgian Tourist Office – Wallonia. Telephone: 020 7531 0390 Email: All rights reserved. No part of this guide may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any other means, electronic, mechanical, photographic, recording or otherwise without the prior written consent of the publisher. Commissioning editor & picture editor: Maxime Weemans & Philippe Maree Contributors: Stuart Render, Adrian Petrescu, Sue Heady, Frank Partridge, John Brunton Graphic Design & Print Production: GreenApple Graphics · 01795 423277 Although every effort is made to ensure that the editorial content is true and accurate at time of going to press the Belgian Tourist Office – Wallonia cannot be held responsible for any claims made within this publication. Please note that the views held in this publication are not necessarily those of the Belgian Tourist Office – Wallonia. Front & back cover image: Binche Carnaval Gilles Patrimoine Immateriel © WBT - Alex Kouprianoff


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Surprising wallonia  
Surprising wallonia  

The mainly French-speaking region of Wallonia is the least populated and most unspoilt of the three, with some breathtaking landscapes and t...