RATHER FLAT ISN'T IT?
Au contraire. Belgium may be regarded as one of the "low" countries but its French-speaking region very much defies such categorisation. In striking contrast to any expectations of grey flatness, Wallonia offers wonderfully verdant and varied landscapes: ancient woods; river valleys; plains; wide and richly farmed plateaux; and, perhaps best of all, the hilly, forested Ardennes in the east. What's more there are great pockets of protected green.
FRESH AIR AND BEAUTY
The region has nine designated nature parks (Parcs Naturels) covering nearly a fifth of the land. However, these aren't dedicated nature reserves, nor are they national parks along the lines of, say, the Lake District. With an all-encompassing green outlook, the Continental nature park concept is to safeguard rural life. This notion embraces flora, fauna, geographic features and, significantly, local communities as well. In Wallonia, a nature park is officially defined as an area of great geographic and biological interest extending over more than 5,000 hectares. This region may take in nature reserves, villages, even small towns and light industry, the heart of the park's concerns being nature and man's interaction with it. The parks are run along very give-and-take eco-friendly management lines so that residents of the areas are encouraged to enjoy and learn about their countryside, with tourism welcomed as a way of supporting local initiatives. And access to nature is strongly promoted, which means that visitors are positively urged to make use of the many paths and trails through the parks' various valleys, meadows and hills. Contact the Belgian Tourist Office Brussels and Wallonia on 020-7531 0390 for a "Forests, Parks and Nature Reserves" map.
SO WHAT'S THE HIGHEST POINT?
Head for Signal de Botrange in the uplands of north-east Wallonia. At a modest 694m you'll be at the very top of Belgium. If you don't feel you're quite high enough there's a small tower you can climb here (open 9am-6pm daily except Wednesdays, admission free) but equally good panoramas are offered at a viewing point across the road. You gaze across a desolately beautiful landscape of moorland and peat bog dotted with spruce plantations. You are in the midst of the Hautes Fagnes Nature Reserve here, one of the wildest - and most heavily protected - parts of Wallonia. A couple of kilometres from Signal de Botrange you can find out about the extraordinary natural life of the area (home to red deer, pine marten, rare black grouse and more) at the Botrange Nature Centre (open daily 10am-6pm; admission to exhibitions €3/£2; www.centrenaturebotrange.be). Here you can also pick up detailed walking maps (€7/£5), but be aware that you are not permitted into areas where a red flag is flying: in this peat country, fires are a real hazard and so parts of the moorland are often out of bounds.
Although last season there was not much snow, in winter it is often possible to go cross-country skiing here - and plenty of Dutch and Flemish tourists make a bee-line for the pistes. Skiing, though, is a bone of contention with the Nature Centre's conservationists since the sport can be very damaging to plants and animals. Currently their major projects include the restoration of habitats for otters and pearl mussels - with long-term benefits for the area's rivers - and the regeneration of mires and heaths which have been endangered by the spread of spruce and purple moor grass.
AND SCENIC VIEWS?
For lovely scenery there's nothing quite like the valley of the River Ourthe, particularly the area around pretty little Houffalize. This cheerful country town is in itself a striking emblem of regeneration: it was all but destroyed during the Second World War and was subsequently rebuilt, its houses of local stone now exuding a tranquil atmosphere and looking every inch the traditional part. As if to add a flourishing finishing touch, kingfishers nest along the Ourthe as it flows through the town.
Houffalize is set within the Parc Naturel des Deux Ourthes ( www.pndo.be), and lies at the confluence of the east and west branches of the river. It offers easy access to Ardennes forest and rolling pastureland grazed by black-and-white cattle. And it is dotted with picturesque villages, not least of these is Achouffe where there's a neat little brewery. Activities within the area include fishing, kayaking, walking and biking. And with hills that are challenging but not too dauntingly steep, this region is a magnet for mountain bikers. The tourist office in the centre of Houffalize (00 32 61 28 81 16; www.houffalize.be) has maps and further information.
I'D LIKE TO STRIDE OUT
There are a great many possibilities for hikes through the sublime scenery of the Deux Ourthes nature park. And you can also walk across a national frontier. The area abuts the Duchy of Luxembourg and there's an attractive, 15km circuit you can make between the quiet Walloon village of Tavigny and the small town of Hoffelt in Luxembourg.
Meanwhile one of the most intriguing trails runs past the almost forgotten Canal de Bernistap near Houffalize. The canal was part of an ambitious scheme of William I of the Netherlands, who came to power in 1815 and whose territory extended over what is now Belgium. He planned to link the Meuse and Moselle rivers by constructing a canal that would pass through a hill near the village of Bernistap. Work started around 1827. However, about three years later the project was abandoned when Belgium gained independence. William's engineers decamped to study the possibilities of a canal through Panama. Today, although it is overgrown with plants, much of the completed canal and the mouth of the tunnel can still be seen, and as part of their conservation work the park management is about to implement plans to restore the site.
DOWN TO THE WOODS...
An especially glorious stretch of ancient beech land can be seen on the back roads between the small towns of Habay-la-Neuve and Martlange. This is part of the Ardennes' Forêt d'Anlier, one of Belgian's most beautiful woodlands. The region is steeped in myth and legend. All of which is celebrated by the Park Naturel de la Haute-Sure et de la Forêt d'Anlier ( www.parcnaturel.be) and its neighbouring park in the Duchy of Luxembourg. Recently they jointly launched a "Legends Circuit", principally a driving route that takes you through lovely landscape to villages and other locations associated with particular local lore, from werewolves to rivers of wine. There are 19 sites, each marked by a sculpture and a board giving the appropriate story. The panels are written in French and Flemish but there are booklets and CD audio guides (both €10/£7) in English that are available at tourist offices such as those at Habay-la-Neuve (00 32 63 42 22 37; www.habay-tourisme.be) and Neufchâteau (00 32 61 27 50 88; www.sineufchateau.be).
This south-eastern region of Wallonia is also developing a new series of 'RAVeL' trails. There is already a completed network of four such routes in existence elsewhere in Wallonia (see www.ravel.wallonie.be), walking and cycling byways along canal towpaths and specially adapted disused railway tracks. The new trail in the south-east includes a wonderful route through the River Strange valley.
AND FOR ART AND NATURE?
The plateau and valleys of Wallonia's mid north form a rich farming area. And despite being close to major towns and some industry there is a very rural feel here, the country roads receiving little traffic, the atmosphere delightfully tranquil. Yet the calm is a more modern attribute. Very much at the crossroads of Europe, much of Belgium was a major battle zone, not least of Louis XIV and also Napoleon, and this affluent area was particularly prey to hungry armies. As a result it is peppered with ancient fortified farms, many of them still working enterprises, that were built in fortress courtyard shapes to offer maximum protection for food stocks.
Set in the village of Burdinne, the area's tourist office (00 32 85 25 16 96; www.tourismebm.be) occupies one such historic farm complex, and also doubles as the centre for the Burdinale Mehaigne nature park. Local cultural sights are incorporated into the region's 18 walking trails - all marked by posts which even give the local tourist office number (staffed every day from 9am-4.30pm) should visitors need assistance. (In addition there are four mountain bike routes as well as ordinary cycle trails.) The combination of culture and nature offers a sort of apogee of eco-tourism: you walk or bike along quiet lanes stopping at absorbing points of interest. Highlights include a working water mill near Braives (00 32 19 69 90 67 for appointments) and an astonishing cycle museum (open by appointment through the tourist board) set in the farmhouse of a 17th-century chateau.