IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE BELGIAN TOURIST OFFICE
The villages of southern Belgium: full of romance and history
Victor Hugo deplored its obscurity as a tourist destination, Van Gogh compared it to Venice and Arabia, Hemingway to the world of the Brothers Grimm - yet say that you're holidaying in the land of the Walloons and most people will think you've made it up. Describing it as southern Belgium will do little to convince them; mentioning the Ardennes might provide a flicker of recognition.
Yet there's more to this sparsely populated area than rolling forests and rearing rockfaces. Creased with hills and river valleys, and studded with clifftop chateaux, Wallonia has unspoilt charm to spare. And it's not just pretty, it's genuinely exotic: this is Latin Europe's northernmost outpost, and its inhabitants are blessed with an enchanting blend of warmth and eccentricity (this is the homeland of Magritte, after all). Better still, there's not a hint of macho arrogance; the Walloons' principal vice is an addiction to the cheesy 1960s chansons churned out by Radio Nostalgie.
For a dose of total immersion, plan your visit around some of the "most beautiful villages of Wallonia": there are 22 in all, some so obscure, they're beneath the radar of even the encyclopaedic Blue Guide. One, Torgny, has a sunny microclimate, which the locals liken to Provence but here, there's none of the jaded cynicism that blights the south of France. You can really lose yourself, never quite knowing what lies beyond the next hill.
For scenery and romance, stick to the deep south: the upland province of Luxembourg (west of Luxembourg proper), home to the Semois valley and steeped in myths involving minor marquis. This is frontier territory, a land caught between Roman and Germanic cultures, over which neighbouring powers have repeatedly fought: fortified farms and churches are ever-present.
Sun-splashed Torgny, a hilltop cluster of pinkish roofs, surrounded by vineyards and exotic orchids, lies in the rolling plains of the Gaume country. The ochre-coloured sandstone cottages have a rich, almost golden hue, and there are no pylons to spoil the view (the electricity supply lies underground). The villagers call themselves the "Marseillais" of Belgium, a people who have traditionally looked to France - logical given that, until the coming of the motorways, the region was cut off from the rest of Wallonia by the thick forests of the Ardennes to the north. While I can't vouch for the local bouillabaisse, Torgny does have a marvellous Michelin-starred restaurant, La Grappe d'Or.
To learn more about a land that's been inhabited since pre-Roman times - Julius Caesar praised the courage of the region's Wala tribes - visit the Musée Gaumais, housed in a 17th-century convent in Virton. Amid the prehistoric pottery, there's a disturbing surprise: the skeleton of a Merovingian man, dating from AD600. More soothing are paintings by local artist Camille Barthelemy (1890-1961), which capture the warmth of the landscape.
West of the Gaume, scenic routes through moss-green hills and feathery firs take you to the abbey complex of Orval, famous for its Trappist beer, but as notable for medieval ruins and a fragrant herb garden. Beyond, you can follow the course of the Semois, with dizzying views after the villages of Mortehan and Cugnon. The riverside town of Bouillon has a clifftop castle, whence Duke Godfrey set off on the First Crusade in 1096, a quest that saw him offered the title of "King of Jerusalem"(he declined, but his brother later accepted on his behalf).
There's more history in the boot-shaped Botte du Hainaut, a region renowned for water sports and lakes. The jewel in its crown is Chimay, another Trappist brewing centre and the home of the medieval chronicler Froissart, once canon of the local church. You can tour the castle, which dates back to the 15th century, with the English-speaking Princess Elisabeth of Chimay (Easter-September; €7/£5). The highlight is the gilt-and-crimson theatre, a bijou Royal Opera House where plays and concerts are staged.
But what about the villages? Near the Botte are the Vallées des Eaux Vives, home to some of Wallonia's prettiest hamlets. You can see the lot on a three-day cycle tour, staying in guesthouses, with luggage transfers thrown in (Maison du Tourisme: 00 32 60 340 40, www.valleesdeseauxvives.be). Perched on a hill above an undulating landscape is Soulme, so remote that the road peters out before you get there. It's archetypal stuff, all well-tended gardens and rough limestone cottages with black slate roofs. Vierves, which straddles the Viroin valley, has an attractive pinkish castle and a park that spills down the hillside. A memorial celebrates Samuel Alderson (died 1853), a British engineer who worked on the railway; a modest plaque depicts him standing with a steam train beside a horse and cart.
From here, strike north to Celles, passing the hilltop Château de Vêves, an impossibly pretty medieval affair with pointy grey turrets. Celebrated for its sober Romanesque church, Celles is a wonderfully harmonious tangle of narrow streets, lined with slate and limestone houses, all viewed to best advantage from the hermitage above. A tank outside the village marks the spot where Hitler's advance into the Ardennes was halted in December 1944.
Nearby Crupet, with creeper-covered walls and an ancient linden tree, could hardly be more different. Some houses are built in yellow sandstone, others in grey limestone or a mix of brick and timber, with a bewildering array of architectural styles. None of which quite prepares you for the open-air grotto of Saint Anthony, topped with colourful winged angels. This extraordinary ensemble was created a century ago by a local priest, determined to stave off socialism by filling the locals with religious reverence. Life-size figures show this popular saint (traditionally prayed to when something has been lost) warding off a crazed-looking devil with black wings and scarlet fingernails. Those who laboured to construct the grotto were regularly rewarded with a glass of gin.
If local produce is more your thing, and you haven't mislaid anything en route, head for Falaen and its museum devoted to regional specialities, housed in a 17th-century castle-farm. Steak-lovers should look out for the bleu blanc belge, a hefty Belgian breed of cattle with an engaging tuftiness and a redoubtable rump.
Wherever you go in Wallonia, good food is never far away. The locals love their hunting, shooting and fishing, as you'll learn at the moated Château de Lavaux-St-Anne, near Rochefort. A scenic spot, where Belgian tennis star Justine Henin got married, it has a museum devoted to country matters, with displays of antler furniture, stuffed animals and waffle-makers, set to a soundtrack of mooing cows and crackling fires.
Nearby is Saint-Hubert, hunting capital of the Ardennes, and a fitting base for Hemingway during his stint as a war reporter. It takes its name from a saint who swapped game for God after seeing a cross between the antlers of a deer when indulging in his favourite activity; the abundance of gun shops suggests the locals haven't really got his message, but on Hubert's name day, the flamboyant Renaissance basilica opens its doors to hunting dogs, which can receive a blessing. As Asterix might have put it, "These Belgians are barking".
For more information, phone 020-7531 0390 or download 'Villages and Flavours 2006' from www.belgiumtheplaceto.be. For a list of the most beautiful villages of Wallonia including those in the eastern province of Liège such as Soiron, Deigné or Clermont-sur-Berwinne visit www.pbvw.be
From southern and eastern England, the easy and obvious way to reach southern Belgium is on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com). The journey from London Waterloo to Brussels Midi takes as little as two hours 20 minutes. Here, at the hub of the Belgian rail network, you can transfer to any station in Belgium within 24 hours of the international journey, for no additional fare (except on Thalys and ICE trains); just show your Eurostar ticket.
By air, Wallonia's own airport is at Charleroi-Brussels South, with daily services from Glasgow Prestwick on Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com). Other UK airports are connected with Brussels National. This airport has a regular and quick rail link to the centre of the capital, with easy onward connections by train to destinations throughout southern Belgium.
Aer Arann (0800 587 23 24; www.aerarann.com) will fly from Luton and Birmingham to Liège from 15 May. Luxair (0800 38 99 443; www.luxair.co.uk) flies out of London, Dublin and Manchester to Luxembourg City just across the border.
Alternatively you can drive from the Channel ports of Calais or Dunkirk and reach Wallonia in under two hours.
The rail network connects most parts of the region with regular services. You can plan your trip with Belgian Railways (SNCB, 00 32 2 528 2828; www.sncb.be), which has a range of unlimited-travel fares.
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