Fabulous medieval architecture, dynamic art galleries, world-beating beer, striking art nouveau buildings – welcome to Belgium off the beaten track.
Wallonia, the French-speaking region of this compact country, not only offers the green and pleasant spaces of the Ardennes but also a host of places steeped in culture. In particular, just south of Brussels there is an often overlooked area that holds a huge amount to see and do. Ranged like a necklace below the capital are five urban gems boasting a spectacular array of attractions.
Tournai, little more than 15km from the French border, lies cheek by jowl with Lille. It’s one of the oldest towns in the country, with a history that stretches back more than 2,000 years.
Mons, a key battle site in the First World War, is a handsome hilltop town currently preparing for its year as European Capital of Culture in 2015. It’s a place that knows how to celebrate big time: its Doudou festival is even protected by the Unesco World Heritage Centre. Replete with fine costumes and a golden chariot, this event is held every year on Trinity Sunday (usually in June).
Charleroi, the biggest urban centre in Wallonia, thrived during the industrial revolution, faltered in the latter 20th century and is now re-emerging, complete with two of Belgium’s most ingenious museums. And Namur, seat of the Walloon government, is a bustling town set by the River Meuse and presided over by one of Europe’s largest old fortresses. Liège, close to Aachen, was once an industrial powerhouse but has recast itself as a lively arts and retail centre.
There is a wealth of intriguing and famous characters associated with these locations. Charlemagne was born at Herstal near Liège, and crowned Holy Roman Emperor at Aachen in 800. Liège was also home to Renaissance architect Lambert Lombard, 19th-century composer César Franck and the 20th-century writer Georges Simenon, creator of Inspector Maigret.
Namur prides itself on being the home town of Cecile De France, who features alongside Matt Damon in 2010 film Hereafter; and actor Benoît Poelvoorde, star of the comedy Man Bites Dog.
The neo-classical painter François-Joseph Navez was largely brought up in Charleroi, as was the great surrealist artist René Magritte. The town’s fine arts museum is home to several of their works. Mons, meanwhile, is known as the ancestral home of the Counts of Hainaut. Raised in Mons, Philippa of Hainault married Edward III of England in 1328 and was the mother of the Black Prince and of John of Gaunt.
Tournai has an even greater blue-blooded history and is recognised, even by France, as the cradle of the French monarchy. This was the capital city of the Franks, whose king Clovis conquered most of present-day France in about 509.
By rail: Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) offers up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras to Brussels Gare du Midi, with a journey time of approximately two hours. Trains are frequent and journey times are between 45 minutes and an around an hour. Note, however, that rail travel to Tournai will be quicker going via Lille in France, where the Eurostar stops before reaching Brussels. You can book your tickets direct through Eurostar. Alternatively, plan a trip through International Rail (0871 231 0790; internationalrail.com), Rail Europe (08448 484 046; raileurope.co.uk), Railbookers (020- 3327 0800; railbookers.com) or at TheTrainLine.com ( thetrainline.com). Information on the local rail services within Belgium itself can be obtained direct from Belgium National Railways (00 32 2 528 2828; b-europe.co.uk).
By air: Charleroi’s Brussels South Charleroi airport is served from the UK by Ryanair (0871 246 000; ryanair.com) from both Edinburgh and Manchester (from 2 November). It is 20 minutes by bus to Charleroi city centre. Brussels National Airport is served from Heathrow by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and from East Midlands, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Leeds/Bradford and Manchester by BMI (08448 484 888; flybmi.com). Brussels Airlines (0905 6095 609; brusselsairlines.co.uk) flies from Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Manchester and Newcastle; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies from Manchester and Southampton. The city centre is just 11km away and there are frequent, speedy trains from the airport to Brussels Midi station.
A regular train service operates between all five towns. For more details on train travel visit b-europe.co.uk. Hiring a car is also a convenient option, with the E42 motorway providing a fast route between all five cities. At Brussels Midi station, car hire is available from Hertz (08708 44 88 44; hertz.co.uk); Europcar (0871 384 1087; europcar.co.uk); and Sixt (0844 248 66 20; sixt.co.uk).
For more information about Wallonia and the five country towns contact the Belgian Tourist Office – Brussels & Wallonia on 020-7531 0390; belgiumtheplaceto.be