Wallonia. Are we missing something? - Europe - Travel - The Independent

Wallonia. Are we missing something?

Only rolling hills, beautiful valleys, ancient castles ... and incredibly potent beers, says Jonathan Thompson. And it's just a three-hour train ride away

I am sharing a beer with Jacques, a hotelier in the Ardennes. "We stay in the most beautiful part of Belgium and we cry because all the people drive past us on the motorway," he says. He's right. Less than three hours' train journey from London is one of Europe's hidden gems. It has lush forests, rolling hills, breathtaking river valleys and ancient fortified towns. Yet, criminally, it continues to be overlooked by British holidaymakers.

I am sharing a beer with Jacques, a hotelier in the Ardennes. "We stay in the most beautiful part of Belgium and we cry because all the people drive past us on the motorway," he says. He's right. Less than three hours' train journey from London is one of Europe's hidden gems. It has lush forests, rolling hills, breathtaking river valleys and ancient fortified towns. Yet, criminally, it continues to be overlooked by British holidaymakers.

In fact, mention Wallonia to the average person and they have trouble locating it. "Is it in Italy?" is a common response. No, it isn't. Believe it or not, it's part of Belgium. And it's beautiful.

Personally, I blame the Flemish. But then I would, coming from Walloon stock. Belgium as a whole continues to suffer from a bad reputation: adjectives such as "flat" or "boring" being casually attached to it by people whose only experience of the country is a brief stop at a motorway service station somewhere near Ghent. If they dared to venture south of Brussels they would discover a completely different country.

Walloons - French-speaking Belgians - see themselves as distinct from the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north, and the two have little in common. During the mid-1990s, Belgium was effectively divided into two federal states. Now, the joke goes, all that holds the flats of Flanders and the hills of Wallonia together is the national government, the bilingual Brussels, and a mutual love of the country's football team. Walloons wouldn't have it any other way.

Brussels is only two hours and 20 minutes from London Waterloo on Eurostar, and from there your ticket allows you to travel on to any destination on the Belgian rail network. Within only half an hour, you could be crossing the border into Wallonia.

Forty minutes south-west of Brussels is the graceful Walloon city of Mons. Legend has it that here, on 23 August 1914, British and Belgian troops managed to hold the German army - outnumbering them three to one - on the banks of the river Scheldt, after "the Angels of Mons" miraculously appeared in the sky to aid them. The city maintains its proud religious and military traditions today, but for a place associated in the minds of so many with war and death, it is incredbly alive, colourful and vibrant.

At the centre of the splendid main square sits "the Guardian of the Grand Place", a small brass monkey dating back to the 15th century. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a pillory for mischievous children and errant wives, but today visitors are invited to rub the monkey's head with their left hand for good luck.

A short drive away is Wallonia's capital, the imposing fortress town of Namur. Built at the spearhead between two great rivers, the Meuse and the Sambre, Namur's ancient citadel - one of the largest surviving in Europe - affords stunning views of the surrounding countryside. I first visited as a teenager (my Walloon heritage comes from my mother's extended family) and I was surprised to see how much the town has grown in only a decade. The cobbled city centre has been beautifully restored, and the population has risen to more than 100,000 people. As well as a number of superb restaurants and cafés, you can do what Walloons refer to as lécher les vitrines, literally "lick the shop windows" - that's window-shopping to you and me.

A few kilometres down the Meuse is Dinant, another majestic hillside town, built into a rocky outcrop overlooking the river valley. The citizens of Namur have always looked down on their near neighbours, and still refer to them rather snootily as "coppers" - not because of an unnaturally close relationship with the local gendarmerie, but because of the rich mines around the town. Provincial breweries, some of which are open to tourists, still concoct incredibly potent local beers in copper tanks, the perfect cool drink for a hot summer afternoon.

Dinant, home to the inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax, has another backhanded claim to fame: every year it hosts a bizarre bathtub race down the Meuse, with competitors from across Europe.

South of the citadel of Namur and the bathtubs of Dinant, the beautiful hills and forests of the Ardennes begin. Among the peaceful villages and bocques, or small woods, is Durbuy, one of the Ardennes' most attractive spots, which claims to be the smallest town in the world. Arriving there is almost like stepping into a fairytale. The quaint 14th- and 15th-century streets hugging the ancient castle lend the tiny town (population 400) a decidedly romantic and otherworldly feel. Durbuy has both the smallest brewery and the largest topiary garden in Europe, but it is the simple beauty of the place that has caused so many to fall in love with it. Hotel rooms here are often hard to come by, especially around St Valentine's Day.

The striking Ardennes region is the soul of Wallonia. There, ancient legends and traditions - no matter how outlandish - are kept alive. These include a number of colourful festivals (most involving large quantities of beer) and a frankly dangerous annual horse-and-carriage race, in which local men compete while downing gin.

The area has some of the best walking and cycling in Europe, and offers the perfect playground for all manner of extreme sports - from abseiling and climbing to paragliding and kayaking. There are also the calming waters at Spa to enjoy, the bustling nightlife of Liège, the world-renowned museums at Stavelot, and the medieval spires of Tournai.

Ask any Walloon, and they'll tell you a story about how the Flemings have done them wrong. In my family, it's the tale of my Walloon great-grandmother being knocked off her bike and having her wartime bread rations stolen by a Flemish man. But the greatest injustice is surely that those Flemish service stations continue to inform too many British misconceptions of Belgium. There's a saying in these parts: "Il n'y a pas de Belges. Il n'y a que des Wallons et des Flamands." It means: "There are no Belgians, only Walloons and Flemings." With the Eurostar able to take people from London to Wallonia in less time than it takes to get from London to Manchester or Leeds, it's easy to get acquainted. A word of warning though: if you decide to travel through Flanders, keep an eye on your bread.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com) offers return fares to Brussels from £59 return in July. Car hire in Brussels with Alamo (0870-400 4573; www.alamo.co.uk) costs £189 per week in July.

Where to stay

Hotel St James, Mons (00 32 65 724 824). Doubles from €93 (£61) a night. Hotel Les Tanneurs, Namur (00 32 81 240 024). Doubles from €55 (£36). Hotel Le Vieux, Durbuy (00 32 86 213 262). Doubles from €105 (£69).

How to get more information

Contact Brussels and Wallonia tourist board (0800-9545 245; www.belgiumtheplaceto.be).

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