For many years we would drive down the ramp from the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry first thing in the morning, full of a buffet breakfast we were determined to get our money’s worth from and too busy concentrating on driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and not getting lost in the Belgian road system to pay too much attention to the country we were driving through. We were usually heading for France or Germany or maybe somewhere further, keen to cover some kilometres south and our feet would rarely hit Belgian soil. It was clearly time to change this and a few years ago, returning from the wonderful Écrins National Park in France, we spent a week exploring southern Belgium, the French speaking part of the country otherwise known as Wallonia.
It turned out that there was much more to Belgium than motorways and we found quiet roads that wound alongside lazy rivers, through woodland and between charming villages. We also found good cafes and restaurants and, of course, excellent beer.
Below are some ideas for fun and interesting things to do, places to visit and discover and delicious things to eat on your own tour of Belgium. The list of campsites we stayed at are at the bottom, as usual and I have added an imperfect map there too.
Orval Abbey and beer
We quickly settled into a gentle pace on the rural lanes of southern Belgium, admiring tidy village after tidy village, enjoying the varied woodland and spotting pretty cottages with neatly stacked log piles. We were heading for Orval Abbey near the French border; a popular visitor attraction and an immaculate combination of a modern and a ruined abbey set in beautiful gardens. There have been monks here since the 11th century but after the French revolution the abbey buildings were destroyed and it took over a hundred years before the funds to build a new abbey were secured.
The abbey is open all year and visitors can explore the ruins, the museum and see across the neat gardens to the new abbey that is free of visitors and tranquil.
Belgium’s beer is rightly internationally known and there are six abbey-based Trappist breweries, of which Orval is one. We visited the small museum about the brewery and read about the legend of the abbey’s name. It is said that a visitor to the abbey lost her wedding ring in the spring and while she sat weeping a trout popped up from the water with the lost ring. She apparently exclaimed this was the Val d’Or (golden valley) and this became Orval and the beer’s logo still shows the trout clasping a ring. Keen to try some of Belgium’s hundreds of beers we left the abbey shop with samples of this and the local cheese.
After a night on the banks of the pretty River Semois we followed the valley to Bouillon. This lovely riverside town has plenty of interesting shops, including an excellent ice-cream shop, and is dominated by a dramatically situated castle. We climbed the steep hill to the fortified castle, crossing an astonishing three drawbridges to reach the interior. Inside there is a 16th century tower which gives breathtaking views of the town and the river below that bends around the castle and ramparts. The castle is full of tunnels, walkways and rooms chipped out of the rock it sits on, making full use of the natural features. Most exciting for me was the 90-metre long tunnel under the courtyard, used for getting messages safely across the castle in a siege.
Bouillon Castle is open most of the year and if you don’t want to walk up the hill, there is parking nearer to the castle entrance.
Small Quirky Things
Belgian’s seem to have an eye for the decorative and interesting and as you tour around the country it is worth looking out for the cute, bizarre and downright strange. This might be a wall display of vintage watering cans; a decorative window grille of a pipe-smoking cowhand with milk churns followed by a bull; a large arrangement of garden gnomes; ornamental china hens on a doorstep or a somewhat alarming life-size female figure that sat knitting at a garden table in one Belgian village!
I would also recommend you try at least one cafe in a small village. These are often quiet during the day and bustling in the evening. They are usually cosy, welcoming, sometimes entertaining and will serve excellent coffee and / or Belgian beer.
Bertrix and Herbeumont
It was a damp day when we cycled from our campsite near Bertrix along wooded lanes to the River Semois. In the delightful hamlet of Cugnon we stopped to see the Pont de Claie, an undulating wooden bridge on trestle table legs that is considered picturesque but resembles a rickety puzzle that would be a health and safety nightmare.
We continued on our bikes to Herbeumont and climbed up to the castle and looked down from the walls over the winding Semois below. The ruins are free to visit and we had them to ourselves and spent some time clambering around. After warming up over hot chocolate in the deserted village cafe where we were joined by the owner’s cat, we picked up the old railway line to cycle back to Bertrix, trying but failing to beat an approaching storm. We sheltered in a long dark tunnel for a while but eventually had to brave the shower.
It was our wedding anniversary while we were here and later, in better weather, we walked the two kilometres into the town of Bertrix. On the way, we were delighted to spot a hare cautiously watching us from a field, its ears standing proud of the grass. We ate at what claimed to be the best pizzeria in Luxembourg Province and made a small impact on their list of Belgian beers.
Redu, the book village
Visiting bookshops in Belgium might seem dumb, as we are not fluent in French or Flemish but some of the many book shops in Redu have English books and we came away with a couple of new things to read. Yet another tidy Belgian village, Redu, the book village was sleepy when we visited during the week. The village is twinned with Hay-on-Wye in England that is known for its literary festival.
Museum of Country Life at Fourneau Saint-Michel
It wasn’t just the sunshine that made this outdoor museum of rural Walloon life so delightful, with over 60 historic and traditional buildings arranged along a beautiful valley, walking through the museum is like strolling between traditional hamlets, meadows and woodland. Each of the buildings, that have been moved brick-by-brick or re-created in the museum, was more amazing than the last. I liked the picturesque cottages, the bakery, the workshops full of old tools and the attractive white-washed church and the school. Care has been taken with the buildings and each is furnished with everything you would expect to find there to take visitors back in time.
If you only do one thing in rural Belgium, then do this, it is as good as visiting a dozen pretty villages. The museum is popular but there is so much space and everyone spreads out.
Parc des Topiaires, Durbuy
The Parc des Topiaires in Durbuy on the meandering Ourthe valley is an attraction that shouts quirky. The park is home to an amusing and astounding display of topiary figures. There are animals, including a life-size elephant, a row of ducks and horses jumping over fences and a larger-than-life woman waving, kayakers and so much more. When you have finished giggling your way around the park or been inspired to go home and try your hand at sculpting the hedge, the small and pretty town of Durbuy has cobbled streets full of places for visitors to eat and shop.
The city of Verviers in the Liège Province celebrates water, acknowledging its once thriving wool and textile industry. These industries relied on water and were wiped out by international competition. Walking between 18 of Verviers fountains on a quiet Sunday morning, we learnt the story of the town and its industries. Between the fountains we admired many of the city’s grand and ornate buildings.
Verviers is also home to the Tarte au Riz, a rich and creamy rice pudding in a pastry case that is deliciously sweet. You can buy slices of this in local boulangeries.
Hautes Fagnes-Eifel Nature Park
A world away from the woodland, villages and towns of southern Belgium, this elevated plateau of protected moorland is close to the German border above Verviers. We parked at Baraque Michel and found a useful map on an information board that showed the waymarked walks we could follow, as access is restricted in this nature park. From the tiny chapel the gravel paths and wooden walkways meander through a landscape of low trees, small pools, bilberry bushes and cotton grass. On a wet day this could be a moody and misty place but we enjoyed fine spring weather. The skies are big here and the views wide and open, changing as the path twists and turns around features. This is a landscape that slows you down and I was soon happily bending down at one of the ponds, watching water boatmen on the water.
On this high moorland is Signal de Botrange and at 694 metres above sea level this is Belgium’s highest point. The resourceful Belgians decided they wanted to get just that bit higher and built a six-metre-high stone staircase to a platform so that visitors can stand at 700 metres and for a moment be the highest person in Belgium!
Famous for its mineral springs and grand prix circuit, in the elegant and charming town of Spa we sampled yet another Belgian beer opposite the Vespa rental shop. The staff in this smart outlet were washing half-a-dozen sparkling red scooters and they gleamed in the sunshine. After our beers we wandered among the stylish shopping streets, eventually reaching The Parc de Sept Heures. After sauntering around the structures and monuments in the park without any aim we sat eating finger-licking takeaway frites from a stall while watching a pétanque tournament that was clearly more serious than any game.
We merely wandered around Spa for an afternoon but you can make more of your trip here and learn about the history of the area, visiting museums that celebrate varied subjects including laundry, the town and horses.
Beer and cubes of cheese with celery salt
I adore Belgian beer, although please stop me if I ever try and drink more than two bottles as they tend to be strong! The first time we were handed a small plate of cubes of semi-soft cheese and a tub of celery salt with our beer we were perplexed. However, once we got used to it, this accompaniment made perfect sense. At Orval they produced both beer and cheese and these are two foods associated with local producers that were once the staple of workers. In Germany and Austria we have sat in Alpine farms with a beer and some delicious homemade bread and cheese and the ploughman’s lunch is a staple of British pubs. Perhaps Belgium’s cubes of cheese are just their version of these traditions and the cheese and celery salt also make you thirsty so you will drink more beer!
|Camping de Chenefleur, Tintigny||A nicely laid out green site by the river with few hard-standing pitches. The facilities are very clean and the showers are good & hot. There is a quiet neat village nearby.|
|Ardennen Camping Bertrix, Bertrix||A terraced site with pool, bar & restaurant & lots of permanent caravans. The facilities are kept clean & the showers are good & hot.|
|Camping Eau Zone, Hotton||A grassy flat site by the river with well-draining ground, despite some heavy rain before we arrived. They used a complicated pre-pay system for showers when we visited but had good, hot showers. Lovely small town nearby.|
|Camping de l’Eau Rouge, Stavelot||After heavy rain the grass was too wet for our campervan but we were able to park at the end of a site road. The site has lots of trees & views to fields. The facilities block was clean with under-floor heating & hot water. The site has a small bar too.|
|Camping Parc des Sources, Spa||We received a friendly welcome at this popular campsite that is about 1.5km from the town. It has a few hard-standing pitches & grass & hedges between pitches. The facilities were clean & the showers hot.|