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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Winter Walks in the Belgian Ardennes

Confluence of the Ourthe Occidentale (Western ...Image via Wikipedia

Interested in exploring the Belgian Ardennes on foot this winter? It's the ideal location for a good dose of fresh air in the hills. But before you scurry off to find your hiking boots, I feel obliged to give you three small pieces of advice.

First, there is a high chance that you will become addicted, because the Ardennes is a wonderful region for walking. It's easily accessible by car, train or bus; there are hundreds of well-marked walking routes of various lengths; the scenery is breathtaking; the nature is fascinating; and yet you are never too far from a café, hotel or village shop. In other words, once you have walked in the Ardennes, your free weekends may never be the same again.

Second, be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. I have set off in glorious sunshine to find myself in a hail storm just an hour later. In addition, the higher you ascend, the colder will be that chill wind. So dress for the worst eventuality. For a winter walk, this means warm clothing, sensible footwear, a waterproof coat, gloves and a hat. Take sufficient water and snacks; personally I always take a thermos flask of hot soup. And do not leave your mobile phone at home.

Third, take a detailed walking map. These are readily available from local bookshops and tourist offices. Plan in advance to know where you intend to walk, and the length and duration of your route. This will help avoid unpleasant surprises, especially if you are taking children with you.

So, armed with these hopefully helpful warnings, it's time to pack up your backpack and go. But where? It's easy to look at a map of the Ardennes and feel overwhelmed by all the possibilities, so a few of my personal favorites might help you decide where to start.

Hertogenwald Forest, Eupen

I am particularly fond of this area as it was my first encounter with the Ardennes. It offers a splendid mixture of landscapes: impenetrable, silent, coniferous forests; deserted moorland stretching to the horizon; and picturesque babbling brooks. It can be reached by taking the N67 south-east from Eupen. Halfway to Monschau is the Ternell Nature Center. This old forester's house was built in 1770 and transformed two hundred years later into a museum and information center. I recommend the route heading north-east from the nature center into the forest. The first time I walked this route I had to cross the River Getzbach by taking off my boots and socks and wading across. When I returned a few years later, I was quite disappointed to find a bridge had been installed. Next to the nature center is a cosy tavern serving excellent snacks. When ordering, don't forget that you are in German-speaking Belgium!

River Ourthe, La Roche-en-Ardenne

If you want to make a weekend of your trip to the Ardennes, La Roche-en-Ardenne is an excellent base from which to explore the River Ourthe, as it offers numerous hotels and restaurants. Most people walking in this area will be drawn to the well-known sights of the Nadrin Belvedere, the Nisramont Dam, Saint Margeurite's Cross and the confluence of the two Ourthes (Orientale and Occidentale). All of these are well worth visiting, but if like me you prefer to steer away from the crowds, then I would recommend trying one of the less popular but equally outstanding walks from the villages of Maboge, Grande Mormont or Bonnerue. My tip would be the 8 km Champs Thomas walk from Maboge. The deserted uplands seem to be a favorite hunting ground at this time of the year for hen harriers. These rare birds of prey are similar to the more commonly seen buzzards but have a white rump and fly with their wings held in a shallow 'V' as they glide low over the fields in search of a mouse or vole.

Anlier Forest

Even deeper into the Ardennes, between Martelange and Habay-la-Neuve in the province of Luxemburg, is the huge 7000-hectare Anlier Forest, one of the biggest forests in the country. Its northern slopes reach an altitude of 517 meters and are drained by the tributary streams of the River Sûre, which flows into Germany as the Sauer and eventually into the Moselle. The forest is so vast that parts of it are virtually unexplored. Living in its deeper recesses are deer, wild boar, badgers, foxes and wildcats. I have enjoyed many hours walking along the banks of the rivers Sûre and Géronne hoping to catch a glimpse of an otter, which is making a comeback in this region. Beavers have also been re-introduced into these river systems. A particularly attractive walk starts from Volaiville and gives you close-up views of two watermills on the Géronne.

These three walks will give you an excellent introduction to this lovely area in the south of Belgium.

Denzil Walton is a professional writer based near Brussels. Focusing on technical copywriting, he also enjoys writing about the flora and fauna of Belgium.


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