Walking and trekking
Belgium may seem like an unlikely walking destination, sitting as it does between some much more illustrious destinations. But if you want some fascinating, picturesque walking rich in history and cultural diversions such as breweries and museums, Belgium is a fine place to find yourself. Politically, the country is divided into two regions, Wallonia and Flanders. Geographically, the country is split in three: the coastal plain in the northwest consisting largely of dunes which stretch to the north sea coast; the central plateau, which consists of waterways, thickly wooded valleys, gorges and caves; and the Ardennes, an ancient mountain range of rugged rock plateau and occasional hilltops, the largest not exceeding 700m. The southern region is best for walking: an area of plunging river valleys, thick forest and woodland which shelters most of Belgium’s wildlife. Here there are many forest trails along which you can wander, as well as a National Park at Hautes Fagnes. The words mean ‘high fens’, and while it’s hardly Yosemite, this area is a very pleasant environment of upland meadow, forest and rivers which makes for fine, gentle walking. Think the woodier areas of Norfolk, but higher.
Also in the Ardennes, the areas around La Roche make for good walking also. Houfallize, Ortho, Erezee-Manhay are all areas outside of La Roche of interest to lovers of leafy forest walks, and there are a few more ambitious options too. La Transardennaise is, as its name suggests, a 140km footpath across the Ardennes between La Roche and Bouillon. It can be walked in about a week, or broken into smaller parts of walks lasting 1 to 4 days depending on your time constraints.
The RAVeL routes are an 800km network of old canal embankments and abandoned railway tracks resurfaced for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Currently, there are 800km of pathways open with 1200km more planned which, depending on which you choose, can take you from Namur to Visé on the Dutch border (RAVeL 1) from the town ofMariembourg (which is of great interest to fans of steam railways) to Hoegaarden, which wil be instantly familiar to fans of white beer, passing through the varied landscapes of Dinant and Namur (RAVeL 2). Another official network of routes is the TARPAN, which is a similar idea to the RAVeL paths, though are more suitable to mountain bikes and serious walkers due to unsurfaced paths. There are maps at all jumping off points detailing the various paths, and good infrastructure en route. The four main routings traverse the forest of Anlier in the southern Ardennes, in the area surrounding the Ourthe and Amblève rivers (also in the Ardennes), the areas around Fagnes through forests thick in legend and folklore, and the in the Hesbaye and Condroz districts through farming country. Full details can be found on the TARPAN website (see links.) In addition, several major trans-European routes dip through Belgium: the GR5 (E2), E3 and E9.
The main outdoor pasttimes in Belgium besides walking are cycling and kayaking. The country’s generally rolling topography make it popular with road cyclists, though mountain bikers are invited to try the Tarpan routes, as they are unsurfaced and make for diverting days out. Plenty of places to go kayaking and rafting can be found on the rivers of Ourthe, Ambleve (especially) and Lesse.
Belgium’s position has unfortunately made it the scene of many of recent history’s most distasteful engagements, and there are few more poignant places to appreciate this than the Flanders’ Fields, the scene of the battle of Ypres in WW1, where more than 300,000 allied soldiers died.
Of the towns, Dinant is a fine base for adventure sports such as rafting, forest walking and climbing, and Bruges is rightly regarded as one of Europe’s most beguiling cities, with medieval architecture and a quirky nightlife. Antwerp is similarly ornate, and is the centre of the European diamond trade and the birthplace of artist Rubens. There are spectacular caves which rank among the most important in the world outside the town of Han, and there is a famous museum in Brussels – The Institute of Natural Sciences - which has the largest collection of Iguanodon (the first dinosaur to be discovered) in the world.
The most translated books in the world are those of Belgium-born author and creator of detective Maigret, George Simenon. FALSE. They are the second most translated, after the Bible.
Belgians invented the saxophone, the big bang theory, the bloodhound, the bank of England, Tintin and the roller-skate. TRUE.
Must see and do
- Wander through Bruges and visit the Bruges Beertje, where you can sample 300 types of beer. www.brugsbeertje.be
- Take a walk through Flanders’ Fields at Ypres and visit the museumwww.inflandersfields.be
- Visit the masters of the universe: see the NATO headquarters and the EU in Brussels.
- Renew your appreciation of chocolate at the Museum van Cacao en Chocolade in Brussels – endearingly abbreviated to MUCC www.mucc.be
- Visit Leuven – the home of Stella Artois – and tour the brewery. www.stellaartois.be
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