The pleasant little town of Namur makes the perfect base for exploring the Belgian Ardennes, a scenic region of steep river valleys, dense forests and historic sites aplenty
Southeastern Belgium is not somewhere that immediately springs to mind when considering the choices for a short break. But if, like me, you enjoy peaceful but dramatic countryside, deep twisting river valleys, beautiful historic towns and more than enough places of interest to occupy your time, it begins to sound more appealing. If I also mention the excellent cuisine, friendly welcome, reasonable prices, and the fact that it’s less than three hours' drive from the Channel ports, you’ll see why I rate it so highly.
Namur is a particularly pleasant town, which promotes itself as the ‘Gateway to the Ardennes’. To be fair, that’s probably stretching the truth a little, since the higher areas of the mountains are still a way off, but it is certainly a place I’d recommend as a good base for exploring.
Standing where the Meuse and Sambre Rivers meet, Namur is dominated by the massive citadel, which dates back to medieval times. I reached it by cable car from the car-park near the river, which has great views across the town as an added bonus. Once inside, you get a real idea just how vast the grounds are - so big that a miniature railway is available to take you around. The best part of it, for me at least, was far below, where a guided tour will take you through myriad deep tunnels.
It’s not a huge town, so an afternoon will give you time to gently wander the bright, airy streets. The small market opposite the railway station was interesting, and the main shopping street – the Rue de l’Ange - leads along to the big square in front of the cathedral. There are a number of museums around for those of a cultural bent, but this is the point where I call into one of my favourite restaurants. The Brasserie Henry, on the Place St Aubain, is always busy with locals (never a bad sign), but it’s worth waiting your turn to sample some of the simple but excellent French food and Belgian beer. A little more upmarket is the Traiteur L’Ecailler des Halles, which, surprisingly for somewhere a couple of hundred miles from the Channel, has some of the best seafood I’ve tried anywhere.
The university in Namur, although not large, does create a lively nightlife around the town centre. On the down side, it can also mean that reasonably-priced accommodation is sometimes hard to come by. The Excelsior, close to the station, is quite pleasant, although there is another option that is not so well known - the tourist office keeps a small stock of private rooms around the town to let out as needed, and they can be very reasonable!
If you are driving, follow the smaller road along the Meuse valley south towards Dinant. Just beyond here, at the pretty little town of Han-Sur-Lesse, you’ll find my favourite attraction of the Ardennes region. The Han Caves are a spectacular underground excursion, reached via a ride on a 100-year-old tram. Deep underground there are stunning stalactites and stalagmites, a boat trip on the underground river, and the gigantic 145m-high Salle du Dome cavern. The whole trip lasts about an hour and a half, and there are English-speaking guides throughout.
Heading east into the high Ardennes, the scenery changes noticeably. Steep river valleys, dark dense forests, stone-built villages and numerous castles all combine to make this a region of undeniable beauty. If, as I do, you enjoy seeking out the history of an area, then head to the towns of Bastogne and La Gleize. Both were largely rebuilt after the famous Battle of the Bulge, towards the end of World War Two, and there is a good museum in Bastogne.
For those seeking a more tranquil visit, there are woodland walks and riverside rambles enough to keep even the most energetic hiker busy for months. My personal favourite is the winding river valley between La Roche-en-Ardennes and Houffalize, not just for the stunning scenery, but also for the many excellent restaurants along the way. This area is home to the smoked Ardennes ham, popular throughout Belgium, as well a great place to try locally-caught game, trout and pike.
The small but enticing Hotel Les Genets has a wonderful position on the hillside above La Roche-en-Ardennes. I am a firm believer that a meal tastes better in pleasant surroundings, so here the already excellent cuisine was made even more exquisite as I enjoyed the views across the valley and fortress. I found myself sipping wine, and looking over the choices for my afternoon's exploring – laid out below me like a living map.
In the end, I decided to give the ham museum a miss, put the game park off until another day, and opted for a visit to the castle ruins. I was pleased with my choice, especially as I happened to get talking to one elderly local who told me of the 'best place in the Ardennes' (he had proposed to his wife there). Follow the locally marked (but not very romantically named) ‘Walk Number 4’, then take the little path next to the chapel, and you will eventually arrive at a place called Deisters Viewpoint. It’s a steep climb, but the amazing panoramic views take your breath away. The air is crisp and clear, giving a feeling that you’re on the top of the world. It just goes to show: you can read all the guidebooks you like, but wherever you travel there is no substitute for chatting to the locals!