Spotlight on Belgium's southern Ardennes region


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- "Tiny villages and culturally interesting cities, remains of Roman and Romanesque art and wonderful country inns" were the reasons given by Frederique Raeymaekers, director of the Belgian Tourist Office in New York, to explore Belgium's southern Ardennes region.

Last fall, my husband and I took Raeymaekers' advice and followed the Ardennes route through Wallonia, the southern half of Belgium.

We started our pilgrimage in Liege, stopping all too briefly in the lively river port city to see the historic quarter and visit the splendid Romanesque church of St. Barthelemy, whose Baptismal Font of Renier de Huy is one of the seven religious wonders of Belgium art.

We were en route to the World War II cemetery at Henri la Chapelle (20 miles east), a more peaceful and pretty spot than the celebrated Bastogne war monument farther south.

And if one's father had to have a burial place after a dreadful war -- as mine did along with thousands of other soldiers following the Battle of the Bulge -- this corner of Belgium is a beautiful place to rest.

The 11th century castle and fortifications of Godfrey du Bouillon. Nearly every Ardennes village has its story of resistance of German invaders and recollections of the arrival of the first British tank or U.S. paratrooper; the village of Comblain-la-Tour is no exception.

What is exceptional in the lovely village are the accommodations at Hostellerie de St.-Roch, a late 19th century post house, beautifully restored and furnished by the owners, with a flower-bedecked terrace overlooking gardens and the Ourthe River.

While the property can arrange for guests to play tennis, mountain bike, kayak, golf, and horseback ride, dining is a favorite leisure pastime.

The menu choices were indeed choice -- rabbit terrine, lobster ravioli, veal filet with foie gras to name a few -- as were the wines on an extensive list.

A three-course lunch cost $38; five-course dinners cost either $50 or $70.

Any number of interesting excursions are available from Comblain-la-Tour. Topping the list is a town called Spa, a name used worldwide to describe centers of health and fitness.

Spa's thermal springs and mineral waters have allegedly wrought miracles of health and well being for centuries, and the royals of Europe, including the likes of Russia's Peter the Great, came here for the "cures."

For his 18th century indigestion ills, Peter took drinking and walking cures; today's visitors can take the waters (and other corrective regimes) at the ornate mineral baths of Thermes de Spa and walk along designated woodland paths, stopping to drink from the celebrated pouhons (springs).

Mixing pursuits of health with wealth, visitors also flock to Spa for lively gambling at the Grand Casino. There are also some interesting little museums -- none more so than the Laundry Museum, dedicated to the art of keeping clothes clean.

From Comblain-la-Tour, we followed back roads to discover first hand one of the main reasons to be in the Ardennes: its bucolic beauty.

The verdant landscape is filled with dense forests marked by deep river valleys and gorges, isolated castles, paths leading up to wooded summits, turbulent brooks for fishing, grazing cattle and the occasional, often outstanding, country inn and restaurant.

No wonder this is a popular region for biking, hiking, fishing and boating with vacationers in the summer months, providing a good reason to plan travel in the more tranquil spring and fall.

Many of the more substantial towns are riverside, centuries-old places that grew up around churches and town squares, beneath defensive fortresses and in the shadow of royal castles.

Each has riverview restaurants serving up giant portions of jambon d'Ardennes (ham), game dishes, river-fresh fish and smoked sausages.

In the Ardennes, fresh cream accents specialties such as poussin (spring chicken) with a tarragon and cream sauce.

Along the streets of Ardennes towns, a feeling pervades that everyone is in the business of either making pastry or eating it.

Driving southeast, we stopped in Huy to ride a cable car up to the Citadel for a bird's-eye view of the Meuse River valley. We also visited the Notre-Dame church, with its glittering treasury of Romanesque reliquaries and stained-glass windows.

By taking a break for a beer and an Ardennes ham sandwich, we were on time to watch a wedding party assembling in front of the elegant 18th century town hall.

We then drove to Durbuy, a picture-perfect town on the Ourthe River, dominated by an 11th century feudal castle.

Durbuy is the place to be in March for the chocolate market. From April through September, the town's antiques market takes place on the second Saturday of each month; the last Sunday in August the flower market takes center stage.

We ended the day near the French border at Bouillon, another storybook town, tucked along the forested banks of the Semois River beneath the impressive fortifications of castle of Godefrey du Bouillon.

Built in the 11th century, this feudal stronghold with its drawbridge, towers, torture chamber and dungeons is Belgium's largest remaining example of medieval architecture.

Also of interest is the Ducal Museum, whose history and folklore section, reconstructing a typical bedroom and kitchen and weaver's and clog-maker's workshops, is housed in an 18th century residence.

Bouillon is a delightful place to meander about, either by boat on the river or by foot among the slate-roofed houses, cafes and food shops.

It's a long walk uphill to the Hotel Laferroniere where we stayed, but nothing beat the views from the terrace of our room of the winding river, the wooded hills and the castle at eye level in the distance.

The family-owned hotel has five double rooms with big baths and two rooms with showers, two charming dining areas and a veranda bar.

When the weather is fine, meals are served in the garden, but we ate indoors and consumed perhaps the most creative and delicious meal of our trip.

Three miles east of Bouillon is the Auberge du Moulin Hideux -- translated as the Inn of the Hideous Mill -- which fortunately is not an accurate description.

The sophisticated upscale retreat is a little beauty, with 11 bedrooms and two suites, all with individual decor and large marble bathrooms. Public rooms are equally stylish, and the menu of its one-star Michelin restaurant indicated that dining was a pastime to look forward to.

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