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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Bouillon is a delightful place to meander about, either by boat
on the river or by foot among the slate-roofed houses, cafes and
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 family-owned hotel has five double rooms with big baths and
two rooms with showers, two charming dining areas and a veranda
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.