Monday, 11 January 2010

Hypothetical 1 week holidays in Wallonia

And now for something completely different, as it doesn’t always have to be talking about climate change

On a forum i follow, someone launched a nice topic. For many people in Flanders, the big highlights aside, the other side of Belgium (Wallonia) is rather unknown and often regarded as uninteresting. This of course is untrue.

His question was : Suppose you have the honour of being the host for a foreigner with a broad interest (culture, history, entertainment, nature, architecture, action, etc) who arrives at Charleroi airport and stays in Wallonia for one week. Which program would you serve him ?
As for me it’s an exercise too in knowing my own country, i had a look what i would recommend and came with this program which i think should alter the view people have of Wallonia.

Day 1

Picking the visitor up at the airport after a long flight, we’ll start peacefully with the underrated capital of Wallonia : Namur
Namur Namourette Wallonia
Starting in the ancient Grognon-area we’d visit the 16th century 'Halle al'chair' (meat hall) which houses a nice archaeological museum. Do notice the beautiful way the building was constructed in typical Belgian style : a mixture of layers of brick and the famous blue stone. After a ride on the river on the Namourette it’s time to visit the museum of the famous painter Félicien Rops and Namur’s Saint-Aubin’s Cathedral.

While the women can go shopping in the Rue du Fer, the men can climb the hills to visit the once strategically important Citadel de Namur, now offering a nice panorama of the city.
Namur Saint-Aubin’s Cathedral
 Saint-Aubin’s Cathedral
Tired of all the travelling and walking of the first day we stop to have dinner at the foot of the mountain on which the citadel is built and which is close to the Wallonian parliament : the gentle restaurant Cuisinémoi (one star Michelin).

We finish our first day in Wallonia with a visit to a play in Namur’s Royal Theatre and close the day Belgian style : by visiting a café afterwards. And then we quickly go to sleep, because there’s a busy program waiting ahead in which most parts of Wallonia will be visited.

Day 2

Wallonia is renowned for it’s nature and this day we’ll see plenty of Wallonia's beautifull landscape.
But the day starts at the famous Caves of Han-sur-Lesse, one of the biggest cave-complexes in Europe, formed where the river Lesse carves deep in the limestone.
Lunch break is held at the beautiful town of Dinant, located at the narrow piece of land between the Lesse river and the rock with on top the Dinant Citadel.
Diant Citadelle Lesse
No better way of enjoying nature than being completely part of it, therefore the afternoon is spent by kayaking on the small Lesse river. There’s not too much current, so it’s a relaxing day out in the wild.

After handing in the kayaks, we cross the border of the Luxembourg province to go dining in the small village of Paliseul in restaurant Au Gastronomie (1 star Michelin).
The evening itself is spend in one of the chalets located deep in the hart Ardennes-forest at the banks of the river Semois where we spend the evening by drinking a good beer and enjoying the surroundings and the sounds of the forest. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a deer, a boar or a fox ?

Day 3

The morning of day three starts with a little mountain biking tour in the forests, starting at the village of Bouillon with it’s castle (see picture) to the odd shaped turn in the river with the rock called Tombeau du Géant (Grave of the Giant).

Tombe du Géant Bouillon Classified landscape
Tombe du Géant
Belgium is renowned for it’s special beers and especially for the trappist-beers, a label only 7 breweries in the world can carry. The beers still are closely connected with the monasteries. We visit the Trappist Cistercian monks of Orval where we take a touir through the monastery, including the ruins of the ancient part, before buying the delicious homemade Orval beer and cheese.

The afternoon we enter a more modern part of history with our transfer to the area around Bastogne where in the winter of 1944/1945 the Ardennes Offensive (also known as the Battle of the Bulge) was fought in an attempt of the Germans to reconquer the port of Antwerp. It was Hitler’s lasts big attack on the allied forces, only to be halted in the forests of the Ardennes by the American (and English) troops. 76.800 American troops were lost, and more than 81.000 German. Hundreds of tanks and airplanes were destroyed. It truly was hell on earth during a battle in one of the coldest winters of the past 150 years.

Battle of the Bulge World War 2 Ardennenoffensief Bastogne
Battle of the Bulge
We visit the town of Bastogne where the American troops were under siege from December 20, 1944 until being relieved by General Patton’s 3rd army on December 27.

After dining in the Château de Strainchamps (1 star Michelin) we head north to the town of La Roche-en-Ardenne where we spend the evening in a typical Wallonian way : by going to one of the millions of cafés the country is rich. While still being in the forests of the Ardennes, spending the evening in the village gives an entire different atmosphere than the night before in the forests.

Day 4

Eupen-Malmedy High Fens Hoge Venen Hautes Fagnes Natural Park
Hautes Fagnes
Passing the Baraque de fraiture (the third highest point of Belgium, 652 metres) and the Signal de Botrange, the highest point with an impressive 692 metres (don’t laugh) we enter the German speaking part of Belgium and drive through the Parc Naturel des Hautes-Fagnes Eiffel to the nature centre House Ternell where we start a walk through the High Fens, a mixture of moorlands and forests and lots of bogs
After the walk we drive to Eupen, capital of the German speaking community where we visit the church and go for a walk to get the ‘feel’ of the city.

In the afternoon we drive into the French speaking part again : In the beginning of the 20th century Wallonia used to be the economical centre of Belgium with lots of coalmines and heavy industries like the steel-industry. Unfortunately, in the crisis of the 70’s the industry collapsed and one company after another closed, leaving lots of industrial archaeology. While there’s some steel factories left, the last coalmines were closed in the early 1980’s. We will have a look at this interesting industrial inheritage by visiting the ancient coal mine of Blegnyclosed in 1980.
Blegny coal mine museum visit steenkool charbon
Blegny Coal Mine
After getting wet and dirty in the bogs and in the coalmine, it’s definitely time for an evening of relaxing in the renowned and renewed Thermes de Spa.

Day 5

Santiago Calatrava Liège Railway Station Guillemins
Liège Guillemins Railway Station
On day five we finally enter the cultural capital of Wallonia, the city of Liège located at the banks of Belgium’s longest river, the Meuse. For a great part of it’s history (980-1795), Liège was a bit special as it was reigned by prince-bishops and a bit an enclave in the state. A situation that lasted until the French Revolution entered Wallonia too.

Belgium would remain part of France until Napoleon’s final defeat at the battle of Waterloo, which actually is located in Wallonia too.
The pride city of Liège has everything a tourist can desire : from contemporary arts and shopping facilities, to the 11th/12th century Roman style St Bartholomew's Church which houses the Baptismal Font of Renier de Huy (see picture), considered one of Belgium’s seven artwork miracles.
Baptismal Font of Renier de Huy Liege at St Bartholomew's Church
Baptismal Font of Renier de Huy
Other highlights include Liège’s St. Paul's Cathedral in beautiful Gothic style and the Palace of the Prince-Bishop, which unfortunately is rarely opened to the public.

The Palace is located at the beautiful central Square Place St-Lambert and is close to the “Perron” in front of the Town Hall. The Perron, a typical thing for the cities of ancient prince-bishop's area of Liège is a stone column which is the city’s symbol of freedom and autonomy.

But Liège is not a city that got stuck in it’s history and last year it welcomed the brand new futuristic railroad station of Liège Guillemins (see picture). Liège also has an good Modern and Contemporary Arts Museum or Mamac with works of Chagall, Picasso and Gauguin.
Liege stairs Montagne de Bueren
Montagne de Bueren
In the afternoon we take Liège’s most famous street, the Montagne De Bueren with it’s 374 stairs (see picture) and climb up the hills and take a visit at the park of Liège’s citadel where we will wander through the often narrow streets and dead-end alleys where once the béguinage used to be.
In the evening we descent the 374 stairs again and walk along the river until we arrive at the beautiful located riverside restaurant Héliport (1 star Michelin).

After dinner it’s time to “feel” the vibrant city and wander through the city centre and enter one of Liège’s many good cafés.
We end the evening by following the river to the Quai Van Beneden where on the river we find an old cargo-ship which now is converted to a small concert venue with room for approx 150 people.

Day 6

We transfer to one of Wallonia’s westernmost cities and the oldest one, more than 2000 years old : Tournai. Nowadays it’s a rather small town but Tournai is one of the most important cities in the country’s cultural history.

Even though the city nowadays is monolingual French-speaking it's part of the historical Romance Flanders meaning it was under the Flemish cultural influence and became a melting pot with several characteristics of Flanders and Wallonia in it’s artistic heritage.

Tournai - Doornik Belfry Belfort Beffroi
Tournai Belfry
Located at the banks of the river Scheldt, Tournai was the birthplace and capital city of the legendary king Clovis I (466 – 511) who in the turbulent times after the collapse of the Roman Empire was the King who united the Frankish tribes under one ruler. He also introduced Christianity, a decision that altered world history and has it’s impact until present times. While Clovis moved his capital to Paris, Tournai still had an important cultural role as the Archbishop of Flanders was residing in Tournai.

In 1513, the city was conquered by Henry VIII of England, making it the only Belgian city which once belonged to England. Albeit only for 8 years as in 1521 Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, attached it to his Flemish territories.

The Roman/Gothic Tournai Cathedral with it’s 83 metres high towers and Our Lady's Shrine by N. Verdun (another item on the "7 Belgian art-miracles" list) and the Belfry of Tournai (see picture) both are on UNESCO’s world heritage list.

Victor Horta, the famous Belgian architect and key figure in the Art Nouveau style designed Tournai’s Museum of Fine Arts which opened in 1928 and houses an impressive collection with works of Flemish masters like Rubens, Brueghel and Jordaens, but also works by Van Gogh, Manet, …
After seen all this beauty, it’s time for a little folly and we drive to the close by village of Ellezelles where we have dinner in the Château du Mylord (2 stars Michelin)

Day 7

The last day in Wallonia it’s time to wake up early;
We go to the Bérnissart area where in a coalmine in 1878 the famous Iguanodon’s of Bérnissart were discovered at a depth of 322 metres. The skeletons of the animals are displayed in Brussels now.

We are here for another reason : a side effect of the mining industry had is that here and there collapses of old mineshafts was felt to the surface, creating lakes and swamps. This is how the swamps of Harchies-Hensies-Pommeroeul were formed, one of the most beautiful nature reserves in the country and a superb place for bird watching.

Château de Beloeil
Château de Beloeil
After a good morning walk we start driving in the direction of Charleroi airport, but not without taking a little detour to the famous Château de Beloeil belonging to the Prince de Ligne family since 1394 (the first castles are older, at least 800 years). Disaster struck in 1900 when the castle burnt down, but the pieces of art including an amazing collection of furniture and painting and a library of 22000 books was saved. The Castle is surrounded by 25 hectares of French Gardens. A whole contrast with the swamps of Harchies, but nevertheless an impressive sight.

The very last visit of the tour through Wallonia would be a visit to what is one of the most insane things ever built in Belgium : the Strépy-Thieu boat lift.

Just like the Ronquières inclined plane, the boat lift forms a connections between two different canals where the difference in height between both canals is so huge it would take lot and lots of canal-locks to overcome this difference. With a 73,15 metres height-difference, Strépy-Thieu is one of the highest boat lifts in the world.

The lift is controversial as some economists think that the €647 billion Strépy-Thieu lift never will become profitable because it was built with the idea of serving the Wallonian coalmine & steel industries in the Borinage area around Charleroi. Unfortunately both industries disappeared before the lift was ever finished. In Flanders generally the lift is regarded as the biggest waste of money in the history of the country. And indeed, for a long time the lift was mainly operating only to serve the tourist-boat visiting the site. It seems though that traffic at present is on the rise.
Strépy-Thieu boat lift controversy
Strépy-Thieu Boat lift

And with this amazing piece of architecture the visit through Wallonia stops : it’s a short drive to Charleroi to end a holidays that hopefully showed that Wallonia isn’t as dull as some people think.


  1. interesting stuff, Jules. But errr...a 647 BILLION lift???

    Typing error, I hope, it's several times the GDP of the whole of Belgium.

  2. well spotted, should be million indeed. Which still is a lot of money for building a tourist attraction ;-)