The 86-kilometre long River Dijle rises near Nivelles in Wallonia but soon crosses the language border a few kilometers south of Sint-Agatha-Rode. Here the river drunkenly zigzags through the fertile Flemish fields before sobering up and straightening up as if in reverence to its next ports of call: the cathedral towns of Leuven and Mechelen.
It doesn’t sound too attractive does it, especially when you look at the rivers around Brussels or some of the other major cities in Belgium. However, it seems that the water purity of the rivers in Belgium has been steadily increasing, and an event taking place this Sunday July 10 aims to draw attention to the need to clean up our waterways in a fun way. Continue reading
I am particularly fond of this area as it was my first encounter with the Ardennes. It offers a splendid mixture of landscapes: impenetrable, silent, coniferous forests; deserted moorland stretching to the horizon; and picturesque babbling brooks. It can be reached by taking the N67 south-east from Eupen. Actually I recommend a stop-off in Eupen, an interesting and bustling little town. In the tourist office (Markplatz 7) you can pick up a map of the area. Continue reading
My first thought on entering Annevoie Gardens was “I wonder how many water pumps are used here?” You’d probably ask the same question, as the gardens are filled with fountains, jets and cascades, which surely – you would think – need numerous heavy-duty, submersible pumps? However, to my surprise, I discovered that everything works entirely naturally, without any mechanical or electrical intervention.
The gardens’ designer, Charles-Alexis de Montpellier, a local iron merchant, clearly knew what he was doing when he started creating Annevoie Gardens in 1758. His first task was to dig a 400-metre-long canal at the highest point of his 28-hectare grounds, and fill it with water from the nearby Fonteny spring. After that he constructed a complex network of inter-connecting underground channels running from the canal. It was then a “simple” matter of excavating about twenty pools and ponds and adorning them with over fifty fountains, cascades and waterfalls. It took him nearly twenty years to finish, but by 1776 Annevoie Gardens was complete, and has remained functional ever since. And that’s no exaggeration – the water has been flowing non-stop for 230 years and continues throughout the year, even in the rare occurrence of a dry Belgian summer. Continue reading
A day in the Molignée Valley, south of Namur, could incorporate a country walk, a visit to the historic ruins of Montaigle Castle, a tour of the Abbey of Maredsous, a visit to a snail farm, and a trip on a rail-bike.
To reach the Molignée Valley, take the E411 until junction 19, and then the N937 through Purnode to Yvoir. Here you can stop at the tourist office and pick up the relevant maps and information.
There are numerous walks through the Molignée Valley. One of my favourites starts from the car park just past the Relais de Montaigle (ideal for an early snack) by the 7 km sign on the N971. The car park is marked Montaigle Castle. It takes you through forests, meadows, along the River Flavion and to the impressive ruins of Montaigle Castle, which you can visit for a small fee (4 EUR). Continue reading
Until May 29th, in the village of Rebecq, 25 km south-west of Brussels, the local museum is hosting an exhibition to commemorate the loss of an RAF Lancaster shot down over the village in the Second World War. During the night of 27/28 May 1944, the Lancaster was returning from a bombing mission over Aachen when it was attacked by a German night-fighter. The Lancaster, which belonged to 550 Squadron, crashed at Rebecq. Five crew were killed and are buried in Evere cemetery, Brussels; two crew survived.
On May 7th this year a memorial to the crash victims was unveiled and dedicated in Rebecq. Representatives of RAF 550 Squadron Association were present at the ceremony, along with guests from the UK, Canada and Italy. The display at the museum includes part of the tailplane on which one of the wounded airmen was carried to the local hospital. It was found in a loft when part of the building was demolished recently. Continue reading
I love the Cycle Route Interchange Network. If you’ve never tried it, you should. As far as I know, it applies only to Flanders at the moment and you can check it out here. In Wallonia they have this different system (if you have used their network, let me know what you think).
The basic idea of the Cycle Route Interchange Network is simple. It allows you to cycle from one numbered interchange to the next one. At each interchange a green and white signpost points you in the direction of the next interchange. This leads to a much more flexible way of cycling around the countryside than by following stipulated routes. Now you can mix and match to create your own cycle route. You don’t even need a map. Continue reading
The Leuven-Mechelen canal can be accessed at a number of points, and its wide towpaths offer excellent opportunities for a pleasant walk or cycle. You can choose your entry and exit points depending on your preferred length of walk. Highlights for me are the white storks, which feed in the shallows or the neighbouring fields. From the canal, you can see their huge nests in the Planckendael Animal Park, built on top of poles. Continue reading
From the “Ecocentrum” visitors centre at the entrance to the Zilvermeer leisure park north-east of Mol, you can choose your walk depending on whether you don’t mind getting your feet wet or prefer to keep them dry. An adventurous walk (Buitengoor) will take you over very wet and boggy terrain. The other walk (De Maat) is a much more sensible, dry walk. Of course, you can do both: one in the morning, one in the afternoon. This is exactly what I did, and luckily I chose the wet one first, so had all afternoon to dry out!
The Buitengoor walk is so wet because it’s a very low-lying fen criss-crossed by streams. In addition, it collects the overflow of two nearby canals. It may not sound the ideal environment for a nature walk, but especially in the summer it’s alive with wildlife. The area is particularly famous for its dragonflies, with names like the marshland darter, the beautiful demoiselle and the golden-ringed dragonfly, while breeding butterflies include the rare green hairstreak. Of course, you won’t walk far without almost stepping on a frog. But it may not be the everyday common frog; rarer marsh frogs and moor frogs breed in this area too.
Amateur botanists will be in paradise here. You can find a wide selection of rushes, sedges and cotton-grasses, as well as gems like the bog asphodel and the marsh orchid.
As you might have guessed by now, Wellington boots are essential. The path is well signposted and is suitable for children, but watch where little ones are stepping. I didn’t take sufficient care and my right leg disappeared in a bog up to my knee!
For an interesting lunch, try the Kleppende Klipper, a converted Polish freighter, which is berthed 2 km up the N136. From its car park, a very pleasant and much drier 8 km walk takes you along the Herentals-Bocholt canal, around the perimeters of two large lakes, and through the woods of De Maat nature reserve. You can also start on this route from the Ecocentrum.
De Maat is of European importance for its breeding birds, such as the bluethroat, kingfisher, honey buzzard and goshawk. In addition, on warm spring evenings you may be lucky enough to be serenaded by Europe’s noisiest amphibian, the natterjack toad. The male’s loud rasping call has been recorded up to five kilometres away. The natterjack toad can be identified by a yellow stripe down the middle of its back.
Especially for the kids - An interesting plant you might like to look for in the Buitengoor is the sundew, which is an insectivorous plant. Its leaves are covered in sticky hairs which trap small flies. The leaf then closes around its catch and digests it. This gives the plant valuable food so it can grow in very poor acidic soils. One sundew plant can catch as many as 2000 insects in one summer.
The Doode Bemde nature reserve outside Neerijse is bordered by the Rivers Dijle and Ijse and can be reached by the 344 bus from Brussels’ Schumann roundabout. If you are driving, you can park by the Sint-Pieters-en-Paulus church. The 5.5 km Doode Bemde walk starts at the church, takes you into the farmland to the north of the village and then through the reserve itself.
Alongside both rivers, you can’t miss the huge leaves of the butterbur plant, which can measure up to one metre in diameter. Butterbur is so named because its leaves were used to wrap butter to keep it cool. It had other uses, too. The English horticulturist Henry Lyte, who published his “Niewe Herball’ in 1578, describes it as ‘a soveraigne medicine against the plague’. In Germany it’s called “pestwurz” (“plague root”).
I recently joined a group of Belgian biologists on a beaver expedition to this area. Yes, beavers are alive and kicking in Belgium, having been re-introduced in 2000. We didn’t see any, as they tend to hide during the day, but we saw plenty of evidence, including a couple of majestic dams.
They were brought back for two reasons. They used to live here until they were hunted out of existence (the last Flemish beaver was shot in 1848). And they are good for the environment, keeping waterside vegetation levels down, creating open spaces where other mammals and birds can live. Their channels and dams act as buffers against the effects of flash floods.
The walk leads you back to your starting point via the Kasteel van Neerijse, which has had a chameleon-like life. Originally constructed in 1735 by Baron Charles Joseph d’Overschie, a Dutch brewer, it was used as a hunting pavilion. Later that century his son Jean-Albert undertook an extensive expansion of the castle and the grounds and it became the main residence of the Overschie family, who ruled the village of Neerijse for over a century.
In the early 20th century the castle was leased to a religious order. In 1935, it left the Overschie family and was rented to a company that ran a clinic within the grounds. In the 80s, the castle was sold once again and transformed into a hotel. Its latest evolution sees its conversion into luxury apartments.
For the kids – Animal-tracking is detective work and the mud along the banks of the Ijse and Dijle make excellent places to look for tracks of beavers and other animals such as water voles. Look for signs such as gnawed branches, droppings, tunnels through long grass, and mud slides into the river. The Scottish Beavers Network gives a lot of useful info on beavers.
The Réseau Autonome de Voies Lentes (RAVeL), or as its website quaintly translates it, the Autonomous Network of Slow Ways, was established in 1995. This network of old canal embankments and disused railway tracks winds through much of Wallonia. Currently, it extends to over 1000 km of pathways. It’s perfect for cyclists as well as walkers, and the majority of the parts I have walked along are also fine for children’s buggies.
Picking just one segment is virtually impossible, but I am particularly fond of the Arquennes-Ronquières stretch, because it is so picturesque. Arquennes can be reached from junction 19 of the E19, or by bus from Nivelles railway station. The walk follows the Charleroi-Brussels canal; not the broad, straight and sterile one, but the narrow, meandering and interesting Ancient Canal that was first opened in 1862.
Its 12 locks are now dysfunctional – the canal long since ceased to be navigable – but the lock-keepers’ houses are all inhabited and it’s fascinating to see how their occupants have modernized the buildings while maintaining their original appearance. For example, every one still has its own sign proudly mounted on the outside wall indicating the lock number (Ecluse no. 25 and so on).
Running alongside the canal is the River Samme. The whole area is heavily wooded and includes the nature reserve of Ronquières. Look out for kingfishers, great crested grebes, and teal, which are small ducks with cute yellow bottoms and beautiful green eye stripes.
Rounding one bend in the canal brings you face to face with the imposing Château de la Rocq. This fairytale castle was built in 1390 by Eustache de Bousies, Lord of Feluy, to honour his son Wautier, who was a renowned warrior. The 30-hectare estate is now a superb setting for business meetings, wedding receptions and garden parties.
Upon reaching Ronquières, if you still have the energy (soon replenished after half an hour in La Tour Glacée café), a visit to the inclined plane is a real eye-opener. It’s a boat lift; the boat floats in what is best described as a gigantic bathtub, which then rolls up a set of rails. It actually superseded the old locks that you have just passed on the Ancient Canal. The control tower has a visitor centre with an audiovisual presentation that explains the inclined plane’s design, workings and use.
For the kids – In the autumn, look out for witches’ brooms! No, they’re not leftovers from Halloween; witches’ brooms are actually abnormally dense growths of small twigs. From a distance they are supposed to look like something a witch would mount and fly away on, although to me they look more like bird’s nests. They are caused by the witches’ broom fungus, which enters the tree and stimulates extra growth, on which it then feeds. So it’s nothing to do with witches. Or is it? According to legend, a tree that has one, has been flown over by a witch …
I think orchids are wonderful. Not the huge ones stocked in florists, which seem to be more plastic than plant, but wild orchids. But, you say, wild orchids don’t grow in Belgium; aren’t they confined to the tropics? For the answer, go on this nature walk!
The nature reserve of Vorsdonkbos near Aarschot is north-east of Brussels. Take the E314 past Leuven until junction 21. Turn left, then right at the roundabout and drive along the N19 for 4.6 km. Turn left towards Betekom and then first right; park at Gelrode station. By public transport, the Leuven-Aarschot bus (335) stops at Gelrode station. Nettles grow along part of the walk so wear something to protect your legs.
From the station (check the large colony of house martins), take the tunnel and walk parallel to the railway lines. You don’t have to walk far to see the orchids. In a meadow on your left you will see masses of pink or purple spires about 15-20 cm high; mainly heath spotted orchids with some marsh orchids. Enter the field for a close-up view, but be careful where you step. And certainly don’t pick any.
Wild orchids have complex lifecycles. They produce numerous tiny seeds which are borne away on the wind, so you might expect to find orchids everywhere. In fact they are among the rarest European wild flowers, because their seeds are TOO tiny; there’s no space for the essential foodstuffs that will nourish the seedling. Instead, the seedling forms a delicate partnership with a specific fungus that draws in nutrients for them. Reproduction in many species is equally bizarre. To enhance their chances of being pollinated by insects, some orchids actually look like the female of the species to encourage male insects to visit them. Hence the aptly named wasp orchid, bee orchid and fly orchid.
After the orchid field, continue alongside the railway until you come to an information board on your left. Follow the red squares for a guided walk around the area. As expected in a nature reserve, it’s rich in wildlife. Check the ponds for frogs, newts and dragonflies; the woodland for woodpeckers, jays and warblers; the sunny banks for painted lady and common blue butterflies.
In the streams, look for the bogbean, with its white or pale pink flowers rising from the water on long stalks. Its alternative name ‘bog hop’ arises from the use of its leaves as a flavouring for beers. If you want a longer walk, follow the signs for the Beemden walk and it will take you to the River Demer and into Aarschot, where you can enjoy refreshments in this pretty Flemish town.
For the kids – An interesting project for the summer is to make a pond water aquarium at home. If you don’t have a proper fish tank, use a bottle, bucket or bowl. Take three jam jars and fill one with pond water, one with mud from the bottom of a pond, and one with water weeds. Put them all together in your receptacle, top up with tap water, and watch what happens over the summer. You will be amazed at what will appear.
(First published in The Bulletin, April 2007)