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 It actually superseded the old locks that you have just passed on the Ancient Canal.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.