Before you consider going on a winter walk in the Ardennes, I feel obliged to give you three small pieces of advice. First, there is a high chance that you will become addicted, because the Ardennes is a wonderful region for walking. It’s easily accessible by car, train or bus; there are hundreds of well-marked walking routes of various lengths; the scenery is breathtaking; the nature is fascinating; and yet you are never too far from a café, hotel or village shop. In other words, once you have walked in the Ardennes, your free weekends may never be the same again.
Second, be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. I have set off in glorious sunshine to find myself in a hail storm just an hour later. In addition, the higher you ascend, the colder will be that chill wind. So dress for the worst eventuality. For a winter walk, this means warm clothing, sensible footwear, a waterproof coat, gloves and a hat. Take sufficient water and snacks; personally I always take a thermos flask of hot soup. And do not leave your mobile phone at home.
Third, take a detailed walking map. These are readily available from most bookshops and tourist offices. Plan in advance to know where you intend to walk, and the length and duration of your route. This will help avoid unpleasant surprises, especially if you are taking children with you.
So, armed with these hopefully helpful warnings, it’s time to pack up your backpack and go. But where? Here are five personal favourites.
Hertogenwald Forest, Eupen
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. Halfway to Monschau is the Ternell Nature Centre. This old forester’s house was built in 1770 and transformed two hundred years later into a museum and information centre. I recommend the route heading north-east from the nature centre into the forest. The first time I walked this route I had to cross the River Getzbach by taking off my boots and socks and wading across. When I returned a few years later, I was quite disappointed to find a bridge had been installed. Next to the nature centre is a cosy tavern serving excellent snacks. When ordering, don’t forget that you are in German-speaking Belgium!
River Ourthe, La Roche-en-Ardenne
If you want to make a weekend of your trip to the Ardennes, La Roche-en-Ardenne is an excellent base from which to explore the River Ourthe, as it offers numerous hotels and restaurants. Most people walking in this area will be drawn to the well-known sights of the Nadrin Belvedere, the Nisramont Dam, Saint Margeurite’s Cross and the confluence of the two Ourthes (Orientale and Occidentale). All of these are well worth visiting, but if like me you prefer to steer away from the crowds, then I would recommend trying one of the less popular but equally outstanding walks from the villages of Maboge, Grande Mormont or Bonnerue. My tip would be the 8 km Champs Thomas walk from Maboge. The deserted uplands seem to be a favourite hunting ground at this time of the year for hen harriers. These rare birds of prey are similar to the more commonly seen buzzards but have a white rump and fly with their wings held in a shallow ‘V’ as they glide low over the fields in search of a mouse or vole.
Even deeper into the Ardennes, between Martelange and Habay-la-Neuve in the province of Luxemburg, is the huge 7000-hectare Anlier Forest, one of the biggest forests in the country. Its northern slopes reach an altitude of 517 metres and are drained by the tributary streams of the River Sûre, which flows into Germany as the Sauer and eventually into the Moselle. The forest is so vast that parts of it are virtually unexplored. Living in its deeper recesses are deer, wild boar, badgers, foxes and wildcats. Visit the area in the summer and look for rare breeding birds such as great grey and red-backed shrikes, and the specialty of the region: black storks. I have enjoyed many hours walking along the banks of the rivers Sûre and Géronne hoping to catch a glimpse of an otter, which is making a comeback in this region. Beavers have also been re-introduced into these river systems. A particularly attractive walk starts from Volaiville and gives you close-up views of two watermills on the Géronne.
Hoyoux Valley, Modave
If you would like a gentle introduction to walking in the Ardennes, maybe because you have young children, then the area around Modave may be more suitable. The 7.5 km Petit Modave walk is marked with red diamonds and starts from Modave castle. It takes you along the River Hoyoux, which apparently is the fastest flowing river in Belgium. It’s a very varied route: delightful oak and birch woodlands give way to a calciferous river valley, before taking you through coniferous forests and up to the plateau above the village of Survillers. Listen out for the shrieking calls of black woodpeckers in the forests. After your walk you may have time to enjoy an audio tour of the thirteenth century Modave castle, or stroll north along the River Hoyoux and find a café in Pont de Bonne.
Bouillon and Botassart
Walking through Bouillon is like travelling back in time. The River Semois runs through the centre and splits the city in two, with historic buildings and cosy terraces on both banks. If you have time, a visit to the castle may be of interest. A particularly fascinating walk is to the nearby village of Botassart, which is beautifully positioned amongst the winding bends of the Semois. The river curls around a succession of densely wooded hills, including the Tombeau du Géant, or Giant’s Tomb, where a Gallic giant is apparently buried. Keep your eyes open for kingfishers and dippers on the river. The village itself is interesting, while if you walk further along the river you will come across two ancient watermills as well as an exhibition of figures representing old forestry jobs.