I love Spring; there’s so much bursting into life all around us, bringing with it the hope and optimism of a new start. The perfect time to start a new GR long-distance footpath.
The GR 121 starts in the small Belgian town of Wavre and ends up 263 kilometres away on the French coast at Boulogne-sur-Mer. I have no intention of doing the whole trail, but thought it would be fun to walk some of the Belgian stages. I’m not even sure if I’ll cover the whole Belgian stretch, which ends at Bon Secours near Peruwelz, because when walking linear routes by yourself you are at the mercy of a good public transport system. (If you’re in a group you can organise the cars so there’s one at the end destination to bring you back to the start). But I will see how I get on.
I got my inspiration to do this from my hiking-blogging friend Guido; you can read his account here (in Dutch).
But before I launch into the actual walk, here’s some of the lovely Spring wild flowers and trees bursting into leaf and bloom along the way:
Stage 1 of the GR 121 starts at Wavre railway station and ends at La Roche railway station, with a very pleasant and diverse 22 kilometres in between.
So, make your way to Wavre railway station. There are good connections from Brussels and Leuven. Turn left outside the station and then right along the aptly named Rue du Chemin de Fer. Just before the roundabout, outside café Le Scoubidou and opposite the Town Hall, you will see this sign, which marks the start.
The route is very well signed with the traditional red and white GR flags, and I provide the link to the whole track at the end of this post.
The two sides of Wavre
For the first fifteen minutes or so, you will be walking through the centre of Wavre. Afterwards you will be walking through the suburbs in what the Flemish call the “villawijk”. It’s a much better name than the French term “quartier résidentiel” because villawijk says what you will find there: huge villas in acres of ground.
It’s interesting to compare the two areas.
In the town centre, the streets are narrow, the houses cramped together and many of them rather dilapidated. In the villlawijk the roads and the villas are all new and well maintained.
In the town, a group of locals was standing on a street corner chatting. Their three dogs were sniffing each other out and gambolling merrily in the street. Six or seven teenagers were laughing together; each with a cigarette in one hand, a mobile phone in the other.
The villawijk was deserted. The gates leading up to the villas were locked tight, the security fences hid many of the houses from view, and CCTV cameras eyed me up as I passed. Some of the houses had guard dogs, penned up in cages. They seemed delighted to finally see someone to bark at, if only to break the boredom. The only people I saw were three contractors unloading their garden maintenance equipment from a white van.
Quite a difference, within just a few kilometres.
Into the woods
After leaving Wavre behind, the path entered the open countryside and … a huge pile of earth blocked my path!
I rather ungracefully clambered over it. Thankfully the recent weather had been dry, otherwise I can imagine it would have been a mud bath.
But then I was out into the glorious open countryside. The Arboretum de Lauzelle was on one side; the Louvain-La-Neuve golf course on the other.
The arboretum had a lovely bee hotel (or was it a bee villa?).
It was really buzzin’!
The golf course was also busy. (Ah, so that’s where all the folk from the villawijk were!)
Even the birds here have their own villas! Here’s one inhabited by a nuthatch.
Bois de Lauzelle
Walking through this wood was a delight, especially at this time of the year with the lesser celandines, wood anemones and wild violets in full flower, the newly arrived (from Africa) chiffchaffs singing in the treetops, and the drumming of the woodpeckers claiming their territories.
The warm weather had also brought out the spring butterflies: brimstones, peacocks, orange tips, and this gorgeous comma:
Among the students
An interesting feature of this stage of the GR121 is that it takes you through the campus of the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL). This is not to be confused with the Dutch-language Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL) which is located elsewhere; in Leuven, not surprisingly.
There’s a very interesting bit of history to discover about Belgium here, so bear with me for a few minutes.
Originally there was just The University of Leuven, founded in 1425, making it the first university in the Low Countries. Essentially it was a French-language institution. However, Leuven is Dutch-speaking. Anyone with any inkling of recent Belgian history will immediately know where this story is heading…
In 1968, arguments broke out between the French and the Flemish. Basically, the Dutch speakers were unhappy at privileges given to French-speaking academic staff, who were also accused of being rather disdainful of their Dutch-speaking neighbours.
Flemish politicians and students began demonstrating under the slogan “Leuven Vlaams – Walen Buiten”, which means “Leuven is Flemish – Walloons out” (Walloons being the French-speakers). Flemish nationalists demanded a division of the university. Tensions rose. Demonstrations took place. Violence broke out.
Here’s an atmospheric video which captures the flavour of Leuven in 1968:
So serious was the issue that in February 1968 the government of Belgium fell. In June 1968 it was decided to build a new, French-language university in Wallonia, and leave the Flemish students behind in Leuven.
Hence the Université Catholique de Louvain, in a completely new site, called, without an ounce of creativity, Louvain-la-Neuve (New Leuven).
Happily, tempers have long subsided and there is now a great deal of mutual cooperation between the two universities.
Today, the sunshine had brought the hard-working Francophone students out for some well-earned rest and relaxation on the banks of the Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve:
The Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve is a pleasant place to walk around and enjoy a picnic there, even if you’re not a student:
It was now time for me to leave academia behind and head on to …
Bois de Rêves
Yes, the Forest of Dreams! I could easily see why it got this name.
I really enjoyed walking through this forest:
The path then leads you into the Bois de Rêves Recreational Domain.
If you live in this area and have children, this has to be a place to visit this spring or summer. It seems to have everything: picnic spots, barbecue areas, children’s playground, swimming pools, footpaths, cycle routes, fishing … and a large café!
The rest of the hike was gorgeous, consisting of country lanes through villages, farm tracks and woodland paths.
A couple of final sights are worth mentioning.
Moulin de Beaurieux in Court-Saint-Etienne
This was a very nicely renovated watermill on the River Orne. There has been a watermill on this site since 1312.
La Pierre Qui Tourne
There’s a rather hazy old story about this 4-ton stone spinning when the church in nearby Court-Saint Etienne strikes the 12th stroke of midnight on a full moon. I wasn’t going to hang about and see if it’s true, but the way the stone is embedded in the ground makes me suspect it stopped spinning a long time ago. Still, it provided a welcome pause on a hot afternoon.
Finally I arrived at my destination; the railway station at La Roche. Here I caught the (hourly) train to Ottignies, where I got the connection back to Leuven and home. From Ottignies you can also easily reach Brussels.
Altogether this is a highly recommended first stage of the GR 121, and I look forward to trying out Stage 2.
You can find the route here on RouteYou.
And for you Pinteresters, here’s a pin: