Weekend getaway: The Ardennes

It was a long overdue weekend with nature. As the original plan of exploring the neat forests of Netherlands was shelved, it was decided instead to go for a weekend trip to the next best place, the nearest and which comes closer to the Filipino idea of a real forest. The place was the Ardennes. Colors of autumn, thick layers of leaves on walking paths and shower of leaves flashed through my mind. But the beauty that the Ardennes has prepared is unexpected.

The Ardennes is a region covering the province of Limburg in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Champagne in France, consisted of old dense forests, rolling hills, valleys and rivers. It is a favorite and a usual destination among Belgians, French and the Dutch during summer and springtime because of the many activities that one can do there. Nature’s endowment makes it a perfect location for kayaking, hiking, cycling, trekking, rappelling and even skydiving.  There are facilities for both children and adults and each part of the Ardennes can be enjoyed as one wishes to, either in solitude among the chirping birds in the forest or with friends riding a cable car.

Our timing is a bit off and we were expecting a downpour. Nonetheless, there was no better time for the trip so we pack our boxes of supplies and drove up the mountains on a wind-swept Friday. After a two-hour drive, the car passed through a plateau overlooking the pine trees and the valleys of the Ardennes. Suddenly the “platteland” of Holland disappeared from my mind, replaced instead with the sights of fiery trees, sheep and cows grazing in the green grass and the lush forest below. As we raced further up the mountains, the scenery turned into a completely colorful journey of red, yellow, brown and green adorning the side of the roads.

We reached the old town of Stavelot, home to the 650 AD-Abbey, at around 4PM while the sun is already setting. After another 30 minutes it got very dark, preventing the beautiful sunset to be photographed. The first night was spent with a cold tuna and vegetable pie, few glasses of Merlot and hours of sitting in the small living room of the hexagon cottage, reading our favorite novels. The exquisite darkness outside and the freezing temperature creating dewdrops in the glass is a nice contrast to the warmth inside the cottage. I was lulled to sleep by the sound of raindrops.

It was only when I woke did I appreciate the tranquility of the place that my parents in-law rented, one of those oddly-shaped chalet at Landal Domaine Long Pré. The place was situated at the foot of the mountain, with a man-made lake nearby and surrounded by bald trees and fiery-red fir as it was autumn. It has been a long time since I was waken up by sunlight and the chirping of beds and on that Sunday morning, I didn’t mind having a different alarm clock.

Random Saturday

There was no itinerary prepared and the activities of the day depended only on the names of the place that we can remember. At nine in the morning, we drove down the town of Coo, about 10 minutes ride from Stavelot,  to visit the twin waterfalls and make an early  morning hike.

The waterfalls were a disappointment as I’ve seen bigger and higher cascades in the Philippines but the hike in the autumn-colored hills, on the ground made soft by wet soil and bed of fallen leaves, was an entirely new experience, save for the difficulty of ascending the slippery path up the hill. But once on top of the Promenade des Belvederes, the Ardennes reveals a beauty that can only be appreciated by the naked eye.

During autumn, the whole of Ardennes mountain turns into a panorama of brown and yellow with only hints of green here and there. From the Coo waterfalls, the beautiful Ambeleve River runs its quiet course passing through several towns in Liege and finally settles in another rive, Ourthe. The Ambleve has created several historic viaducts and bridges all around Eastern Belgium including one mighty high which names escaped me. The banks of the River Ambleve is always a preferred trail for cyclists from all over Europe.

Not replacing the Dutch tradition despite getting drunk on breath-taking scenery, we headed to town to find a restaurant where we can have coffee. Interestingly, in this restaurant one of their specialty is fresh mussels from Yerseke. After the coffee break we were back on the road, this time heading to Stavelot town where the Great Abby is located.

The only Abbey I’ve seen so far in my life was the recently built abbey in my hometown but that wouldn’t compare to the proportions of The Abbey of the Prince-Bishops of Stavelot. It has since been renovated (to the tune of 16million euros) but the remains of the originals walls and archeological can still be seen on its grounds.

I was asked if I wanted to explore the inside of the abbey but I declined. I’m sure there were a lot of surprises hidden behind the imposing red walls of the abbey but I wasn’t too keen that day on absorbing too much information. I only wanted to enjoy the view.

We walked further around the back of the town and wandered (at least I did)  in amazement at the the old Belgian houses and the charming bridge at the back of the Abbey. There was even an old military truck near the river, a remnant of the savagery (during the Battle of the Bulge) that this old town witnessed during World War II.

In the evening we went back to Coo for dinner. It was cold, raining and dark so we walked into the first restaurant that we saw, La Truite Gourmande. It’s probably one of those mid-range French/Belgian restaurants around the area. Gastronomic-wise, we really don’t have any idea where to eat in Coo.

It was a “gezellige” dinner as the Dutch would say. Our waiter is an old French and Belgian speaking man, one of those in the hospitality service who still takes pride in what he does. My parents in-law knew a little French so they made small talk with the friendly old man. Of course, he recommended dishes that we gladly ordered.

For starters I ordered the exclusive Ardenness ham, which our old waiter said is only available for a few months every year. The Ardenness ham (not to be confused with the Ardennes Dry Ham which is from France) is made from the Celts pigs which are a local breed , found only in the regions of the Ardennes. Actually I am not so much of a ham-eater but one distinctive feature that I can remember of this ham is its salteness. Sliced thinly and served with carrots, red cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes, Ardennes ham can be best enjoyed with a glass of red wine.

My mother in-law doesn’t eat meat so she naturally went for the fish, which happens to be the restaurant’s specialty, Truite Gourmande or in literal translation means “greedy trout”.  I didn’t hear her complain so I assumed her fish was delicious.

Meanwhile my father in-law and I both ordered lamb fillet in basilicum and red wine sauce while the husband ordered duck in crème fraiche, figs and strawberries. I can only recall that the lamb was soft and chewy and that I exchanged my dish for that of my husband. The strawberries and figs with the duck is a pleasant combination for me because of the contrast between sweetness and a bit of salteness and lamb is not exactly my favorite *only found about it later. We dined with full bodied  French “verre vin rouge” which names I’ve forgotten. We went back to our chalet satisfied and exhausted in a happy way. But this time, I slept with the sounds of the crickets.

Sunday market

Early Sunday morning, my mother in-law picked up freshly-baked bread that you can order from the reception. Then we had the usual Dutch breakfast of bread, jam and cold cuts (we brought them all the way from Zeeland) with warm cup of espresso from the espresso machine that we also brought all the to the mountains of the Ardennes.

After cleaning up the chalet, we drove to another nearby town. It was raining so hard and we weren’t really up for so much exploring. So we end up in the sleepy town of Spa, where the famous bottled water came from.

I was thrilled to discover that there was a Sunday market right in the center of town. Like any Sunday flea market in Europe, vendors are hawking food, clothes, jewelry and other non-essential stuff. But these stalls and their wares always appeal to me although I didn’t really buy anything except for a warm cup of chocolate milk and churros.

As the afternoon draws, we didn’t have enough time to explore the rest of Spa, especially the castles. I would have wanted to stay longer but all of us has to go to work the next day. So we left the town and drive back to the Netherlands. The road that runs through the Liege province offers you a view of rolling hills and charming villages and even just by sitting in the car, you will appreciate the beauty of the Ardennes.

Travel tips

Some few travel tips to help you plan your weekend (or longer) in the Ardennes.

Stavelot has a carnival called the Laetare of Stavelot where men dressed in white, put on a red, pointy noses (the Blancs-Moussis). It is sort of a parody for the monks of the 15th century. Happens every 4th Sunday of Lent. Just this early, I am already planning to join the carnival since I missed it last year.

Meanwhile the nearby Spa is  home to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps the famous Formula One Belgian Grand Prix. It would be nice to time your visit during the race.

In the Stavelot-Abbey there are three musuems, one is the Spa Francorchamps Racetrack museum, the museum of Polish poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the Museum of the Principality of Stavelot-Malmédy where symbols of the French art and culture is displayed. From January to September 2011, original works of Andy Warhol and his contemporaries will be displayed.

Coo would be the best place to take your children if you are planning to take them to the Ardennes. Plopsacoo is a theme park with adventures designed for kids like roller coaster rides and midget golf. In the summer it can get busy so better to book your hotel early.