Jacques Brel famously described his native Belgium as 'le plat pays qui est le mien ('the flat country which is mine'). Clearly he didn't spend enough time in the Ardennes.
To the south and east of Brussels stretches a land of rolling hills and wooded valleys, with picturesque castles and a number of caravan parks. It's not the Himalayas or even the Alps, but it is very pleasant. It is the first relief of any consequence after the monotonous flatness of the Flanders plain and the Dutch polders. This website starts with a map and has other tourist information.
The Ardennes are a popular spot for the following activities:
There are footpaths all over the Ardennes - many of them are sign-posted, but you would be well advised to stop into the local tourist office to get a map or to invest in one of the many guidebooks - there is even one in English entitled, not surprisingly, Walking in the Ardennes.
Why not scale the fearsome heights of the highest mountain in Belgium? The Signal de Botrange is in the east of the country, and with the addition of a handy concrete plinth, breaks the symbolic 700m barrier. Don't forget your crampons.
You can canoe on two of Belgium's most beautiful rivers: the Lesse, at Anseremme near Dinant and the Ourthe at La Roche en Ardenne. This is a very popular activity on summer weekends, and you may find yourself involved in a 'canoe jam'. It's all very good natured but there is not really much in the way of white water - there are a few small weirs but that's it.
Belgium is quite probably unique in having lost a serving monarch to the sport of rock climbing. King Albert I was an excellent mountaineer and climbed a great deal in the Alps1. He put up a lot of new routes in the Ardennes and came to a sticky end in a cliff by the Meuse.
You can seek to emulate him2 by climbing on the numerous limestone cliffs that lie near the rivers of the Ardenne region. The most famous of these is Freyr, near the town of Dinant3. Freyr is very popular on summer weekends and unfortunately has its fair share of queues and polished rock. There are many other alternatives though. You will need to be a member of a mountaineering club if you want to climb on any Belgian cliffs.
Cycling round the back roads is a great way to discover the region and your inner Eddy Merckx. If your inner Eddy is having an off day, you can keep the climbs down by following the rivers. You can hire bikes at nearly every railway station4 and a number of other outlets.
As well as the numerous castles and stately homes that are dotted around the area (see invading, below), there are some options for the modern generation. One possibility is the European Space Centre in the middle of the Ardennes. Another is the Six Flags theme park with its roller coasters and other thrills and spills. For a more stately ride, you could take a boat in the canal lift at the Canal du Centre. These last two attractions are on the edge of the Ardennes proper, but due to Belgium being a small country, they are easily accessible.
Belgian food is very good and the Ardennes is an excellent place to sample it. Many regions have their own local delicacy, from pâté to wild boar to sweet tarts. None of it is what you might call 'diet-friendly' though, so be warned if you're counting the calories. The food is particularly good in Liège and Namur, the two closest cities to the Ardennes. Alternatively, you will never be far from a fritkot or a waffle merchant.
The Ardennes offers many choices to the tired visitor. You could pitch your tent at a campsite, stay on a farm or in a cottage, or book yourself in to a swanky château-turned-hotel. More accommodation information at this Tourist information website.
Many invading armies have stomped through the Ardennes on their way to somewhere else. One of the first was Julius Caesar, who spent 53 BC battering his way along the Meuse, subduing the Belgae and other hostile Celtic tribes.
He was followed by the French, the Spanish, the Dutch and the Austrians who all took turns to fight over control of the Meuse and the area around it. The numerous castles and fortifications around the area bear witness to this turbulent past. There is a good medieval castle to visit in Bouillon5, and there are interesting 17th Century forts in Namur and Dinant.
Perhaps the most famous of all the battles in the Ardennes6 is the Battle of the Bulge7, Hitler's counter attack on US (mainly) forces in 1944-45. US and German soldiers fought in terrible conditions around the towns of St Vith, Malmedy and Bastogne. You can read about the battle at this site and you can visit the museum of the conflict at Bastogne. Anywhere you walk around the area you will see reminders of the terrible events. Many villages have a tank in the town square and there are memorials to individual soldiers or units scattered across the region.
More of the Same
If you have not had your fill of these activities in Belgium, you can see more of the Ardennes in Luxembourg or in France. The French Ardennes are particularly noted for their nuclear power station8 and their football teams. If you follow the Ardennes range eastwards, you get to the German Eiffel, which offer similar opportunities for outdoor pursuits.