Belgium's glory

The Ardennes are one of Europe's most underestimated regions for cycletouring. PETER COX went exploring.

Belgium is strangely overlooked when it comes to most people's cycletouring plans. The jewel of Belgian cycling, responsible for the legendary quality of Belgian professional racing cyclists, is the Ardennes region. Not confined to Belgium alone, the Ardennes stretch from France in the west through to northern Luxembourg and the German border where they merge with the Eifel Mountains.

My own travels in the Ardennes have focused on the border regions, those strange nether-lands where one winds between national boundaries, through some of the most beautiful landscapes to be found anywhere. The deep clefts of the river valleys which cut across the Ardennes are not spectacular in the way of more mountainous areas, but they impart a serenity and peace, and a slowness of pace which emphasises the stillness.

Chimay is a major tourist centre in the western Ardennes, home to the strong and fortifying beer, and a lesser known but just as worthy cheese. VTT ('Mountain Bike') trails around the area are mapped out for those who want to explore off-road, but we headed east, with a brief detour into France for the spectacular winding valleys of the Meuse and Semois. Here the tight meanders of the rivers as they carve their way through the rocky landscape drag the roads alongside them. Definitely not the shortest way from A to B, but gentle and still with noise swallowed by the dark of the hillside forests. Barges and pleasure boats are the only disturbers of the smooth water in the wider, navigable valleys.

Further on the valleys narrow and the rivers tumble over rocks and flats, tempting tired feet to paddle and rest awhile. One morning I awoke early to find the whole valley shrouded in thick mist which cleared as the sun peered over the surrounding hills. The only other human being was one elderly man fly-fishing in the middle of the river, an idyllic and unforgettable scene.

Eventually the roads take you to the uplands. Here is another world - wide, level expanses of pasture, orchard and arable land, with occasional scattered farmsteads and villages, giving panoramas of the country around. At Orval, the modern monastic community stands beside the ruins of the Mediaeval Abbey, together with the grandiose cellars which are all that remains of the 18th century plans for a building that would have rivaled Versailles in its grandeur: a testament to faith and folly. Today the monastic community sells bread, beer and cheese to the traveller, proudly proclaiming its home-made status. The 'artisanale' status of workshops throughout the more isolated villages of the whole of this area is proudly proclaimed whether they be making furniture or fermenting wine.

Our continued touring returned us to the Ardennes at the eastern boundary. Having ridden up all the way from Strasbourg on the excellent cycleways along river and canal banks as far as Trier, we turned north to follow upriver the course of the Sauer which forms the German-Luxembourg border and marks the separation between Ardennes and Eifel. Eventually the valley becomes too narrow to contain both river and road and so another steep ascent brought us once again into the Luxembourg Ardennes proper. Clervaux sits in the cradle of a river junction, surrounded on all sides by steep, forested hillsides and overlooked by a large monastery. Here the monks carry on their daily pattern of life heedless of the many tourists who trek up to see them. You are welcome to visit, but you must not expect concessions: they have a life of prayer to lead and this they will do. This uncompromised attitude seems to sum up the landscape, where the distinctive nature of the terrain dictates your activity and your travel.

The importance of the bridge in all of these valley towns and villages is paramount. Each settlement sits at a crossing point or confluence on a river. Most also bear the scars of conflict, with buildings still pockmarked by gunfire and shrapnel. Around Bastogne a number of military museums and memorials mark the legacy of the 'Battle of the Bulge' conflict of 50 years ago. Leaving the Ardennes northwards it seems like the whole of Belgium is spread out beneath you. Again following the rivers, there are miles of freewheeling and gentle cruising as you descend back down to sea level.

It is a strange place, full of contrast. No breathtaking spectacle, but an insistent stillness which makes you stop and think. The Ardennes whisper their charms.

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