Land of the walloons

Where's Wallonia? Helen Werin discovers a land of forests, castles and valleys that's a lot easier to get to than you might think.

Only my brother, who once went out with a Walloon, knew that Wallonia is southern Belgium – the French-speaking part, not Flemish Flanders in the north. Our first stopover at the pretty riverside town of La Roche en Ardenne was in Luxembourg – the Belgian province not the Grand Duchy.

Almost all the tourist information was in Dutch. The road signs and names of businesses switched to German as we meandered across the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) from near Spa towards Lake Btgenbach. Buildings became Alpine chalet-like.

Confused? I was, especially when our satnav, on its first proper outing, went haywire thanks to all the trees. A third of this region is covered by them. They don't call this the "green lung of Belgium" for nothing.

We hadn't expected hills – endless hairpin bends snake up and down them. Nor to find the loveliest of limestone valleys with dramatic pinnacles of rock. Or, for that matter, to walk nearly two miles through a series of spectacular caverns at the Grottes de Han, over bridges across the underground river Lesse. A land of surprises? Certainly.

After a comfortable night on the P&O ferry from Hull we woke up in Zeebrugge and from there it was a couple of hours, mostly on motorways and fast roads, to our destination.

By late afternoon we were revelling in the best views over La Roche and the river Ourthe from the woods above the tiny 17th century chapel of St Marguerite. Looking down at its landmark castle, its ramparts swarming with tourists, it's hard to believe that this is a town which was almost totally destroyed in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

Higher still, easy paths led us up through dense woods and glades to fields of broom and young trees. Only the sound of laughing children echoing from the nearby wildlife park, Parc du Gibier, disturbed the peace.

From Marcourt, on the eastern banks of the Ourthe, we could have had our pick of walks, but got side-tracked by the fabulous early-evening outdoor food market with its myriad of cheeses, smoked pork and sausages and pats. A few miles further on lay Durbuy, thronging with tourists pulled in by its curious claim to fame as the smallest city in the world. Nearly 700 years ago, John I, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, elevated little Durbuy to the rank of city.

We left the cobblestoned streets lined with shops aimed at far higher spenders than us – think a diamond museum and a shop selling "diamond" collars and other expensive trinkets for dogs – for a trek up the hill to the jam factory, Confiturerie Saint Amour. Its jams, made from every kind of berry imaginable, were as luscious as its name.

It was just as well we walked so much. Temptations like this lurked on every corner, from boucheries offering wild boar and venison, to artisan chocolatiers and patisseries with displays like works of art. And that's not to mention being spoilt for choice with beers. This is a country where there were once more breweries than churches.

British tourists were a rarity. The only others we came across were an Irish family waiting in the queues at the Grottes de Han, where 800 people were already inside marvelling at the wonders of nature.

It was the Lesse that was also to transport us on a 10-mile kayak journey which, when we reached our first weir, came rather too alarmingly close to being on a Big Dipper ride. Thankfully, my husband had learned, as a Boy Scout, the basics of how not to capsize, so what a thrill to make a safe splash-down. After the second, and even trickier, weir we were at last able to go with the gentle flow, past tiny beaches where fellow kayakers were stopping for picnics and beneath immense limestone cliffs on which perches the nine centuries old Chteau de Walzin. The province of Namur, in which the Grottes de Han and Dinant lie, is called the Pays des Valles (Land of the Valleys). It was a rather more unusual mode of transport that was to take us along the peaceful Moligne Valley. I'd been fascinated with gliding along an old railway track under my own steam, so to speak, since watching cowboy films as a kid and those handcars that had to be pumped to get them going. But this was a railbike, with padded saddles and a deckchair-like seat for the passengers and no "Injuns" to escape from, only the sturdier-legged Germans in the bike behind swiftly catching up.

We set off in a timetabled convoy of about 15 bikes. It was easy riding, the only other traffic being the string of pedal cyclists along the path beside us. Coming back was the most fun as it was all downhill. We practically flew down the track.

Back at Dinant, we had just about enough energy left to attack the 400

or so steps up to the impressive 11th century citadel, one of a series of ancient fortifications along the valley of the Meuse.

However, faced with what claims to be the world's shortest and steepest cable car ride up the dramatic cliff face at no extra charge, there was no contest.

From 328 feet up we could see cars appearing to squeeze through the gap between the cliff and the 130 feet needle-like rock of La Roche Bayard. On the river, tourist boats sailed up to Namur, the Walloon capital, which boasts an even bigger citadel.

Dinant's citadel has a chequered history – built by the Bishop of Lige, seized by the French king Louis XIV and then restored to the Kingdom of Holland. It was rebuilt around 1818 and taken by partisans at the foundation of Belgium. In 1914 and 1940, the citadel was occupied by German troops.

The biggest surprise to me is why, when it's so simple to get here and when prices are much the same as they are at home, more of them today aren't British.

Getting there and staying there

www.belgiumtheplaceto.be

www.wallonie-tourisme.be

Railbiking in Falaen. www.molignee.be/draisines/draisines_gb.htm

Grottes de Han, Han-sur-Lesse. www.grotte-de-han.be

Hull-Zeebrugge crossing for a car with up to four passengers, including a standard cabin, start from 164 each way. Call 08716 64 64 64 or visit www.poferries.com

Helen stayed on the following campsites: Camping le Vieux Moulin,

La Roche en Ardenne. www. strument.com

Camping Spa d'Or, Sart lez Spa. www.campingspador.be

Camping Villatoile, Anseremme, near Dinant. www.villatoile.be

WHAT ELSE TO SEE

The massive Collegiate Church of Our Lady dwarfs the rest of Dinant. With its onion-shaped dome, it has one of the most beautiful and biggest stained glass windows in Europe depicting biblical scenes.

Les Jardins d'Annevoie are tranquil gardens famed for their fountains, all fed by gravity via a series of underground channels. www.annevoie.be

Parc des Topiaires, Durbuy, claims to be the world's largest topiary garden, with over 100 easily-recognised creations, including an amusing likeness of a reclining "Pamela Anderson" and an "elephant" which is more than a century old. www.topiairesdurbuy.be

The Hautes Fagnes are the highest point in Belgium at 2,277 feet. At Fagne de Malchamps, near Spa, take graded walking routes along boardwalks over marshy fens and climb the massive twin-laddered observation tower at Domaine de Brinzenne.

YP MAG 11/9/10