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Rural retreat: Escape the crowds and head to a hideaway in Wallonia’s spectacular countryside
This winter, what could be more appealing than running away for a few days or more to an idyllic spot in the south of Belgium? For a slice of country life – whatever the weather – Gîtes et Chambres d’hôtes de Wallonie offers a selection of more than 900 homes to rent all year round.
With its portfolio of cottages, B&Bs, cosy cabins and quirky retreats, the site will help you find the perfect base for frosty rambles through rolling hills, river valleys, leaf-strewn woodlands or wild forests. With travel abroad remaining largely off-limits, many Belgians are exploring life in the slow lane and opting for a back-to-nature break.
“It’s possible to get away close to home and discover or rediscover the country,” says Khevyn Torres, spokesperson for the site. “We always think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence and that we know our own region, but we’re often less familiar with it than some tourists from abroad.”
The welcome provided by owners and the personal tips they pass on are among the major selling points for the accommodation platform, he says. “They serve as ambassadors for the region and share many off-the-beaten path local addresses and highlights.”
While restrictions on the number of guests – a family bubble plus one other close contact – have meant some owners of large self-catering properties have had to cancel reservations, the sector has otherwise reported good business in 2020. Guests can also be reassured by the Covid safety measures in place.
“We guarantee the safety protocols; there’s no contact with other people,” Torres says. Set up as an association in 1989, its website was modernised before the arrival of the pandemic. Proposing accommodation according to categories and classifications of comfort, it also facilitates the search by suggesting themed stays.
These include wellness, ecological, child- and pet-friendly, waterside, farm and woodland stays, as well as fishing and cycling destinations. Rural homes dominate the offer, but there are some more urban addresses, principally in cities with a tradition of tourism, like Liège, Namur, Mons or Tournai, plus picturesque towns and villages such as Durbuy and Rochefort. While some people may be looking for a digital detox, the site’s latest theme – reflecting the unexpected 2020 trend – is places for homeworking that remain definitely on-grid.
One of the biggest draws to the site is that visitors can be confident of the quality and high standards of each property and inspections by expert teams. Property owners are subject to strict selection criteria, explains Torres.
These include authorisation from Wallonia’s tourism commission, receiving site visits to obtain a classification – ranging from basic to exceptional comfort – agreeing to welcome guests in person and signing up to a charter. “No properties can be part of our quality label and be promoted by our network without meeting these conditions,” he says.
Since the site’s latest makeover, owners have also been given a higher profile to personalise each property, “showing how the people behind them have a story”. The emergence of unregulated sites such as Airbnb has brought competition. Torres: “Not all the accommodation on those platforms are in order, particularly in terms of fire safety, and they do not pay taxes or declare rental income.” But on the upside, "we attract a different audience and we offer a quality experience that comes with a price,” he says.
This article first appeared in WAB (Wallonia and Brussels) magazine