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Summer city trips in Belgium #17: Bouillon
Deep in the Ardennes, close to the French border, lies Bouillon, an ancient town in a forested valley prized for its hilltop castle soaring over a serpentine river. It’s easily walkable, if sometimes steep, on a day trip. And there’s plenty more to explore in the surrounding area for a longer stay. Known as the pearl of the Semois valley, this frontier town boasts a French influence in its architecture and there’s a suitably Gallic laid-back atmosphere, with cafes and restaurants serving Ardennes staples from local farms, forests and river. For an appreciation of not only the character of Bouillon but Belgium itself, read Patrick McGuinness’s award-winning memoir, Other People’s Countries. The Oxford University professor spent childhood holidays in his Belgian mother’s home town, where he still has a home. Accompanied by illustrations and old family photos, this is a personal and loving portrait of Bouillon and its colourful characters.
The fortress of Bouillon is a fairy-tale castle hewn from a rocky precipice in a bend on the Semois. Step back into the Middle Ages and experience a masterpiece of medieval military architecture. The finest example of Belgium’s feudal system, dating back to the eighth century, it became famous in the 11th century when Duke Godfrey of Bouillon joined the first crusade and became the first ruler of Jerusalem. He mortgaged it to raise funds for his crusade, handing it to the Prince-Bishops of Liège, who retained control for the next 600 years until the French took it over. It did at least benefit from improvements by 17th-century French military engineer Vauban, including bridges, ditches, drawbridges, towers and gun turrets, which all add to the atmosphere. Tours include the dungeons and torture chamber. The Austrian tower (1551) provides the best vantage point and there are falconry displays and other events during the year.
The Semois river is wider and wilder – in terms of flora and fauna – than other Ardennes rivers. Descents of the Semois are popular in summer and are accessible to families. Take your pick from canoe, kayak or paddle board and 4km or 15km distances. A free shuttle bus will return you to your departure point. Alternatively, you can hike in the surrounding valleys. There are also adventure courses, trails, guided climbing routes and archery, as well as farms and an animal park in nearby Rochehaut, accessible by tourist train.
Eat & sleep
For a night in the historic heart of the town, climb up to four-star Hotel Panorama with its restaurant, panoramic terrace and wellness centre. Across the river, Hotel de la Poste is central and has a stylish terrace. A local culinary speciality is fresh river trout.