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Summer staycation in Belgium: 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, for 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, the town boasts 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.
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.
Down the road is the ancient abbey of Orval, home to one of Belgium's famed Trappist beers. Visit the Cistercian ruins of the rural retreat and taste its home-grown cheese as well as fruity, but bitter brew.
For a panoramic view, head to the Giant's Tomb (pictured, above) overlooking a bend in the Semois river at Botassart (so called because the bend resembles a gigantic coffin. Descents of the Semois in kayaks are popular in summer and accessible to families (reservations recommended. Take your pick from 4km or 15km distances with canoe and paddleboard rentals also possible. A free shuttle bus will return you to your departure point. Alternatively, you can hike in the surrounding valleys. Another popular attraction, especially for kids, is the wildlife 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. Alternatively, sleep almost under the stars in luxury safari tents or lodges at Camping le Prahay.
Photos: Botassart (c) WBT JP Remy-Botassart