The Belgian Ardennes is a densely forested area of hills and valleys where rivers flow and meander green and wide. Part of the Eifel mountain range and once considered impenetrable, much of the region was ‘undefended’ for parts of both World Wars, but became home to underground resistance groups and saw vicious reprisals. Today, as well as history buffs, walkers, campers, cyclists, fishers, swimmers and kayakers can all find joy in nature here.
Many Belgian towns have tourist offices well stocked with maps and local guides. Apps like Wikiloc and Gaia offer online mapping for routes similar to those here but please beware relying on a mobile phone for hiking. I can also highly recommend Jeff Williams’ Cicerone guide entitled Walking in the Ardennes, thanks to whom I first discovered some of these trails. Remember to be aware of weather forecasts and recent rain when considering river walks.
1. Esneux – Roche aux Faucons – Ham, 12.5km
Spectacular river meander views and a visit to a protected hamlet.
A great walk to reach by train. Start out at the Rue de Féchereux car park, near Esneux station and Hony hamlet. Follow the paved road along the banks of the Ourthe river to Fêchereux and look for a forest path leading steeply uphill at number 12. Take a deep breath and maybe stretch a bit for the short but intense climb – more than 100m.
Fork left at a Y-junction. Once at the top, turn left and follow the narrow path as it rises and falls again. It leads to the ridge of the wonderfully named Roche aux Faucons, or Falcon Rock. The view from here is truly breathtaking, with the Ourthe coursing far below.
Keep following the path until you reach a fence. Walk right around it and stay on the path. At an intersection with a villa on the right, take the left-hand path. Here begins a long descent through the forest back to the Ourthe, ending at an impressive 17th century farm.
Via a narrow path to the right, the walk shadows the Ourthe in the direction of Esneux. Arriving at the main road, take a left into Esneux. While you’re on the main road, notice the old Belgian cottage-style houses and look up to see Esneux’s restored castle.
Follow the paved road parallel to the Ourthe. Leaving the buildings behind, pass a small water treatment plant . A little further, after an information sign, take a path on the right. Now starts a long, slow climb. You’ll be rewarded by reaching the picturesque limestone cottages of Ham, an ancient Belgian village protected since 1991.
In Ham the road immediately veers left and after a few hundred metres, you’ll arrive at a crossroads. Make the choice yourself to turn left (fifteen minutes longer, but more interesting) or right. Both routes take you back to the Ourthe. From there head right to return to your starting point.
2. Vresse-sur-Semois, 14.5km
Starting and ending in Vresse-sur-Semois, this walk takes in Maquis territory. Visit a camp where the Group D guerrilla resistance fighters hid during the war. Feel the tranquillity of tiny Chapelle du Flachis, dedicated to the Group D members shot in revenge by German occupiers. The walk climbs to stunning viewpoints over the meanders of the Semois river and has a fantastic surprise near the end.
An abrupt start with a steep ascent of Vresse’s rue de la Chapelle takes you into the forest (so again, be sure to stretch and limber up before you begin!). Head straight onto an unmetalled track and, tight bends notwithstanding, maintain a northerly direction up into the woods. Look for the climb flattening by a field corner. Turn right and pass over a knoll to a sign, where a left turn and sharp descent will lead you to the Camp of Blaireaux (Badger Camp), a resistance stronghold never discovered by the Germans.
After exploring the vestiges, descend to a track and waypoint where the camp is signposted. Head north again by turning left, then fork left, then turn right at a T junction. Pass a farm.
Take the right-hand track after the farm to a corner of a wood. A left turn brings you along a lovely lane with valley and village views. Keep on straight, ignoring other paths and tracks. You’ll join a road on a northwest bearing and the Chapelle du Flachis is not far up on the right.
Shortly beyond the chapel (around 150m) turn left. Begin to turn west then south through evergreen woods, passing farm buildings. At Conrade village, where the Nazis burned four farms, turn left to a junction and left again looking for a right-hand path next to open country that will take you into the trees again. Fork left at the next junction, down to a stream and up again towards Membre. Keep the church on your right and Membre bridge is ahead.
Membre is a delightful meander village, with refreshments on the riverbanks. When you’re sated (unless you’re saving your packed lunch until the forthcoming viewpoint), cross the bridge and after a house, take a left up the hill into the woods. By ‘hill’ I mean a 325m schlep up to the viewing tower on the Roche à Salou. Believe me, it’s worth it.
When you’ve recovered, eaten maybe, and taken in the vistas, fork right from the top and onto a path split seven ways (Les 7 Chemins). You need to keep straight on, a sharp drop on your left. Shortly a road will round a corner and you’ll want to take a left-hand path to go past a hotel into Laforet village. Keep the church on your left. You won’t be able to bathe your feet in the disused washhouses, but the road will curl to the right where a track takes you to the river – and a 30m woven bridge across the Semois!
Called the Pont de Claies, this surprising bridge lays low over the water and has no rail. It’s woven from hornbeam and is a remnant of the days when tobacco growers needed access across the river. It’s quite an experience.
Turn left on the opposite bank and head northwest again, the river on your left, back to Vresse. Watch out for another picturesque bridge, the Pont Saint Lambert, built in 1774. It’s deliberately too narrow for carriages, supposedly to prevent Sainte Agathe from coming to Vresse and influencing Saint Lambert’s converts.
3. Redu and the European Space Agency, 6km
Redu is a literary village, twinned with the UK’s Hay-on-Wye. It boasts over 2km of bookshelves for readers to enjoy and hosts a yearly book festival around Easter. (As I found out accidentally, the whole village closes to traffic for the occasion, so depending on the timing of your visit, plan ahead). And while some have their heads in a book, just across the hills the European Space Agency’s vast satellite dishes point skywards.
Start at Redu’s church and head down the Rue de Transinne past the tourist office. Reaching a cross, turn right out of the village on a path across a field. Keep straight on, heading south now through pine forest. Be aware that the track is rough in places. Waymarkers for the walk are white and red striped.
At the bottom of the hill, you’ll meet the banks of the Lesse. Turn right, ignoring the bridge to walk along the banks of the river until Lesse village. A riverside picnic area awaits if you’re hungry.
Take the left-hand path towards Roche aux Chevaux. According to a macabre and upsetting legend, old horses would be backed off the top of this rock until they fell into the void. In fact, historians insist only dead animals would be thrown from the rock. Either way, it’s enough to give you the shivers.
A path on the left takes you to a viewpoint. The glimpses of the Space Centre seen on the walk, huge white spaceward infrastructure nestled on the hillside are otherworldly. Keep going, heading north, the path switchbacking around bends. Eventually you’ll reach the entrance to the Space Centre, operational since 1968, and former control centre for the ARTEMIS programme. (By the way, their website has a well-developed educational section for kids to use during home-learning).
From the entrance, turn right for the route back to Redu.
4. Anseremme, 8.5km
Anseremme, at the confluence of two important Belgian rivers, the Lesse and the Meuse, provides a chance to get up close and personal with river management infrastructure as well as feast on views across the water to the Chateau de Freyr with its Le Notre style formal gardens and 300-year-old orangeries. You’ll also meet the imposing limestone formation beloved of rock climbers that is the Roches de Freyr.
Start in Place Baudouin, where a path heads to the Meuse and under the railway. Head west, keeping the wide pleasure-oriented banks of the Meuse on your right. You’ll pass bourgeois villas, a priory, the marina, and tennis courts. Keep on the path towards a road. Turn right on a path next to the river. Before long the Chateau de Freyr can be seen on the other side.
The path leads to the foot of the Roches. Take a left fork, ascending steeply. You’ll pop out, breathless, 100m above where you were, at a cafe on the N95. Head briefly south on the road, before a left into a lane. You’ll pass a fortified farmhouse and along a ‘tree tunnel’ to the valley floor where a left turn brings you to a bridge in 400m. Ignore the bridge and go left to find a path along the Lesse valley floor back to Anseremme.
5. Herbeumont, 19km
An 11th century castle, a viaduct and one of the most iconic Ardennes sights, the Tombeau du Chevalier, make this challenging walk more than worthwhile.
Park in Herbeumont Chateau car park if needed. The castle ruins are free to visit. Head out on a path from the back of the car park, descending through woods to a road where you need to hairpin right and carry on down to the river. Keep the river on your left. You’ll see the official bathing and diving areas. Take concrete steps and join the road briefly. Pass a road to the right and take a trail right beyond it. You’ll pass under the old railway into a lane.
The lane will swing left and be steep. Pass the last house and a shrine and bear west, before dropping again to a junction, where you need to turn right. After 100m, join an old cart track bearing left across hillside.
A GR route leading left to Mortehan village is next. Over the bridge and take a left-hand lane past housing to a trail. Keep on the trail, cross a trickle of a stream, bracing for an immediate right up a steep path, with higher ground on the right. Pass through a deer gate and cross the valley head to keep heading in the same direction until a right-angle turn to the right, taking you along a fence.
Drop down sharply to a rough path, turn right or west, uphill again. After a gate and a better section of track, turn right to find the tarred road. Stay on the road, southwards for 2km before forking left and bearing left. When you hit a right-hand bend, find the less obvious ‘not GR’ of the tracks to head into the trees (it goes almost alongside the road at first, NOT a right-angle). After 250m you’ll cross over another track straight onto a broader trail. Another 250m and you’ll be heading right with a valley on the left. You’ll ascend to a viewpoint with magnificent views over the Tombeau du Chevalier – one of the Semois’s famous oxbow ‘islands’ that resembles a knight’s resting place.
After savouring this highlight, head east on the obvious GR-trail, downhill to a re-entrant and rising again to another belvedere. 200m on, fork left onward downhill to a T-junction. Left to another T-junction. Left again and you’ll see Herbeumont below. Keep heading down, past a shelter, taking the precipitous GR right to the main road. Turn right and next right again onto a small road, then left onto the old railway embankment. Double back northwards onto the viaduct and head just over a kilometre back to the start.
6. Hautes Fagnes, 8km
This is an easy intro to the Hautes Fagnes or ‘High Fens’, a National Nature Reserve created in 1957. Belgium’s highest point, the Signal de Bottrange is nearby. Work is ongoing to preserve and reinstate peat bogs, moors, and grasslands. Visitors should stick to paths and raised walkways.
Start at Baraque Michel chapel, near the village of Herbiester and follow the green rectangle trail southwest on boardwalk. You’ll pass boggy places and go through more open woodland. Stop for a moment after about 2km at the Croix des Fiancés. Ponder the tragic fate of engaged lovers Francois and Marie-Josephe, who ignored warnings in January 1871 and died trying to cross the fens in the snow.
Turn left, still on the path and at a road descend to the Pont de Beleu bridge. Turn left after the bridge to join an educational walk with information boards across the Fagne de la Polleur, leading left. Don’t forget to quit the trail, choosing a lefthand path at the end of the boards and signage near Baraque Michel, unless you want to do another gorgeous loop of the Fagnes.