Looking for a relaxing and well-earned short break this winter? If so, why not discover the many charms of the Belgian Ardennes, an area sometimes overlooked by many as they head to the Alps for skiing or south for much-needed warmth. The area stretches to the South and East of Wallonia and really is a paradise for nature lovers. Plus, in winter, you may get lucky and see the area at, arguably, its best: layered with a coating of snow.
Irrespective of the weather, you are sure to have a memorable and very pleasant time as this is an area of Belgium that has a bit of everything, ranging from beers and breweries to great winter sports, beautiful walks, mountain biking and even barefoot walking.
But this being winter and the Ardennes, it seems apt, particularly at this time of the year, to start with a spot of history and the region’s well-known place in the annals of the Second World War. The Battle of the Bulge, also known as the Ardennes Offensive, was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II. The final days of the battle took place in January 1945.
The Museum of the Battle of the Ardennes tells the story of the battle and liberation of La Roche and nearby villages on the left bank of the Ourthe River. But there are reminders of that history-changing event (next year is its 80th anniversary) everywhere in the region, including at Houffalize.
Nestling in the narrow valley of the Ourthe River, Houffalize was a strategic stopping-point on the major highway from Bastogne to Liège. In order to destroy the strategic crossroads that Houffalize represented to German troops, the American commander had the town bombed several times. The bodies of some 189 civilian victims were pulled from the ruins. A memorial dedicated to the civilian victims of the town, which received the ‘Croix de Guerre’ with bar for exceptional courage during the bombing and the fighting for the liberation, still stands.
In the village centre there is a Panther tank which was part of the German 116th Panzer Division, nicknamed “Windhund” in WW2. During the fighting near Houffalize, in December 1944, the tank fell in the Ourthe, killing the crew. Years later, the Belgian army pulled the tank out of the river and only then were the crew members able to be buried.
The region is surprisingly easy to reach – approximately 160 km from Brussels – and really does deserve and merit an overnight stay (preferably more). One great spot for a layover is “Le Refuge” in Achouffe, a small Wallonia hamlet/village in the municipality of Houffalize. Achouffe is best known for the brewery located at its heart and Le Refuge makes for a very good base for exploring both this, the area and wider region.
The ultra-peaceful setting, ideal for nature lovers, affords a chance to recharge your batteries in what is a completely and newly renovated gîte with all home comforts and mod cons. The environmentally conscious owners (who also own another gîte at Hardigny, near Bastogne) have a love for all things wood and this is highlighted here.
Each room is given a delightful personal touch, ranging from (in the bedrooms) wood sourced from boxes used to grow mushrooms to wood from dismantled old mountain huts and barns in Hautre Savoire, in the French Alps.
You can maybe enjoy a Chouffe, that famous, locally brewed beer, in front of a blazing pellet fire, relax on the terrace, which is surrounded by a large, fenced garden, or simply wander off for a beautiful walk in this homely hamlet (a recommended one starts opposite the café and trout lake). The immediate locality boasts many hiking and Nordic walking trails, excellent mountain biking and other activities such as trout fishing.
Nicely situated in the heart of what is charmingly called the “Valley of the Fairies”, Le Refuge, is available for up to 8 people, provides quality accommodation and genuine peace and warmth in order to completely relax, whatever time of year you visit.
The fully self-contained and comfortable accommodation has a beautiful view of the brewery and is just a few kilometres from Baraque de Fraiture and the Les Tailles nature reserve with its beautiful Sacrawé promenade, as well as the historic town of Bastogne (where you’ll find fascinating WW2 history).
The owners deserve great credit for the quality, care and craftsmanship involved in fully restoring a property that had been untouched since the 1990s. Dorothee Flament and her husband John bought the place in July 2022 and started the renovation in September of the same year. Both work so spent every weekend doing all the refurbishment work themselves. Finally completed in February, it was first rented later that month. Many of the materials used in the restoration work are recycled.
Dorothee and John also deserve praise for the warmth and friendliness with which they greet guests, which extends to a fulsome welcome pack for all visitors, consisting of fresh apple cake, bread, pasta and sparkling wine.
The “motive/emblem” they chose for Le Refuge – a wolf – is a nod to the fact that wolves are apparently coming back in this region (it’s also a change from images of the Chouffe gnomes you see everywhere here).
3. Things to do
Despite the abundance of gnomes, you probably should not leave without sampling the local “star”: Chouffe. The first brew was produced on August 27, 1982, and, today, the local plant here still produces some two thirds of all brand production. There are tours of the brewery lasting 90 minutes.
The nearby Hérou national park is a splendid and mysterious site which features particularly steep rocks and little nuggets in terms of hiking trails. Visited by Victor Hugo in 1862, the site was classified in 1937 and, because of its unique landscape,recognized as an “exceptional natural and unusual heritage of Wallonia”. There are fine views from Le Hérou and neighbouring trails over the Ourthe.
Nearby is “Houtopia”, a recreational and educational centre dedicated to the discovery of the senses and in Gouvy is another nod to the area’s brewing traditions, this time a brewery producing Lupulus beer. The brewery is in fact built within the walls of a magnificent 19th century farm.
If museums are your thing, then at Bizory, near Bastogne is “Animalaine”, a wool museum and animal park with many different species of animals. At the museum, you can observe the various stages of wool working both today and at the beginning of the 20th century.
The Haute Ardenne offers you the highest peaks in the Belgian province of Luxembourg and is home to the 2nd ski area after the Hautes Fagnes. Here you will find three alpine ski slopes, almost 100 km of cross-country ski trails and 3 walking trails. But beware: snow is rare here – just three weeks per year on average.
If you get a chance, check out the dam lake at Nisramont, which is good for kayaking, boating, fishing and a 14 km walking trail.
If that little lot was not enough the area has yet another surprise in place: a 3 km-long walk… by barefoot. This is at La Ferme de la Planche and, as surprising as it is, the concept and poly sensory experience may well make you discover nature differently. In fact, that goes for this whole part of the Belgian Ardennes. Here you really do see nature at its best (and, at times, rawest) so why not make the most of it while you can. After all, it is hard to resist somewhere the locals charmingly call the “Land of the Fairies.”