The test of a good short break is when you are already planning to go back again before you have even made it home.
That was certainly the case last weekend when we followed a Belgian trend by renting a holiday apartment in the Ardennes for a long weekend. We stayed near the village of Robertville, tucked in the hilly wooded countryside close to the German border. This is Belgium’s hilly bit, close to the highest point in the country and typical of the region loosely referred to as the Ardennes which sprawls over the south eastern third of Belgium, parts of Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands and northern France. In fact choosing where to go was probably the hardest part of the trip, it was only when I got out the maps and started looking at accommodation web sites that I realised just how widely the term Ardennes could be used. We had visited the western edge of the region for cycling and day trips which are easy from the centre of Belgium but we thought for a weekend break we should push a little deeper into the high country. Robertville was almost chosen by sticking a random pin in the map, but the apartment looked nice and it seemed to offer a good choice of landscapes and points of interest.
The trade-off for having hilly landscapes and lovely scenery was always going to be weather risk. Normally when reading the Belgian weather forecast the Ardennes is the bit we look at and think “glad I’m not there” because the combination of being hilly and some distance from the temperate effects of the coast means it always seems to be having worse rain, sleet, snow or fog than anywhere else. (British readers – think Scotland!)
The area around Robertville delivered completely, including the first real wet and windy weather of our autumn.
But for us braving the weather and the landscape are an integral part of our off season weekend breaks, traveling to a rural spot where we can walk and cycle during the day and huddle up with a log fire when the weather is bad. Having a sheep dog helps adapt your mindset too, there is no doubt that the border collie was bred for cold, wet and muddy hillsides because our old feller seemed to shed years when he got to the high country, he was almost puppyish when presented with a mountain stream to splash in.
The apartment was comfortable and well-appointed with a big widow overlooking the lake of Robertville, created by the dam that provides water reserves and hydro-power to neighbouring cities. The terrace was inviting but remained unused in the blustery weather!
Robertville itself was a cute village with the dark stone houses that are typical of the area, rural but not without the essential comforts of a café and a choice of two boulangeries for the morning croissants.
However the star of the show was the landscape. Below the dam was one of many steep sided valleys that were covered with a hugely impressive network of trails, paths, bridges and fords, many of them apparently maintained by volunteers.
Of course it was muddy and dirty and wet and sometimes gloomy. But that is the point, the moss covered trees and the tumbling streams were a delight made possible by the moist environment.
The late season date meant that we were almost alone, a few day visitors appeared on the Sunday but the other days it was deserted.
The nearby Chateau of Reinhardstein is a 19th century restoration of an earlier castle with a wonderful setting out on a promontory above the steep sided gorge created by the river Warche. Wherever we walked or cycled the castle seemed to appear in the distance. There was a real touch of Lord of the Rings about the distant battlements above the valley.
To our north we also had the option of walking a very different landscape. Belgium’s Haut Fagnes (High Fens) are a desolate open plateau of high peat bogs, offering an unusual and important protected environment for wildlife and biodiversity.
Much of it is off limits except for officially guided groups which protects the soil and avoids travellers getting lost and stranded when the thick fogs roll in. Other areas use boardwalks to enable visitors to get out into the fens with damaging themselves or the delicate surfaces.
We chose probably the best weather of our weekend to walk from Signal de Botronge, the former weather station that marks the highest point in Belgium, (674 metres).
We were able to take one of numerous circular trails that worked around the fringes of the sensitive sites but gave a real flavour of the fens, not least when the cloud cover started rolled in and the visibility started to drop sharply.
The character of these Ardennes landscapes was such that our trip home was full of discussion about where we could walk and ride next time and what it would be like at different seasons of the year. It was so easy to arrange and get to from Brussels that now we know exactly why the Ardennes break is so popular with the rest of Belgium. We will be back!
(Apartment booked through Ardennes Etape)