With the borders still closed, Katrien and I found the perfect recipe for adventure close to home in Hiking Advisor’s Hoge Ardennenroute. Over the Easter weekend, we hiked the first section of the High Ardennes Route from Eupen to Trois-Ponts.
Fields, forests and fens
We start our trek in the charming town of Eupen, where we stock up on the necessary calories for three days in the woods. As always, Ostbelgien instantly gets me in the holiday mood, as I pick up snippets of conversation in German left and right.
Paved streets quickly make way for fields and forests that lead us close to the German border before turning south, even deeper into the Parc Naturel Hautes Fagnes-Eifel. After gradually climbing for a few hours, the woodlands open up to a vast plain with bogs and heathland. Boardwalks guide us through the fragile Brackvenn, where we feast our eyes on the wetland’s undeniable splendour.
As we dive into the woods again, it dawns on us that we did not pass a single house since Eupen this morning. Even in one of the world’s most densely populated countries, there is still a piece of wilderness to be found.
For dinner, we relish one of our classic trail dishes: a dense mush of vermicelli, sprinkled with instant tomato soup and parmesan. This brick to the stomach not only replenishes the calories we burnt today, it also provides us with the fuel we need to keep warm at night. The temperature is already dropping noticeably, creating the ideal conditions to test if my new sleeping bag will deliver on its promise to keep me ‘comfortable’ at 0° Celsius.
“Excuse me, is there something to see over there?”
With sleepy eyes, I wipe the fresh snow off my tent. For lack of caffeine, I rub a handful of snowflakes in my face, which instantly does the trick as well. We are grateful to slowly feel the blood circulate through our toes and fingertips again, as we make our way to the nearby stream.
Just as we have filtered and boiled our water, sleet decides to spoil our little tea party. To our great delight, however, the ‘modest clearance’ promised to us by the Royal Meteorological Institute quickly turns into a generous one.
Kilometres of boardwalks in various stages of decay await us, making our hike all the more adventurous. Though the river running through the valley is picturesque, my feet demand my full attention. As we trudge through puddles of mud, unsettling memories of sinking knee-deep into dirt not too far from here resurface.
Apart from one other hiking enthusiast, we do not meet another soul until we reach the final stretch, where the ever-increasing number of tourists allows us to gauge the distance to the nearest parking lot. The renovated boardwalks finally grant us the freedom to look up and take in the stunning scenery.
Our admiration for the vast bogland seems to be lost on the family approaching us, however: “Excuse me, is there something to see over there?” Wildly unimpressed with “just nature” for a response, they promptly make a U-turn and drag their feet back to the car.
The trail leads us past the Baraque Michel, at 672 metres the third highest point in Belgium. Though the restaurant is closed due to COVID-restrictions, the bakery alongside it fulfills our need for takeaway coffee. “Have some Easter eggs, girls,” the woman behind the counter offers, while already tending to the next customer. Don’t mind if we do.
Our tent sails dangling over the washing line behind the property are dry in a jiffy, so we quickly disappear into the glorious pine forests again. At dusk, we are greeted by a deer leaping silently past and are swayed by the wind rustling through the trees. A familiar pattern repeats itself: after two hours of shivering in my sleeping bag, my internal furnace suddenly jolts into action, allowing me to finally doze off as my limbs defrost.
In the morning, we descend to Malmédy, where we treat ourselves to an Easter brunch of pains au chocolat outside the bakery near the town square. A greenway then leads us out of town to the Rocher de Falize, an overhanging quartzite rock that offers a fantastic panorama over the valley.
As we hand our camera to another hiker to take our photo, his wife instantly transforms into a true director: “No, not from that angle. You should get more of the valley in the shot. Come stand here. No, another metre to the left. Yes, now hold the camera a bit higher.” He meekly obeys her orders. “That actually looks really nice,” she proudly concludes. “Would you mind taking our photo as well?” “Sure, we know exactly where to stand now,” Katrien winks. Even though the lady assures us that we have “toute liberté,” I make sure to follow her instructions to the letter.
All day long, the people we meet on the trail are unusually sociable for the typically more reserved Belgians. We indulge in the small talk and stop for conversation whenever the opportunity arises. Our most memorable chat is no doubt with a man living in a trailer under a bridge. “You were camping these past nights? Are you ladies trying to become soldiers?” he chuckles.
The jovial and good-humoured man’s knowledge of the region is unparalleled. While we listen to his stories, we cannot help but notice his big toe sticking out of his torn sock and the bottle caps he sewed onto his coat for buttons. As we part ways, Katrien hands him some biscuits from our stash, which he gratefully accepts.
We follow the river Warche all the way to Stavelot, where decorations for the town’s carnival – the Laetare des Blancs-Moussis – are still up. On the fourth Sunday of Lent, locals parade through the streets wearing white robes and long red noses. While the parade was cancelled for the second year in a row, the traditional masks dangling from the buildings and shops still create a festive atmosphere.
Though the forest is lovely as ever, our sore feet turn the remaining kilometres in quite the torment and an unexpectedly steep climb makes our glutes scream. After a final sprint, we make it to the platform right in time to pull out the stove before catching the 19:03 train from Trois-Ponts.
Our pumpkin flavoured pasta is al dente just as the train rolls into the station. Gathering our belongings in a rush, we hop on, abandoning a pair of hiking poles in the process. All in all, a small price to pay for three amazing days in the Ardennes.