Hiking across the Ardennes: From Trois-Ponts to Grupont on the Hoge Ardennenroute
A week and a half after completing the first section of the Hoge Ardennenroute, Katrien and I continue on our way south on the 278-kilometre long trail. A few lefts and rights from Trois-Ponts’ train station lead us straight into the forest, where the crisp air and tiny snowflakes wash away society’s stresses and welcome us back for another adventure.
Disney to reality
We follow the ridgeline overlooking the valley and then descend to Lierneux, where we treat ourselves to instant coffee and biscuits on the town hall’s steps. In these biting temperatures, sitting still for too long is not an option, so we hastily hike on. The patches of snow grow deeper and deeper until the temperature drops to -6° Celsius at night.
In the morning, a furry fox shyly greets us before disappearing into the woods. In the afternoon, five deer leap out of the bushes right in front of us. We stand transfixed, as they run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around. Run, stop, look around.
Crossing paths with more animals than humans in a day still awakens my inner Disney princess. Unfortunately, the fairy-tale is short-lived, as the shooting pain in my right knee serves this city girl a bitter dose of reality. When I can no longer hide my limp, we decide to leave the trail early. Biting through the pain, I hobble another six kilometres to catch a bus in Dinez.
Admitting that I am not okay does not come easy to me. While hitting the pause button to tend to my body is no doubt the wiser choice, feelings of defeat creep up. I tend to shrug off successes with remarkable ease, but when not reaching a goal I set, I am my own worst critic.
Luckily, the trail always provides. And this time quite literally so, as I suddenly spot a five euro note right by my feet. “Looks like the trail is buying us coffee!” I exclaim. “Or maybe even a Chouffe next time!”
Gnomes and rivers
Ding! The bell resounds through the bus, as we approach the stop where we left off. With a lighter pack and a rested knee, we are ready to hit the trail again with our newest hiking buddy Erik tagging along. Last month’s cold front has even made way for an abundance of sunshine.
We cross Dinez and head back into the forest. The Martin-Moulin brook leads us straight to Achouffe, where a giant red hat points to the brewery, famous for its family of gnomes representing the different beers. After months of corona-induced deprivation, we cannot resist the appeal of the Brasserie’s recently reopened terrace.
From Achouffe, we follow the brook until it flows into the Eastern Ourthe. A narrow trail curves along the steep slopes, testing our endurance while rewarding us with stunning views over the valley. Where the Eastern and Western Ourthe meet in the Parc naturel des deux Ourthes by the Nisramont dam, the forested hills make it hard to believe we are still in Belgium.
A row of yellow-flowered broom shrubs then leads us up to the majestic rock formations of le Hérou. Blessed with long summer days, there is no rush and arriving late in the day means we get this phenomenal viewpoint all to ourselves.
The rock in the Ardennes
We follow the Ourthe further in the morning, as it winds around a peninsula-slash-beaver-paradise. A steep hill then takes us to Le Cheslé, one of Belgium's largest Celtic fortresses. Legend goes that the treasure hidden in its central well resurfaces every Christmas at midnight. To seize it, you are to throw a black chicken into the abyss and take the treasure without saying a word.
After walking up a shallow stream, we reach open fields again, overlooking the rolling hills, farmlands and villages around. An airplane propeller resting on a stack of rocks commemorates the crash of the B-17 bomber The Joker after it attacked a German ball bearing factory in 1944. Our lunch break by the World War ll monument quickly turns into a nap.
Coffee and ice cream in the hamlet of Borzée wake us up from our beauty sleep and give us the energy to carry on to La Roche-en-Ardenne. Entering the town from atop the famous rock, we descend past the castle to the shopping street, where the scent of tourists’ laundry detergents and perfumes pervades the air. A likely indicator of our own odour.
The bustling square and town food are tempting, but we do not linger. We still have a hill to climb. As we ascend further and further into the forest, the evening glow radiating through the trees slowly turns the world bright orange.
“Is anyone still navigating?”
When I open my eyes, I notice that I am not the only one sheltering in my tent. A small army of slugs has moved in overnight, claiming the space between the inner and outer sail as their own. First order of the day: serving them an eviction notice.
The tall grass treats us to a morning dew foot bath, after which wider paths lead us to the town of Cens. Won over by the promise of artisanal ice cream, we happily waste an hour or two on the benches in front of the Biofarm.
The further we follow the river out of the town, the denser the vegetation gets. “Is anyone still navigating?” Erik wonders, as we bushwhack our way through. Blood-thirsty ticks attack our calves, but we successfully fight back with a pair of tweezers.
In Lavacherie, we leave the fields behind and dive into vast forests again. When evening falls, we reach the observation tower La Billaude, where a couple in their late fifties has their eyes glued to the pond, binoculars at the ready. “Have you spotted anything yet?” I whisper. “Not yet, but we have seen deer and wild boars here before. With a lot of patience and a bit of luck, we are hoping to spot a beaver!” he gloats.
We follow the trail all the way down to the river, where a small deer is startled by our appearance. As soon as we sit down, a more bothersome type of wildlife makes itself known. A swarm of mosquitoes terrorizes our feet, arms, backs and faces until we crawl into our tents. The sound of boars grunting softly in the distance finally rocks us to sleep.
The life of an adventurer
A sweet smell permeates the morning air. Berries, perhaps? We can’t quite put our finger on it, but it brings back memories from summers past. After a short descent, we pass the open-air museum in Fourneau Saint-Michel dedicated to rural life in Wallonia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Fog wraps the fields in a mysterious cloak, making it is easy to imagine ourselves in the Alps with the high peaks hiding behind the clouds.
Having caught wind of a nice café in Grupont, we start fantasizing about our order long before reaching the town. Finding the café closed and the streets abandoned is not quite the finish we had in mind. “No coffee in this town, nor in the next, nor in the next,” a local confirms when he pops his head out to check who his dog is barking at so fiercely.
“The life of a great adventurer always comes with highs and lows,” I jokingly shrug, while killing an hour with nothing but boring crackers for lunch. With the dilapidated train station looking an awful lot like a haunted house – with wooden boards barricading windows and doors – we are pleasantly surprised when a train does show up according to schedule. A definite high in my book.
Photos by: Katrien Rigo, Erik Aerts and myself
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