Having grown up in Belgium, I am programmed to believe it is a boring place. Rich in concrete, low on adventure. Recently, however, a fresh pair of eyes has been proving me wrong. Ever since Fadi exchanged life in Jordan for that of a graduate student in Belgium, I have watched him explore my home turf with awe.
As we hop off the train in Pécrot – a mere 15 minutes from home – the first revelation of the day awaits: “they speak French here!?” The fact that my country the size of a peanut is blessed with three official languages is something I often take for granted.
Together with my friend Sarah, we make our way to the forest of Meerdaalwoud. “Look at these tall trees! And those ferns!” Not only does Fadi marvel at everything he sees, he also points out things Sarah and I missed: “Come see this! There’s a giant orange slug munching on a bright red mushroom!” No matter how well you think you know your surroundings, paying attention always pays off.
“The scent of the forest is amazing. Did you know that trees are great for your immune system?” Fadi informs us. “I read a Japanese study that said that forest bathing decreases the production of stress hormones. Trees also produce phytoncides. When these chemical compounds touch your skin or you breathe them in, they bolster your natural killer cells, which protect you from infections and help prevent cancer!” His enthusiasm is contagious and soon, Sarah and I find ourselves awe-struck by the trees around us.
The wide forest lanes slim down and the ferns grow denser. A small trail leads us further to the Tomberg. The term ‘berg’ – or mountain – is used loosely here at barely 102 metres above sea level, but the open field is idyllic and makes an excellent lunch spot. The tallest tree graciously shields us from the drizzle, while we peer into the dark woods.
After our loop through Meerdaalwoud, we follow the GR 512 from Sint-Joris-Weert through nature reserve the Doode Bemde. While manoeuvring around a giant puddle, Fadi clutches the fence, making Sarah shriek. “Whew, it’s not electric,” she sighs, when Fadi turns out to be unscathed. “Are they sometimes electric!?”
The hike continues through fields and over an elevated trail with flood zones on either side. Here too, a series of discoveries unfolds: “Is this a blueberry? Nope, it’s not.” “Look! A little frog sitting by the side of the road!” “Nettles sure hurt.” “Did they build this hut especially for people to watch birds?” "These little bugs are devouring an entire leaf!"
Sarah treats us all to homemade ice cream in the cafe of outdoor organisation The Shelter, while we overlook the Dyle meandering towards Leuven. “Everything is so green and interesting!” Fadi exclaims, when a stork spreads its wings in a field nearby.
We walk parallel to the river, where Fadi poses with his first remnant of World War II: a bunker. When we reach the Castle of Arenberg and the OHL football stadium, we are officially back in the city. After a cup of tea in Heverlee, we finish off with a peek at the Park Abbey before making our way home.