While Belgium may lack the mountains for downhill skiing, there are still plenty of opportunities to experience another winter Olympic sport – cross-country skiing.
A great spot for this is the area around Vielsalm, located in the province of Luxembourg in the Belgian Ardennes. The town is part of the Arrondissement of Bastogne and the place of origin of the House of Salm. There are several skiing stations located nearby, all ideal (weather permitting) for having a go at cross-country (not as easy as it looks!) and even some Alpine-style downhill skiing. Vielsalm, located between Malmedy and Houffalize, is, in fact, a great holiday destination for nature enthusiasts, perfect for mountain biking or a hike in the woods.
Ideally, it’s good to stay overnight to get the most from the area’s many charms, and an excellent option is one of the rented properties managed by Ardennes-Etape. Its huge range of holiday lets, ranging from relatively humble abodes to luxury villas, includes a charming three-bedroom property just on the outskirts of Vielsalm which comes complete with all the home comforts and boasts great views of the pleasant surrounding countryside from a large terrace. It even has an indoor sauna which is just the job after a day hiking or cross-country skiing. This property, located 1.5km from Vielsalm, is the last building on a dead-end road and has internet access. It was completely renovated in 2016 and transformed into a cosy cocoon for a family or two couples.
Ardennes-Etape employs a multi-lingual workforce and is a recognised leader in providing holiday homes in the Belgian Ardennes. It also produces a useful “Guide Ardennes-Pass” which comprises discounts on more than 140 activities in the Ardennes, a detailed touristic map, cycling and hiking routes and must-sees.
The company is based at nearby Stavelot which is home to Abbaye de Stavelot, the site of one of Belgium’s oldest monastic foundations and a listed heritage site. It now houses a museum illustrating the history of the principality and also (located in its vaulted cellars) another museum dedicated to the history of the famous Spa Francorchamps race track just up the road.
After enjoying the Great Outdoors, you may have worked up an appetite and a good spot to sate your hunger nearby is La Ferme de la Reine des Prés at Petit-Their. What used to be a mill in the 18th century, it’s been run for many years by a pleasant couple, Sonja and Jean-Paul Henquet-Minguet. It boasts a fine menu, but the “star” dish has to be the trout for which the restaurant is famous. Indeed, people are known to travel some distance, including from Brussels, just to sample it. Little wonder as the trout, benefiting from the crystal-clear Ardennes waters, is great. There are 13 different trout-based preparations, ranging from being served with almond to seafood and white wine.
Sonja hails from nearby Recht, actually part of Belgium’s 700,000 German-speaking community which is also home to a fine visitor centre telling the story of the long-defunct Schieferstollen slate mine. The area is famous for its geology and for producing the best natural sharp stone in the world. For many years, bluestone from Recht used to be quarried in open-cast mines. The Schieferstollen Recht mine was utilised for hundreds of years to extract slate from the earth. The mining is no longer active, and the mine is maintained as a museum. Covering a circuit of 800 metres, visitors can immerse themselves in a world of blue rocks and stunning stone-mining halls.
There’s certainly no shortage of things to do to keep you busy in the area, and other attractions include Parc Chlorophylle, a terrific creative, artistic and educational forest/park. Created from the remains of an old safari park, visitors can discover the world of the forest in a unique way. The park has a walkway to walk right up to the treetops and thanks to a number of fun activities and games, you learn everything you need to know about the forest and nature, and what you can do to protect them.
It boasts 30 attractions “on the mysteries of the forest” and is a true paradise for children and nature lovers. Another fascinating place to visit is Parc A Gibier at La Roche-en-Ardennes, a 100,000 square metre wildlife park featuring some of the inhabitants of the Ardennes forests along a 1.2km trail. It’s as close as you are likely to get to the natural environment of the animals.
Back in Vielsalm, which makes for a good base to explore a wide area, visitors should certainly to try squeeze in a visit to Aqua Mundo, a tropical swimming pool at Centre Parcs Les Ardennes which offers the little ones and grown-ups alike water games of all types. The water is maintained at 29°C throughout the year, so it’s great even if (as now) it’s bitterly cold outside. As very little chlorine is needed in the pools (thanks to biological filters and UV) the company is also doing its bit for the environment and good health. The aqua centre, also open to day visitors, is set amongst lovely forestland and features slides, Jacuzzi and a children’s pool.
Eating out is always a pleasure when travelling, so if you plan to venture furtherover the Belgium-Luxembourg border, then Bistro 1865 at Clervaux is well worth the short excursion. It is part of Hotel des Nations that has existed on the present site since 1865 (hence the name), and its reputation as a good place to eat has been recognised by no less an authority than the Michelin Guide. The restaurant has been a recipient of Michelin’s prestige Bib Gourmand label for three successive years. Look out for the dishes marked with the label “Sou Schmaacht Letzebuerg”. For the uninitiated, this is a national label which, this time, reflects the emphasis on local products used in the kitchen. It is allocated only to those establishments proven to showcase good, regional products.
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The Luxembourg province makes for a great visit at any time of the year, not least in July when the witches of Vielsalm are celebrated and everybody dresses up as a witch. The statue, proudly displayed in the town centre, is of the most notorious witch named “Gustine Maka”. The legend goes that she tricked a few youngsters into eating blueberries which turned them into Macralles (the local term for witches). This slightly strange regional celebration takes place every year on 20 and 21 July while in nearby Gouvy there’s another one – a “Raspberry Day” – plus a jazz festival, both in August.
So, if you are looking for a short break – maybe for the upcoming Easter holidays (April 1 and 2), you’d do well to give this lovely part of the country serious consideration. Winter, spring or summer, there’s always plenty to do so you are unlikely to be disappointed.