Winner of best Lifestyle Travel Story award at the Belgian Travel Blog Awards 2023
Laughter emanated from below as I scrambled down a steep slope, branch in hand to keep myself steady. It was early morning and I was excited for the day ahead. Perhaps a little too excited. As I started running towards the voices, my foot caught on a hidden branch and I flew down the hill. My hands hurt as I found myself sprawled across the forest floor, leaves and twigs intertwined in my long hair. I laughed. Nothing could dampen my spirits today.
I made a half-hearted attempt to clean myself up and continued running down the hill. I was eager to return to the hidden camp that we had found yesterday while scouting the woods around our cabin. My sisters came into view. They were playing a game of hide and seek between large boulders. We were young. I was only 6 years old, or was I 8?
I looked out of our car window, my sisters’ laughter faded as I returned to the present. The Ardennes Forest in Belgium holds many of my fondest childhood memories and as the rolling hills came into view, some of those came flooding back. I’ve hiked the Canadian Rockies, explored the Scottish highlands and marvelled at the glaciers in New Zealand. But nothing could prepare me for the flood of emotions that overcame me as we made our way through the small meandering roads along the picturesque valleys and towns of the Ardennes.
Here you’ll find extensive forest alongside hilly landscapes, charming villages, idyllic river valleys and medieval castles. When I was young I fell in love with the Ardennes and my love for this part of Belgium has never waned. Even as I sought out other adventures around the world, the Ardennes were always in my heart and mind, somewhere I always knew I would return to.
Day One – A Myriad of Déjà Vus
It was a warm autumn morning as we made our way south. My younger sister and I sat in the back seat as our parents discussed the best route to our destination. After embarking on many road trips across Belgium, I thought they would be experts by now, but I was mistaken.
Autumn has always been my favourite time of the year to visit, I love the colourful leaves and the fresh forest smell after a rainy day. My French was very limited when I was young, but I always made my best effort to order a Chocolat Chaud at every cafe we sat down at. These days, my French is still very limited, having spent the last 14 years immersed in the English language, but my vocabulary has improved. Instead of a chocolat chaud, it has become a mocha avec du lait d’avoine. I was very proud of that one.
The sun was setting when we arrived in Coo, a small village near Stavelot. As our parents settled for a drink on a terrace outside a local pub, my sister and I went exploring.
Camera in hand, we snapped some shots around Les Cascades de Coo, the highest waterfall in Belgium. At 15 m, it might not be as high as some of the Canadian waterfalls I’ve become used to, but the scenic setting, the small bridge and the cute tower made this waterfall unique and interesting in its own right.
A constant déjà vu lingered as I made my way through the village, little sparks of recognition fading almost as soon as they had appeared, leaving me with a sombre feeling. A memory popped up of an old photograph of my mum, my sister and myself sitting across from the waterfall on a small wall. My gaze moved to that exact spot, but instead of a small playground, now a theme park called Plopsa Coo stood in its place. As I looked out over the valley, I lamented the commercialisation of such a serene place, with the huge man-made structures clashing against the gentle sloping hills.
Back at the cabin, we met up with the rest of our party; my other two sisters, their partners and children. There was a comforting buzz about the cabin, fireplace crackling in the background, spaghetti simmering on the stove and children playing. Laughter and conversation flowed, as did the wine, while we told stories from past vacations in the Ardennes. We were reconnecting through old memories and making new ones as I rediscovered a part of myself that I had left behind all those years ago.
Day Two – Forest Musings
Everyone was up early, excited for the day ahead, so to save time we headed to a nearby local cafe. Belgium is known for its love of professional cycling, and Le Coffee Ride is the perfect stopover on any cycling adventure around the Ardennes. Apart from offering rooms and a shop selling high-quality cycling apparel, they also have an outstanding cafe serving specialty coffees, teas, pastries and lunch items. This is where I practiced my French the most, ordering a mocha avec du lait d’avoine whenever we visited.
Fueled with coffee, pastries and hot chocolates, we embarked on our workout for the day: hiking the valley of the Hoëgne, one of the most picturesque spots in the Stavelot area. For 10 km, we followed the trail along the Hoëgne river, passing over wooden bridges, cascades, several stairs and rough paths of rocks and tree roots. My hiking partners kept trudging onward at a steady rate, as if there was a time limit on the hike, but I often lingered behind, photographing the forest for later musings.
It was a true autumn wonderland, yet one I couldn’t quite remember. Is October always like this in Belgium? Perhaps I was away for so long that my experiences had become distant memories, almost like they’d never existed.
I quickened my pace, the calming sound of the babbling mountain river surrounding me, and caught up with everyone right before we turned away from the river, about to start the 200 m hike uphill. Emerging from the trees onto an open outlook, we paused, stunned into silence by the incredible scenery. A rocky cliff dropped away, revealing the Hoëgne valley spread out before us, a myriad of yellow and orange hues popping up between the fir trees. Autumn really does look incredible in the Ardennes.
After another quick stop at Le Coffee Ride, where I indulged in a second mocha avec du lait d’avoine — this time practicing my pronunciation, hoping to nail it by the end of this trip — we made our way to the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps. From a tranquil walk in the woods to high-speed racing in Francorchamps, our family has always enjoyed keeping things varied and unexpected.
The famous Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps is a 7.004 km long circuit well-known for hosting the Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix. The karting circuit right next to the main race track, at 1092 m, is the largest outdoor karting track in Europe, and a few of us decided it the perfect opportunity for some friendly competition.
It was a whirlwind 20 minutes spent chasing, overtaking and violently shaking through corners and uneven ground until the checkered flag was waved. My back was sore, my head was pulsing and my heart was racing. However, it was an exhilarating ride that made me forget my surroundings, thoughts and memories and let me focus on one thing: defeating my family. I didn’t win. I didn’t even come close. But at the end of the day, I didn’t care. It’s another new memory that I would no doubt cherish and talk about at many future family gatherings.
Exhausted from the day’s activities, we decided to call it an early night. Before heading to bed, a few of us enjoyed a quick nightcap as we watched the half-crescent moon smiling down at us.
Day Three – Soaking Up Culture
The silence of the early morning was broken by hushed whispers as people started to wake, followed by the familiar sound of the percolating coffee machine, dripping its delicious brown liquid into the pot. A little while later, coffee in hand, we lounged on the terrace, taking in the first light of sunrise. It promised to be a beautiful day.
While nature is one of the major draws to the Ardennes, culture and folklore go hand in hand around the Spa-Malmedy-Stavelot Golden triangle. Having spent most of the previous day in the forest, we needed a dose of history and culture. Nestled in the heart of Stavelot lies Stavelot Abbey, one of the oldest monastic foundations in Belgium. Founded in the 7th century, most of today’s buildings date back to the 18th century. It was the perfect destination for our culture day in the Ardennes.
The day proved to be an interesting mix of sightseeing and activities. We wandered around the remains of the abbey church, once a grand structure, now only the western doorway remained as a free-standing tower. The foundations of the abbey church are presented as a footprint, with walls and column bases that enabled us to visualise the scale of the Romanesque abbey.
There are a variety of museums within the abbey itself. Apart from the historical museum on the first floor, we also walked around the Spa-Francorchamps racetrack museum. Located deep in the magnificent vaulted cellars, the beautiful stone arches framed the stunning race cars from yesteryear. Even though I’m not a Formula 1 fan, I enjoyed retracing the prestigious history throughout the cellars where I learned about the history of the track and gained appreciation for the competition. My nephews were certainly intrigued and beamed with excitement as we went from room to room, race car to race car and of course, the simulator that awaited them.
Back in Coo, I was keen to spend some time with my nephews, so I purchased tickets for a fun afternoon in the forest with Wild Park Coo. We boarded a small train that slowly made its way around the hillside, giving us a glimpse of the Belgian fauna that inhabits these forests. Deer and wild boar roam the area, with the most curious of them coming up to greet us. The children loved it, their faces full of wonder, exclaiming oohs and aahs when one of the braver animals came right up to the train.
It’s easy to forget that this place is a park, with the animals roaming in large enclosures. However, it’s a noticeable problem once you arrive at the wolf enclosure.
Four wolves, separated into pairs in small enclosures, paced around as the trains circled around their home. While the children grew more excited, some adults like myself, grew silent at the sight of seeing these majestic animals forced to live in such a confined space. I know that wolves need a larger area to roam in and it was heartbreaking to witness. There was barely any information given, no sign of any rehabilitation, research or rewilding efforts. It felt like just another money-grabbing venture at the cost of the animals.
The sun dipped behind the hills when our train arrived back in Coo, cooler now that the sun had set. With the evening upon us, it was time to head back to the cabin and join the rest of the family.
Wanting to make the most of our final night gathered together in the Ardennes, we went all out, the leftover food was devoured and the last bottles of wine and beer cans were finished over board games by the fireplace.
Full from our feast, we crawled into bed. For old times’ sake, my sister and I talked well into the night, reminiscing about our past adventures. We knew this was an attempt to postpone our inevitable departure the next day. We were not quite ready to say goodbye but the excitement of the past few days had caught up to us. Combined with the effects of the wine, we both drifted into a deep slumber.
Day Four – Making Memories
It was a bittersweet realisation when I woke up, with our departure fast approaching. I tried to push the thought to the back of my mind. After a quick breakfast, we were ready to head out for our last walk in the woods.
We all hiked in relative silence, up the 1.2 km Vertical Track trail to the observation tower. The 265 m elevation was steep with many rocks and roots crisscrossing the path.
We were surrounded by tall trees, with fallen leaves crunching under foot as we hiked up the gentle slope to the top of the hill. The observation tower was a grey brutalist concrete and brick block devoid of any decorative features. Once there, we overlooked the Amblève valley and nearby villages in a stunning 180-degree view. Picture perfect, I thought, and stood there for a while, taking in the last few moments of my favourite place.
On the way down, my two nephews darted around the forest like gazelles. I couldn’t help but think of the stark contrast between them and myself at age 8 – or was it 6 – not so gracefully face planting on the soft autumn leaves. I smiled when I saw my nephews having so much fun, making their own memories in the Belgian Ardennes. One day they would reminisce, not remembering the time spent on their iPads, but instead all the adventures that they had experienced. I hope they’ll remember that I was there, the Canadian aunt with her obsession with mochas avec du lait d’avoine, snapping away photo after photo, appreciating every moment that she spent with her family in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In her humble opinion, of course.