A couple of weeks ago my friend J invited me to accompany him and some friends on a hike in the Ardennes. I had been getting a little stir-crazy and wondering when I might be able to experience Belgium's beautiful Southern mountains which are, for the most part, inaccessible by public transportation. So his invitation came at the right time, and for the next two weeks I whipped myself into shape. My last significant hike had been over two months ago on Mount Ranier, so I didn't want to embarrass myself. I hit the gym, I widened my stride on Leuven's cobble-stoned streets, I broke in my shoes with a long walk down to Zoet Water. Then earlier this past week J e-mailed with last-minute prep: we would drive down early in the AM, embark on our "little, hilly stroll through the woods," and meet up with another group later for dinner. I breathed a little sigh of relief. 32 kms, 5 mountain crossings, and 36 hours later, I am still recovering!
The Ardennes are a lovely, green spot in southern Belgium. It is as a region most famous among Americans for the role it played as a battleground in World War II. Unlike similar regions in the US, the Ardennes are not a nationally-protected area. So it is very often that its well-worn paths cut through small villages, down paved roads, and across private back yards. Our particular hike wound along the Semois River, a very picturesque region most famous for its beer breweries (both the villages of Orval and Ciney are here) and just a stones-throw from France. The mountains themselves are very old, and early on a misty, chilly November morning they created the perfect backdrop for a taste of "Old World" Belgium.
For me this was an opportunity to stray "off the beaten path" and see how the Walloons live. We passed an old tobacco farm that had been turned into a bed and breakfast. We encountered a large hunting party replete with baying dogs (many beagles!) At one point we began passing several signs saying things like "Keep Out! Hunting Season!" and "Do not enter--hunters ahead." What would most people do in such a situation? Turn around and take another path. What do the Belgians do? Break the rules, of course. J, who is a very funny guy with a particular fondness for Americans (he and his wife L spent three years in Boston), thought it might be a good idea to put me in the middle of the group. "If a hunter accidentally shoots an American, who knows what your American president will do!" There were laughs all around, which immediately ended at the close sound of rifle fire. Ah, Belgians. :)
And at the end of the day we stopped for local beers in a cozy pub, complete with roaring fire and filled to the brim with other Flemish hikers getting a taste of the mountains. We ended the evening with an excellent five-course meal and good conversation, most of which was in Flemish. Tired as I was, I was happy to sit and listen.
(A note on pics: I haven't been able to attach any of my own to my blog entries. Apparently the files are too big. If anyone has any thoughts as to how to reduce them please let me know!)