At the end of July 2017 we rented a large holiday house in southern Belgium together with an additional 6 members of our family! The ages ranged from a lively and energetic 7 year old to an equally lively and rather spritely 80 something…
Belgium is a small European country right in the heart of northern Europe and home to the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Being so central it is the ideal base for visiting multiple countries within one trip! Between us, as well as our stay in Belgium, we also visited Luxembourg, France and Germany!
We stayed in a rural holiday cottage and spent a lovely family week near Bouillon in the south of Belgium and close to the French border. We drove our own cars from our homes in England to the Euro Tunnel at Folkestone where we took the pre-booked Le Shuttle across to Calais, France.
As last year (our grand England to Prague road trip) we had to prepare our car for European driving i.e. the 2 x breathalysers and a red triangle needed for France and headlamp beam converters needed for Europe. We drove from Calais, through Lille (France) and down to southern Belgium which took about 3.5 hours.
After 3 hours of motorway, the last 30 minutes stretch of our journey was striking as we drove through the densely wooded forests of the Ardennes, one of the most remote and picturesque areas of Belgium.
During the week, between us we visited several locations which are summarised below…
Bouillon, tucked away in the far south west of Belgium and just a stone’s throw from the French border was the first town we visited shortly after arriving. French is widely spoken in this southern part of the country which is very different to the more industrial and Flemish speaking north.
Bouillon sits on the banks of the River Semios and lined with cafes and restaurants overlooking the river has an uplifting holiday atmosphere. If you are feeling a little energetic you can hire a peddle boat and peddle along in the river. Thankfully there isn’t much of a current so it wasn’t too strenuous. Further afield there are many hiking paths which start in Bouillon and lead into the surrounding forests and the Semios Valley.
With its mix of French, Italian and local restaurants Bouillon had a relaxed, laid back and authentic feel. Not a Starbucks or Maccy D’s in sight!
Our base near Bouillon was only an hours’ drive from the lovely town of Clervaux in northern Luxembourg.
Above is Clervaux Castle which sits up on a hill overlooking the town. During Word War 2, heavy fighting took place during the battle of Clervaux and a US Sherman tank is on display in the grounds of the castle.
Nestling under the castle Clervaux is quaint little town with a number of cafes, perfect for sitting outside with coffee and cake or a glass of wine or beer. We also came across a huge chess set where my nephew and step-Dad kept a couple of locals entertained for a short time.
We decided to stop in Bastogne on the way back from Luxembourg, attracted by its colourful umbrella street!
Bastogne was occupied by German forces during the first World war and like Clervaux has a tank on display together with a number of museums and memorials.
Bastogne is much larger than Clervaux and its central square has a handy car park. Although the square is surrounded by bars and restaurants the presence of the car park means Bastogne doesn’t quite have the picturesque appeal or character of other town squares.
Euro Space Centre (Belgium)
The Euro Space Centre was just a 20 minute drive from our holiday house. With 3 generations of our family all on holiday together we needed to cater for all tastes… And it was a wet day…
We had to queue for about 30 minutes in order to pay and enter the space centre. The first attraction was the ‘moon walk’ which our nephew and niece enjoyed. For an extra 6 Euros each, they were kitted out with a virtual reality headset and bounced along a track so they could experience the feeling of a reduction of gravity.
The main part of the overall ‘experience’ of the space centre was conducted entirely by audio which required you to wear a headset for the duration of the visit rather than having the freedom to browse at your leisure and see and read information.
With videos of the moon landing of 1969, basic information on the solar system and a brief history of space exploration the Euro Space Centre is probably more suited to school visits. Much of the information is common knowledge for the average adult and if so inclined you would be able to view these average videos on YouTube.
The castle has large imposing walls and you follow arrows which guide you around the perimeter. Towards the end of the tour there is a well maintained and informative museum. For just over 8 Euros for each person we felt this castle provided value for money and is worth a visit.
Also worth a visit is the great little cafe which is located next to the castle entrance. We had a simple lunch of artisan bread, with local Ardennes cheese and a glass of local wine which was delicious!
A short distance north from Sedan and still in France is Charleville-Mézières. We parked near the large town square, called the Place Ducale which is lined by open air bars and restaurants. When we visited the square was kitted out with a temporary beach, deck chairs and huge paddling pools which is probably a popular feature on sunny days (it had been raining just before we arrived).
Thankfully the weather improved during the afternoon. We took a scenic route back from Charleville-Mézières and drove through the emerald green Ardennes forest. Above is the River Semios which is popular with kayakers and trout fishermen.
The famous Nurburgring in Germany was 230 km from the holiday house and on one of the days my son, brother and nephew drove there to do a couple of laps! The Nurburgring has been home to a number of German F1 Grand Prix races as well as other major international events.
Above is Wally at the Nurburgring! Where’s Wally is a children’s book series where Wally pops up in various locations and the young readers need to try and spot him! Throughout the week Wally had been photographed in various locations for my niece’s school project.
We parked up in Arlon and to begin with we felt somewhat uninspired as we sat in a cafe in a fairly average town centre. However during a short walk around the town and a short clamber up some steps we came across a picturesque church which had lovely views across the whole town and out towards the countryside in the distance.
The final town we visited was a small town called Florenville, again on the French border. While the River Semios runs through Florenville the main town is a short distance from the river. A large campsite full of static mobile homes and tents actually borders the river while the town is separate.
We had a delicious Chinese meal in Florenville which made a lovely change from the Belgian, French or Italian restaurants which are in abundance in this area and where we had all of our restaurant meals throughout the week.
We stayed at Une parenthèse en Ardenne the 6 bedroom traditional Belgian cottage we booked with Booking.com (and also available via AirBnB). I’m not sure why it’s called ‘parenthèse’ or what this actually means… (other than being the official word for ‘brackets’).
The cottage was spotlessly clean with large rooms and a large garden. Its remote location at the edge of a small village meant driving everywhere (there were no shops or pubs nearby) however it was lovely to stay in such a peaceful place.
The weather was mostly around 20 degrees and changeable i.e. cloudy, rainy and with sunny intervals which is typical for northern Europe and similar to England at this time of the year. I guess this region has mini heat waves and warmer sunnier weeks but this wasn’t happening for us!
Travelling with such a wide age range of family members with different tastes means compromise. However as we had 3 cars between us, we were able to split up do our own thing on some of the days.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this holiday was the opportunity to experience some of the local culture without the area being touristic or commercialised. Eating waffles for breakfast (got to be done in Belgium); sampling local cheese and wine and drinking delicious coffee. We found some great little bakeries and coffee shops all of which served decent coffee! These culinary treats together with the pleasure of driving on fairly quiet roads through the gorgeous scenic foresty landscape were some of the highlights!