The Plugstreet 14-18 Experience
The village of Ploegsteert, nine miles south of Ypres in an ‘island’ of Wallonia entirely encircled by Flanders, found itself close to the frontline for nearly all of the war. Apart from a few weeks in 1918 it was held by the British throughout. The ‘Tommies’ – never adept at learning the local lingo – promptly renamed it ‘Plugstreet’. Over the years it became a maze of billets, canteens and cafés, with tracks and communication trenches leading eastwards to the front.
A remarkable pyramid-shaped museum in Ploegsteert Wood is a must for people interested in history. With a cinema show explaining the background to the Great War, a remarkable three-dimensional map of the western front and a recreation of both military and civilian life in the area while the see-sawing conflict raged away for years, just down the road.
It sounds – and looks – a bit like Paradise, but Pairi Daisa actually means ‘closed garden’ in the Persian language. ‘Garden’ is an understatement, because this extraordinary complex sprawls across 125,000 acres of rolling parkland in the grounds of a ruined Cistercian abbey, to the north of Mons. ‘Closed’ is an understatement too, because Pairi Daisa is very much open to the public, and in no time at all it has become the second most popular visitor attraction in Wallonia.
Why? Styled as the zoo of the future, Pairi Daisa has compressed much of the earth’s natural history into those 125,000 acres. It has a bit of everything from almost every corner of the natural world. There are exotic animals, from white tigers to gorillas, giant tortoises to elephants, koala bears to the first Tasmanian devils ever seen in Belgium.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Tian Bao, a panda born in June 2016, whose birth created an international sensation, and whose life-story – updated every few days as an entertaining blog – was followed by hundreds of thousands around the world and won the cute little furry thing the accolade of 2016 ‘Belgian of the Year’.
Mons Memorial Museum (MMM)
One of the finest war museums in western Europe, MMM displays about 5,000 artefacts from the two World Wars, many of them donated by veterans and Belgian citizens. The museum aims to personalise the war experience, focusing as much on the men who wielded the weapons as the weapons themselves. There are pieces of a soldier’s bread ration, preserved in a bottle; Field Marshall Montgomery’s beret, which he presented to Mons when he was proclaimed a Citizen of Honour in 1946; and a German one-tonne bomb – the first in the world, manufactured in 1917. More intimately, there are numerous recorded interviews with veterans, and a large collection of their diaries, postcards and letters to sweethearts back home.
The Canal du Centre Boat Lifts
Wallonia’s Canal du Centre contains several technical marvels, such as the four hydraulic lifts which are unique in Europe and can raise boats of up to 1,350 tonnes by more than 70 metres - entirely powered by the force of water. The lifts were built more than a century ago, based on the principles of Archimedes in ancient Greece. And they still work!
• There are four lifts between Louvière and Thieu, built between 1882 and 1917. Each lift compensates for a difference in water level of about 17 metres, and they were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
• Strépy-Thieu is the largest of the lifts, built at the end of the 20th century to upgrade Wallonia’s waterways to meet the 1,350-tonne standard gauge required. This impressive 150m-high concrete structure raises the water level by 73.15m, and is the largest of its kind ever built.
Waterloo Memorial Museum
There is much to see and do in and around the Waterloo battlefield, which can take longer to explore than the nine savage hours of the battle itself. The tourist sites and facilities were extensively upgraded for the bicentennial commemorations in 2015.
The centrepiece is the conical Lion Mound, 141ft high, which presides over the gently undulating plain and is dedicated to the 40,000 men on both sides who lost their lives in one of the fiercest engagements in the history of warfare. The Mound, completed in 1826, was originally dedicated the Duke of Orange, who was injured in the battle. The cast-iron lion that sits atop the 226 steps weighs 28 tonnes.
Of the many recent improvements to the battle site, pride of place goes to the The Memorial 1815, placed underground in the shadow of the mound. There are ten galleries and an 80ft curved screen placing visitors at the heart of the action, with the floor actually moving as the thundering artillery roars.
Founded in 1146, the Villers Abbey was part of a sudden boom in monastery-building in the first half of the 12th century. In typical Cistercian style, it was built in a remote area, around a central cloister and with distinct areas for monks and lay brothers. Apart from being one of the largest archaeological sites in Belgium, what now sets Villers apart is that the entire complex remains complete. The ruins also clearly show the evolution of different architectural styles.
Shut down by the French Revolutionary administration in 1796, the most imposing building among today’s ruins is the church.
Lay brothers were an integral part of most monastic communities and did much of the manual labour. They had their own customs and were housed in a separate wing, which even had its own infirmary.
The site is bisected by an overhead railway line built in 1855 when the monastery lay abandoned. Because the line has been there so long, it is remarkably well camouflaged and does not detract from the beauty of the site which is used for a wide range of events including conferences, themed exhibitions, pilgrimages, plays and shows.
The Musee Hergé
This homage to the creator of Tintin takes you on a journey through the life of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. More than 80 original plates and 800 photographs, documents and objects have been brought together under one roof. You discover that there was more to Hergé than Tintin. He was also a graphic designer, caricaturist, cartoonist, illustrator, storyteller and a multi-talented artist, who was a perfect reflection of the twentieth century.
Walibi Fun Park
The largest adventure park in Belgium - and Wallonia’s top tourist attraction – is handily situated near Wavre, near the Waterloo battlefield about half an hour’s drive south-east of Brussels. At Walibi, the rollercoaster rides and waterslides seem to get faster and scarier every year. Adrenaline junkies can take their pick from Radja River, where you hurtle for 600 metres through rapids and waterfalls; a runaway train in Calamity Mine; the Dalton Terror, that freefalls 77 meters in seconds; or the Pulsar, that reaches a speed of 100 kms per hour before a spectacular splashdown.
Sixteen attractions are specially designed for younger children, and the park is open almost every day in the summer from 1 April onwards. This is a place for those who love to be afraid. Very afraid.
Caves of Han
One of Western Europe’s largest underground cave systems, at Han-sur-Lesse in the Dinant area, has been attracting sightseers for nearly 250 years. According to local records, a learned monk was giving tours of the grotto as long ago as 1771. A great deal more has been discovered since then.
Created by the River Lesse burrowing through the porous local limestone, the largest cave is 20 metres high, 145 metres long, and contains a lake which you cross on an overhead walkway. The tour of this extraordinary phenomenon starts in the village itself, with a ride on the last working tram in the region directly to the cave entrance. Then you’re guided along illuminated passages and suspended walkways through increasingly dramatic chambers. Halfway along the route – which takes about 90 minutes – there’s a spectacular son-et-lumière show.
Above ground, a museum contains many archaeological remains found in the area, and a safari bus takes you to the Han Wildlife Reserve, which contains bears, bison and wolves - once indigenous to the region - roaming on the wooded hill directly above the caves.
Tale of two Citadels
The two major towns in Namur province – Namur and Dinant – are both dominated by impressive citadels.
In Namur, the Celts were the first to establish a fort at the confluence of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. This was replaced by a castle during the Middle Ages. Much of today’s structure is much less ancient, built by the Dutch during their rule between 1815 and 1830. The citadel was used as a military base until 1977. Today, visitors can explore a bewildering network of tunnels where soldiers were billeted for up to a month at a time. A tourist train runs around the perimeter, criss-crossing the various levels and visiting the Guy Delforge perfumery.
The Citadel of Dinant has housed a museum of history and weapons for over a century. In order to storm the forbidding citadel, visitors can choose between a climb of 408 steps, or take the easier option of a cable car from the town. Both lead to a staggering view over Dinant and the river.
Annevoie Water Gardens
In the wooded hills above the River Meuse between Namur and Dinant, the Annevoie Gardens are one of Wallonia’s undisputed treasures. They were created in the 1770s by an ancestor of the family who still own the castle and estate. This eminent man learned about gardening on his travels around Europe, and there are strong French, Italian and English influences. The predominant feature is water, water everywhere: a spectacular array of fountains, jets, waterfalls, streams and lakes, all fed by the tree-lined Grand Canal which runs above the estate. Every feature can be enjoyed on a well-signed walking circuit.
The castle itself is not open to the public, but the gardens are extensive enough to merit a full day-trip. A special tradition is repeated every July, when a framboiserie opens up to serve the gardens’ famed raspberries, and the local Maredsous beer is on tap at the café that overlooks this magnificent estate.
No trip to Wallonia is complete without a visit to Annevoie.
Three Valleys Steam Railways Museum
South-west Wallonia has something special to offer railway enthusiasts who yearn for the age of steam. A 14km stretch of line, built in the early 19th century, which carried passengers until September 1963, has been restored by volunteers who showcase their locomotives and carriages.
The line passes through the three valleys of l’Eau Blanche, l’Eau Noire and le Viroin – on a picturesque 35-minute journey between Mariembourg and Treignes. Don’t miss the annual steam weekend at the end of September.
There is a museum in Treignes featuring various historic ‘rolling-stock’.
Fine Arts Museum La Boverie Liège
Belgium’s latest fine arts museum is now open in Liège, in partnership with the Louvre in Paris. Overlooking the River Meuse, and located in a delightful park, the Boverie has been entirely redesigned and now features an innovative glass extension by Rudy Ricciotti, the architect behind the European and Mediterranean Civilisations Museum in Marseilles.
While one level of the museum contains the city’s impressive collection of Fine Arts, another is devoted to temporary exhibitions.
Stavelot Abbey & its Spa Francorchamps Track Museum
Stavelot Abbey is listed as one of Wallonia’s major heritage sites and witnessed the fascinating history of one of the oldest monastic foundations in Belgium.
Today, Stavelot is home to memorabilia from Spa-Francorchamps, one of the world’s great motor racing circuits, as well as one of the 19th century’s outstanding figures, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
Thermes de Spa
The town of Spa, from which spa resorts all over the world took their name, is located in the Walloon province of Liège, in the heart of the lush forests of the Ardennes.
Spa’s fame stretches back over more than a century, but its main watery attraction is thoroughly modern, spectacularly designed in glass and wood by one of Belgium’s foremost architects, providing up to 35,000 treatments a year to those with heart and respiratory problems or rheumatism. Facilities include two large heated circular indoor and outdoor swimming pools with hydro massage jets, each heated to a blissful 320C, so that you can luxuriate in the outside pool overlooking the woods even in cold weather. There’s also an array of Hammams, Jacuzzis, relaxation rooms and an infrared lamp area. Treatments range from bathing in bubbly water in brightly polished copper tubs to soaking in glorious mud baths containing rich peat taken from the High Fens that overlook this glorious resort.
The ‘Haute Fagnes’ (High Fens) - Belgium's Wild Place
The Haute Fagnes region surrounding Spa, Malmedy, Eupen & Monschau (in Germany) covers an area of 30,000 hectares, including the forest of Hertogenwald, four artificial lakes and a nature reserve.
Guides from the Nature Centre of Botranges lead discovery tours to show walkers what Wallonia’s ‘Wild Place’ is all about. Due to its altitude, its cold winter and its unique year-round climate, climate, the natural reserve offers a uniquely rich landscape for flora and fauna enthusiasts.
Euro Space Center
The Euro Space Center has proved especially popular with British visitors: there’s nothing to match it anywhere in the UK. The multi-media presentations, 5D cinema and Planetarium are impressive enough, but it’s the physical activities that leave the most lasting impression.
For instance, you can climb aboard a full-size replica of the US Space Shuttle to inspect the cockpit and cargo bay, and there’s an exciting range of activities that replicate the giddying experience of space travel. Follow in Neil Armstrong’s footsteps by donning a virtual reality mask and doing a Moonwalk, where you ‘weigh’ six times less than on earth. Or try the Marswalk, which involves a special chair and another VR mask that transport you to the Red Planet. Another clever contraption gives you a vivid impression of what it feels like to be strapped inside a space capsule as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere at ten times the speed of sound, while you’re expected to perform some simple tasks and calculations that ensure you land in the right place, and the right way up! You emerge from the ordeal dazed, confused and with a deep appreciation of what the pioneering astronauts and cosmonauts achieved in the most uncomfortable conditions imaginable. Outside, you can take a 6km space walk through the woods, and wander through a giant model of our solar system.
Bastogne War Museum & Mardasson
The Battle of the Bulge turned out to be the bloodiest engagement involving US forces during the entire Second World War. In nearly six weeks of fighting from mid-December 1944 to late January 1945 more than 19,000 American service personnel were killed, with nearly 50,000 wounded. Their heavy sacrifice is commemorated at the spectacular star-shaped Mardasson Memorial, standing proudly on a hill outside Bastogne. The memorial is engraved with the names of what were then America’s 48 states. In a crypt below the monument are three beautifully decorated altars representing the fallen from the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths.
A short distance away is the strikingly modern Bastogne War Museum, which, like Mardasson, is designed in the five-point American star shape. The museum is devoted to World War Two in Belgium – from its origins to the Battle of the Bulge. Highlights are the 3D films with multi-sensory effects, including a squad of American GIs in an Ardennes forest in December 1944, and a tavern in Bastogne during an aerial bombardment, with tanks roaring outside and the civilians cowering in the cellar during a powercut. As you walk through the vast presentation space littered with tanks, jeeps and other military vehicles, you encounter four lifelike characters describing their wartime experiences: a boy from Bastogne, his teacher, a GI and a young German lieutenant. Unforgettable.
Bataille des Ardennes Museum
The Battle of the Ardennes Museum in picturesque La Roche-en-Ardenne ensures that Britain’s participation in the battle will never be overlooked. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery’s men were an integral part of the Allied counter-attack, liberating La Roche and other villages along the River Ourthe in early January 1945. Two hundred British troops were killed in the action, with another 1,400 wounded or missing.
The privately-run museum, spread across three floors, features a remarkable collection of weapons, military vehicles, photographs and personal objects found on the battleground. One of the most interesting corners is the Veterans’ Room, displaying uniforms and memorabilia donated to the museum by ex-servicemen - often after visiting the museum themselves.
Known as the ‘Pearl of the Semois valley’, Bouillon is the most important and attractive tourist centre in the Semois valley.
The town’s perfectly preserved fortified medieval castle sits above a sharp bend of the river. In summer, the castle can be visited at night, when you can experience a real feudal ambience by torchlight. While you're travelling through time, be sure to visit the Archéoscope Godefroid de Bouillon and relive the First Crusade at the end of the 11th century.