The GR5 - Belgium

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July 18th 2009
Published: July 21st 2009
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Hello, this entry covers my brief stay in the Belgium Ardennes.

Upon leaving Maastricht, I slowly climbed the hill towards the old fort, passing a midget golf course on the way (I even doubled checked, it was midget and not mini - a very strict entry policy if you ask me), before rounding a huge quarry and then joining the GR5 as it made its way into Belgium. I had been told to look out for 'a hut' where I could get a certificate for completing the Pieterpad but despite my best efforts, I was unable to locate it, which is a shame as I was planning to frame my certificate and place it next to my degree - after all, I probably worked just as hard to get it. I'm sure I'll be able to buy a fake one over the internet. I did, however, see the sign that said Nice 2,000km away. A helpful morale booster.

The first day in Wallonie, the French speaking part of Belgium, was a slightly strange experience after Holland, as the path twisted and doubled back on itself to avoid the numerous obstacles in its way, mostly quarries and factories. The highlight was passing what I think people call an 'eccentric folly' - a castle with four enormous statues of animals on its turrets, visible from a couple of miles away. Consulting my Dutch guide book, I'm able to tell you that... actually, I can't tell you anything about it.

I had few expectations for the town of Visé, which was my stop for the night. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised, for although it is situated in a heavily industrial landscape, the town itself had a nice, lively atmosphere and a small but attractive town centre. Before I could secure what turned out to be a very comfortable lodging, I had to deal with a blustering official in the tourist information. The guy was in his 50s and turned out to be a former businessman in the textile industry who started describing the good old days when he had a virtual monopoly on certain machines and he could sell them all over Europe, including the UK. That was before the single market and EU competition laws came along to get in the way - I agreed that this was really unfair, all those meddling beaurocrats causing trouble. I ended up staying in a large farmhouse with a lovely couple who were prepared to let me practice my rusty French and who were so helpful they spent ages making sure I had somewhere to stay the next night. Despite (or perhaps because of) the Michael Jackson tribute show being covered on 10 different channels, I ventured out to try some traditional Liegoise cuisine - meatballs in a reduced apple and pear sauce in a packed restaurant in town.

Climbing the hill out of Vise, I began to leave the industrial landscape behind, as I spent the day crossing the rolling hills of the Ardennes. It was a very quiet route, as unlike Holland there were no other walkers, and I passed only a handful of villages all day. Around midday I got caught in a massive thunderstorm, which had me running for shelter, finding refuge in a farm building watching an old farmer selling potatoes and cherries to the locals from one of the out buildings. After ten minutes or so the air cleared and I was able to continue to my lodgings for the evening, which was in a chateaux of all places. The building had become an all purpose facility for the local community and provided places for walkers for 10Euros a night.

From Wegimont I headed towards the small village of La Reid. The first half of the day was spent making my way up and down some very steep slopes trying all the time to keep to the right path, as there are a number of GR markers which criss cross each other. I arrived in the early afternoon and found the only bar in town. I was very much in rural Belgium and it was interesting to watch the locals come and go, how everyone knew each other and would spend ten meetings greeting everyone before having a drink, and occassionally a wife with children would arrive to drag her husband away from the bar. I ended up staying in hut for walkers run by the Amis de la Nature. Asking for directions, I was told it was by 'the crossroads' - it was the sort of place where there was only one of anything. The crossroads turned out to be over 2km away and so I had to trudge for half an hour in the rain to find it. The accommodation itself was very basic - no food, few facilities, no entertainment, just a bed and a fridge full of beer (at least the Belgians had got the important things right). I was the only person there in this big house in the middle of nowhere, and it felt like being on the set of a really low budget horror movie. Still it was cheap, which was the main thing.

From La Reid, I had a half day's walk to Spa. Having crossed the valley I had to make my way down the otherside through one particularly narrow passage, with barbed wire on one side and nettles and thorns on the other - I got ripped to shreds. Trudging along muddy tracks in the forest made problematic by the recent heavy rain, I arrived in Spa around midday. Having completed a tour of the town in about ten minutes, I took the funicular to the Spa resort at the top of the hill, where I was able to relax some weary muscles in the steam room, jacuzzi and swimming pools (deliberately avoiding the naturist option each time). There were other health treatments available but I felt it was clearly unfair to the poor employee who got the short straw to massage my feet - I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Emerging refreshed and invigorated, I went to meet a Belgian friend of mine, Beran, who I had met 6 years previously on an international voluntary project in the Czech Republic and who lives less than 20km away from Spa. I was a little apprehensive as I had in effect invited myself to visit after 6 years but fortunately I had found the magic words which were "do you fancy meeting for a beer?" which I found goes a long way in Belgium.

Having naturally caught up briefly over a beer, we headed to the local supermarket for provisions, where I was mistaken by the cashier as being a Dutchman. This happened a fair few times in this part of Belgium where it seems the Dutch are the main, if not the only, visitors. This prompted an interesting conversation at the till where I learnt that the Dutch were considered tight as they brought their own food on holiday and refused to pay for 'extras' like the gas and electricity they consumed in their holiday homes / campsites. Clearly the locals hadn't experienced a Yorkshireman on a budget before!

That night, we went out to the local town for a few beers where I experienced the Belgian's twin pleasures of chain smoking and drinking. Smoking isn't banned in Belgium in the same way as it is in the rest of Europe so the whole experience was like going back in time ten years or so, as the smoke lingered in the air and people were happy to drink and drive (within reason) given that very rural nature of the area. I spent the night trying to keep up with the conversations between Beran and her friends. At one point I had real trouble following the speech of the father of one of the friends - I thought he was speaking in a strong local dialect until I realised he was pissed and slurring his words. He was an interesting character with a moustache that had been stained a nicotine colour over the years.

The next day we visited a local market before heading to Liege for the afternoon. The biggest city in the region, Liege came across as quite a grey town that had seen better days. There were some interesting sights, including panoramic views from the top of 'the stairs' (a passageway that led up to the old fort), but most of the buildings seemed neglected and the town felt like it needed some regeneration projects. What it did have in abundance, however, was food and drink centred on some narrow streets in the centre of town known as le carré (the crossroads). We stopped off at La Maison du Peket to let me try the local drink, Peket, which is associated with Liegoise culture and tradition. We spent the evening close to the cathedral in a square full of Belgian / French food and drink stalls. We bumped into a number of friends and acquaintances of Beran, where she would introduce me in a similar way each time - "this is my crazy English friend..." I then had to explain (with some difficulty) why I'm doing this, why I resigned my job (which it seems is unheard of in Belgium) and why I wasn't spending the money on some exotic holidays instead touring around the world (a very good question, I frequently ask myself the same thing). Beran would now and again announce to her friends that "this Englishman has a sense of humour", which I found quite ironic given that Belgium has produced such famous comedians as... er no, anyone?

I was back on the trail the next, sweating out the alcohol from the night before, as I climbed the valley out of Spa. The Ardennes saw a lot of heavy fighting in WW2 and there were numerous memorials to the fallen Belgians and Americans in the area, including the town of Stavelot which I had reached by mid-afternoon. Stavelot was a pleasant town with a historic abbey but I decided to press on to try to reach Vielselm by nightfall. I am increasingly experiencing the problem of finding accommodation at regular intervals because big towns or villages are few and far between. It means either short or very long days. So it was gone eight o'clock before I arrived in Vielselm having spent the second half of the day crossing a relatively flat plateau and getting rescued by a passing motorist when I drifted off course. The town itself was built in a crescent around a lake and it would have been good to explore in more depth in the evening sun but I was crashed out after 32km of walking. The owners of the Chambre d'hote had travelled a lot, particularly in India and Nepal and the house was covered in photos of their trip. It made interesting listening over breakfast.

The next day was a really quiet one, with little of interest, as I crossed the next valley to Burg Reuland, a town hidden from view at the bottom of the valley, and whose main point of interest is a castle from the 11th century. The next day I left Belgium and entered Luxembourg.

Additional photos below
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21st July 2009

Certificate of the Pieterpad
Congratulations, with the Pieterpad, you missed a small restaurant (opposite of the "midget" golf) but you can also obtain it from their website, (I hope the URL is still there after pressing submit). On the tight passage, last week we decided to walk on the other side of the fence, that worked very well! Good luck on you way downsouth.
21st July 2009

Matt - good blog chap - sounds like you're making pretty good progress. Keep it up! James
5th August 2009

Missing you
Brilliant blog Matt, sounds like you're still enjoying it. Jack is well impressed with your trek - we were looking at his large atlas book and trying to follow your route, but he still thinks your bonkers. Roger gets made redundant on 17th August - can I send him out to you for a while, I'm sure a little walk in the country will clear his head and give him time to think about what he does next?! Missing you loads Love Penny
10th August 2009

like the beard
Hi Matt loving all the tales of the strange and wonderful people you meet. Also loving the beard - you look really well.

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