My mom and I were en route to dinner on a freezing night in Wallonia when our GPS failed. Though it was supposed to be a ten-minute drive, all of the sudden we were being directed to take dark back roads. All I could see was the thick black of trees and the white of the snow, so any sense of direction was gone. My phone displayed the dreaded “no signal” symbol and I was frantically trying to maneuver the stick shift on an unexpected patch of ice.
I turned right and, like a beacon looming in the dark of the night, was the flickering of fire lighting up a commanding castle-turned-hotel, the Manoir de Lébioles. It was a grand beginning to what would become one of my favorite dining experiences of the trip.
Most people who travel through Belgium make a stop in the northern city of Bruges, but it felt a bit too much like Disneyland to me. Instead, I stumbled upon a hidden travel gem in Wallonia, the southern, mostly French-speaking half of the nation.
The resort town of Spa (the town that “gave its name to all spas”) is the jewel of the Ardennes, a forested region famous for its rolling hills and hundreds of small rivers — though larger cities like Liège and Mons have much to offer.
Besides the obvious, there’s a lot to explore in Spa. The 18th-century Casino de Spa is the oldest in the world, and the most striking piece of architecture in town, even if you don’t go in to play. The late 1800s brought an influx of rich Europeans seeking relaxation in the mountains, and Les Thermes de Spa still stands today, with wholly modern spa offerings, including indoor and outdoor pools fed by local mineral water. There’s even a quirky museum devoted to laundry, which looks at ancient clothes-washing methods and how soap has changed over the years.
After a lovely dinner at Manoir de Lébioles (and a much less terrifying drive home thanks to the restaurant’s attentive staff), we returned to the utterly charming La Vigie B&B. The owners of the renovated mansion, Georges and Marie-Pierre Lacroix, also run a tea and chocolate shop in Spa, and have worked in interior design for years. An attention to quality and detail shines from the fine linens and well-chosen furniture to the soaps and towel racks.
When I asked Georges why people visit the area, he said that in addition to a small ski resort, “they come [from] far and wide for the spas, casino, and beautiful hikes — a landscape that is much different than other parts of Belgium.”
To best admire that landscape, I suggest driving the road from Spa to the tiny town of Stavelot. The half-hour trip takes you through the most stunning vistas, with hills and forests stretched out for miles in every direction. In Stavelot, you’ll step into daily life on the main street as one of few outside visitors, with the chance to savor artisanal cheeses at Chez François and indulge in a croissant at one of the local pâtisseries.
Architecture buffs won’t want to miss Liège, the birthplace of Charlemagne on the Meuse, for its impressive new train station designed by legendary architect Santiago Calatrava. From here, high-speed trains get you to Paris in just over two hours. Walk through the Coteaux de la Citadelle to see a piece of Liège’s ancient past, a collection of courtyards and staircases leading to terraces and panoramic views.
The Prince-Bishops’ Palace and the city’s imposing cathedrals are other draws, as is a visit to the oldest market in Belgium, La Batte, with an array of produce, cheese, and local goodies. If you’re sitting down to eat, I recommend the Liège meatballs, made with pork and beef, and served with frites and a special sweet sauce made of pear-and-apple syrup, wine, onions, and peket, a local gin.
You’ll be hearing much more about Mons in 2015, when it will be in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture, having been selected for providing “living proof of the richness and diversity of European cultures.” But there is still much to see now, like Van Gogh’s house (where he lived for a time before going to to Provence) and Château de Beloeil, a short drive from the city center, which has been the home of the Princes of Ligne for more than 600 years.
Getting there: From Brussels, the region of Wallonia is easily accessible by car (1-2 hour drive for most sites) or train. I can promise you’ll love taking the road less traveled in Belgium, in a region that feels utterly authentic and not at all like a theme park.