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|Where’s Georgie-Jet? Wallonia|
Often overlooked by tourists, this French-speaking, southern part of Belgium's countryside is not to be missed.
By Georgette Diamandis
Where in the world is Wallonia? If you read last week's story on Belgium, you would know! This week, you're in for a treat as we explore Wallonia, the French-speaking, southern part of Belgium. After a short but action-packed few days in Brussels, my friends and I boarded a Mercedes mini-bus and headed southwest for the province of Hainaut to see the town of Mons. Fun Cars provided the chauffeur-driven mini-bus. Train travel from Brussels is also easy as there is a train station just 10 minutes from the Grand'Place (up the hill) or you can take a free shuttle bus at the adjacent bus station.
TOWN OF MONS
The medieval town of Mons is a 15th-century walled city, named for the hill it sits upon. It was very important in several WWI and WWII battles and lost a great deal of its population after the residents virtually abandoned it during one intense WWII bombing. Now however, the city is a small but lively tourist and college town. We happened to be there on a Saturday, which is the day people often get married at the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) in rotations of about 15 minutes. It is funny to see different family groups pile into the hall for the quick service. Afterwards, the newlyweds touch the head of an iron monkey just outside the town hall for good luck.
Mons is a fantastic walking town, with all roads weaving around the Grand'Place, or large town square. You can't get lost and for me, that's a big plus! Outdoor cafés abound in the square, provided you are visiting during the warm weather. Our group stayed at the Infotel Hotel, a modest but very comfortable, modern, 19-room, family-friendly hotel in an old building just off the square. The breakfast that's included in the price (which can be as low as 49 euro per night) was the best I had in Belgium; farm-fresh, soft-boiled eggs, whole grain breads and cafe au lait. Infotel Hotel, 32 rue d'Havré, 7000 Mons, Belgium, Tél: 32 0 65 40 18 30.
Next, we did a walking tour that included the massive gothic St. Waudru Cathedral, (named after the patron Saint of Mons), a nearby youth hostel, which was a happening place, and the surrealist art museum Beaux Arts Mons. The museum had an impressive collection of the works of Belgium's Magritte. Remember the floating hat in the clouds paintings? Plus, there were the works of other Belgian surrealists.
There are many cute boutiques in Mons. I especially liked Boutique Baroc on Rue des Fripiers and the nearby candy shop, with confections unlike anything I've ever seen before. I visited the house where Van Gogh lived, close to Mons. But I was a little disappointed that the only artworks there were charcoal drawings. He lived there before he really began his exploration of color.
SEL ET SUCRE
Back at the Grand'Place, we had dinner at the cozy Sel et Sucre. This chic little restaurant was a real surprise because we were presented with one small but unique course after another. First up: crepes filled with salmon and cream, with micro-herbs served vertically in shot glasses. Next was a cappuccino-style soup of white asparagus with a fresh green pea froth served in a demitasse cup. Everything was delicious and appealed to all the senses. Then there was marinated salmon with shaved truffles and although I've never understood the truffle thing, the salmon was the best I've ever had. The main course was cod with tomato aspic, served over risotto. The desserts were as numerous and small as the other courses and included dark chocolate mousse, stewed rhubarb and house-made macarons (French-style cookies) and chocolates. The family-owned restaurant is a must if you visit Mons. Sel et Sucre, Rue de Nimy, 6 - 7000 Mons, Tél. +32 (0) 65 59 05 07.
LES JARDINS D'ANNEVOIE
I really would have liked to stay several more days in Mons, exploring the surrounding woods and nature parks, but we were off to visit some incredible Italian, French and English gardens. We traveled in the mini-bus along route E411 through a forested area called the Ardennes to the town of Dinant where we were in for another treat: Les Jardins d'Annevoie. These gardens have been in the Montpellier family for 16 generations. The original designer, Charles-Alexis de Montpellier, used the lay of the land and hillsides to install over 50 waterworks, fountains and waterfalls ... all without the use of machinery. All you can hear is the sound of cascading water as you gaze upon the natural beauty that surrounds you. It took us over two hours to fully enjoy the European-style gardens and the gorgeous, centuries-old castle, which can only be viewed from the outside. The place is a photographer's and artist's haven. The gardens are open from April to October and admission is 7.50 euro per person. There is a café, Orangerie des Jardins, where you can enjoy lunch on-site. Les Jardins d'Annevoie, 37a rue des Jardins, Annevoie-Rouillon B-5537, Belgium, Tel: +32 (0) 82 67 97 97.
GROTTO OF HAN
Back in the mini-bus, we traveled a short distance south to Han-Sur-Lesse to explore the caves or grottoes of Han. The Ardennes is known for its caves and this one is really special if you don't mind going down into the earth. For the price of 8 euro, you board a hundred-year old train, have an underground guide who speaks three languages and view a light and music show in the natural rock "theatre". As I just began to feel comfortable walking through this massive damp underground, full of unusual shapes and colors, we were whisked out on a flat bottom boat. The entire tour is about two hours in all and is something children will really enjoy; there are many farm animals at the entrance, as well as a great playground. Le Domaine des Grottes de Han, Rue Joseph Lamotte, 2, B5580 Han-Sur-Lesse, Belgium, Tél: +32 (0) 84 37 72 13.
WORLD WAR II AMERICAN CEMETERY
As any war buff will tell you, the Ardennes was the sight of many important battles for the Americans and Allies during both world wars. Before traveling on to the town of Spa, we visited the Ardennes American Cemetery. This graveyard spans 90 acres and has over 5,000 graves of American soldiers who fought mostly in WWII. This somber memorial couldn't have been sadder and with the foggy weather and the graves of brothers buried right next to each other, I was really in pieces. When I called my dad that night, my stepmother told me that her mother's first husband was buried there. The eerie thing is, all the while I was there, as I was reading names of the dead, I couldn't help feeling there was some connection to someone I might have known. If you know someone who died in Europe during the wars, you can look up where they are buried at www.abmc.gov. Many Belgian women have "adopted" graves and bring flowers and visit the sites regularly.
WORLD'S FIRST HEALTH RESORT
We traveled northeast for several hours to the town of Spa, which practically borders Germany. This town was established in the 16th century and was made famous by aristocrats and royals who traveled from all over Europe to take the waters, drinking them as well as soaking in them. The town center has many fading neoclassical buildings, from the casino built in the 1700s to the old Thermes de Spa, and several other ancient and slightly decrepit buildings. It's interesting to walk the town and sample the water from different public springs but frankly, I preferred to drink sparkling mineral water out of plastic bottles and sit in the pools of the new Thermes Spa. Staying at the Radisson Hotel was key. It's a four-star hotel, located right next to the funicular, which takes you up a steep slope to the new Thermes Spa. Rates for the hotel start at 140 euro per night and entrance to the spa is 12 euro. A visit to the James Bond Spa is an experience that will thrill you. From the huge glass-enclosed indoor pool and all the strategically placed jets in the whirlpools to being taken by the current to the outdoor pools, this is a fun experience for kids of all ages. There you can stay all day or you can go upstairs for treatments. Radisson SAS Palace Hotel, Spa, Place Royale 39, Spa, 4900, +32 87 279 700.
SPA TREATMENTS IN SPA
Upstairs, I waited in a modern lounge chair overlooking the forest below until I was called for my massage. They do it a little differently in Europe. Let's just say that we Americans are more modest! My male massage therapist came into the room and expected me to undress while he was there. I had to ask him to leave in my pigeon French while I got ready under the towel. The half-hour back massage that followed was really special; I loved the lavender-, rose- and violet-infused oil -- plus, he had the magical touch. Next, I sampled the "carbo" bath, which is a soak in a copper tub, filled with naturally carbonated water. Again, a different male therapist kept coming in to check on me, speaking only in French as I slunk down in my tub. After all the treatments, I was complete jelly and could barely make it down the funicular to the Radisson Hotel.
CERAN LANGUAGE SCHOOL
After some R&R on the lovely fourth floor, open-air terrace at the Radisson, which offers a terrific view of the old town, some of the group had a tour and took an actual French class at The Ceran Language School for adults and teens. Housed in an antique manor home, Ceran is an immersion school, which offers two 45-minute sessions of intense language instruction in the morning and two sessions in the afternoon. During breakfast, lunch and dinner you, your instructor and your group speak only the language you are studying. By the end of the week, you feel pretty confident about what you're saying. Too bad I hadn't taken the class before my spa treatments! An all-inclusive week starts at 2,300 euro. The school also has a program for children as young as 10, who can go for one to two weeks during the summer. For more information, visit www.ceran.com.
DINING AT A CASTLE
After the fun experience at the language school and the fabulous spa treatments, you wouldn't think the day could get any better. But what was in store for us that night was right out of a fantasy. Our surprise dinner was at Manoir de Lebioles, a castle that sits atop the highest hill in Spa, recently turned into a deluxe boutique hotel and restaurant. The Manoir de Lebioles was the home of an illegitimate son of King Leopold I, (makes you wonder what kind of homes the legitimate kids had!) back at the turn of the century. The place reminded me of Ralph Lauren's shop on Madison Avenue in New York and I found out that it was recently bought and restored by a German fashion designer. Each room in the 16-room castle hotel is uniquely decorated. I was surprised to learn that you can stay there mid-week for as little as 159 euro. Our group had cocktails on the terrace, which had a spectacular view of the countryside below. We were alone except for two gentlemen and their dogs, who drive from Germany to enjoy the castle for drinks and dinner once a week. I would too if I lived nearby. We moved inside to a cozy, circular nook in the dining room, just big enough for a round table and eight chairs. The six-course meal that ensued was as magical as the castle itself, with lobster ravioli, specially prepared lamb cooked two ways and vanilla panacotta with passion fruit. The Manoir de Lebioles is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Manoir de Lébioles, Domaine de Lébioles 1/5, B-4900 Spa (Creppe), Tel: +32 (0)87 79 19 00.
THE FINAL NIGHT
My trip to Wallonia was coming to an end, but I had one more night just outside Brussels at Dolce La Hulpe Brussels. A striking contrast to La Manoir, this is a totally modern hotel and conference center just completed this year. It's situated in the dense forest and every room is designed according to the principles of feng shui to create a sense of harmony and calmness. There are fun outdoor lounges under the trees and a great bar and restaurant. There is also a pool and spa area. It's about a twenty-minute cab ride from Brussels. Mid-week stays are pricey, but there are great deals on the weekend for less than 100 euro. Dolce La Hulpe Brussels, 135, Chaussée de Bruxelles, 1310 La Hulpe, Belgium, Tel: +32 (0)2 290 98 00.
Right near the Dolce Center is the Folon Foundation. It's an interesting museum in the renovated farmhouse of the La Hulpe castle, dedicated to the Belgian artist Folon. His art is whimsical yet intense, his purpose to make people aware of the fragile nature of our environment. You might recognize his work as it has graced many covers of the New Yorker Magazine. The museum is a wonderful discovery center for children and adults alike and the gardens, which feature his sculptures, enhance the museum. Lunch outside on the terrace overlooks cows in the pastures and everyone seemed to have a dog!
Wallonia is the "other Belgium" that many American tourists miss. If your travel plans include Brussels, rent a car or take the train and discover the Wallonia countryside, with a history, charm and beauty all its own. For additional information, visit www.visitbelgium.com.
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