If Wallonia got more than its fair share in Canada’s newly signed trade deal with Europe, you could say the same thing about its natural and man-made attractions. The French-speaking region of Belgium punches well above its weight when it comes to culture, history, scenery and gastronomy.
When the small region initially roared its disapproval over the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, many of us would have been hard-pressed to find Wallonia on a map. The southern half of Belgium rarely makes our news.
But as Wallonians continued to demonstrate against a deal they thought would give too much power to big business, we watched farmers on tractors protesting outside their capital city Namur, and saw pictures of a bucolic countryside with cows grazing outdoors, and people sitting and enjoying their food.
Instead of asking “Where’s Wallonia?” you probably started thinking “Wow, Wallonia!”
Yes, Wallonia may be less prosperous than Dutch-speaking Flanders in northern Belgium, but Wallonians know they’ve got something good and they want to protect it.
Luckily for us, they’re happy to share. The region offers a treasure trove of sights and experiences. Here are three places you’ll want to visit. Just don’t mention CETA, in case it raises their hackles.
Suzanne Morphet/The Globe and Mail
Crowned Cultural Capital of Europe in 2015, Mons boasts a dozen museums and art galleries, an imposing 15th-century church, a Gothic-style town hall and a 17th-century baroque belfry with 49 bells. It’s easy to walk the cobblestone streets of this small city and take it all in, but you’ll want to rent a car or book a tour to explore its coal-mining heritage outside town in an area called the Borinage.
Here you’ll find one of the architectural jewels of Europe’s Industrial Age – the Grand-Hornu, a former coal-mining complex. The neoclassical, red brick structure was pulled back from the brink of collapse by a French architect in 1971 and restored to its former glory, replete with columns and arches. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s a breathtaking example of transformation, and how industry can reflect culture. Inside, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) is a bonus. (An exhibition of postcards by American conceptual artist Peter Downsbrough runs until Jan. 8, 2017.)
Perhaps nothing is as intriguing about Mons as its link to Vincent van Gogh. The would-be artist arrived in the Borinage at the age of 25, not to paint, but to be a pastor. “He had read an article about the miners and wanted to work with poor people,” said local historian Filip Depuydt, who gives walking tours of van Gogh’s former neighbourhood in Colfontaine, with its narrow streets and humble row housing.
The enormous slag heaps where van Gogh often helped women scavenge for bits of coal to heat their homes still dot the landscape. For a close-up view, hike up the forested slag heap at the Parc d’Aventures Scientifiques (PASS) just outside Mons. The coal in these hills continues to slowly combust, warming the ground and allowing plants that wouldn’t normally grow here – such as butterfly bushes – to thrive. Incredible but true.
Before you leave the area, visit two of the houses where van Gogh lived, one still under restoration. When his six-month contract with the local church wasn’t renewed (church officials thought his habit of giving his clothes to the poor and dressing in rags was bizarre), van Gogh decided to become a painter.
In Mons, stay at the Dream Hotel, a restored convent in the old city with whimsically painted rooms.
The countryside of Herve
At the opposite end of Wallonia from Mons, get off the A3 highway at Herve and slow down to life in the countryside. Rolling hills are crisscrossed by hedgerows and dotted with black and white grazing cows. Church steeples punctuate the skyline above lush green valleys, where stone chateaux dating from the 16th and 17th centuries nestle beside clear flowing rivers.
This is where you come to taste Wallonia. Many of its agricultural products are protected by gastronomic confréries or brotherhoods, of which there are 129 in French-speaking Belgium alone. Pick up a map at the tourism office in Herve and watch a short video introducing the area’s flavours, then explore nearby villages by car or bicycle.
If you visit in fall, you’ll see pears and apples being boiled and hand-stirred in large copper vats at the Siroperie Artisanale d’Aubel, now run by the 11th generation of the founding family. Belgians enjoy the thick syrup, which improves with age, with chunks of raw milk cheese, another specialty of Herve.
At the Fromagerie du Vieux Moulin (Old Mill), see how cheese is produced and sample an assortment of unpasteurized varieties from mild to piquant.
To quench your thirst, stop at the Val-Dieu Abbey in the delightful Berwinne Valley, where beer is still brewed in the tradition of the Cistercian monks who settled here in 1216. The last monks left in 2001 and the abbey was taken over by a group of Christian lay-people. Inside the abbey’s attractive stone walls, a cafeteria offers three kinds of beer: blonde, brown and triple blond.
Just up the road, enjoy lunch outdoors on the patio of the Aux Berges de la Bel, or better yet, check in for the night. The bed and breakfast has four guest rooms, each named for a different variety of apple and painted in a matching shade of red or green.
Lunch might be wild venison bagged by hunters in the nearby Ardennes, with a rich brown sauce made from one of those abbey beers.
Aside from the food scene, this area has two other highlights. The Henri-Chapelle American military cemetery sits on a high plateau with gorgeous views. And near the particularly pretty village of Clermont, the Remember Museum vividly recalls how the Second World War played out here, with dozens of displays enlivened with realistic mannequins and hundreds of artifacts, including trucks and tanks left behind by American soldiers. The husband and wife who built and run the place are a delight.
The second-largest city in Wallonia, Liège is a breeze to get to by high-speed train from Brussels and other European capitals. Arrive at the relatively new (2009) train station, designed by celebrated Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and step out from its soaring glass ceiling to a city of more beautiful buildings, most of them just a lot older.
Liège claims to be the birthplace of Charlemagne, first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. What’s not disputed is the city’s unusually rich religious heritage from the Middle Ages. Seven large churches still survive, including the red-trimmed sandstone Collegiate Church of St. Bartholomew, known for its 11th-century baptismal font. The bronze font is considered a masterpiece of regional Mosan art and one of Belgium’s historical treasures.
One church is notable by its absence. St. Lambert’s Cathedral was demolished during the French Revolution by locals who were tired of church authority. Take a guided walk to learn fascinating tidbits such as the fact it took more than 30 years to methodically and peacefully tear down this cathedral, piece by piece. Theirs was a happy revolution. Much of the artwork was later installed in nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. The empty square where St. Lambert’s once stood is now the site of Liège’s famous Christmas market, which attracts more than two million visitors every December.
Across from the square, the Palace of the Prince-Bishops’ still commands authority, both by virtue of its occupants (the courthouse and provincial government) and its grandiosity. Gothic arches mix agreeably with Italian Renaissance columns. Look up and a grotesque face will be grinning down at you.
Visit Liège on a Sunday, and you’ll want to see the weekly market, La Batte, the largest and oldest in the country. Stalls line the River Meuse for almost three kilometres. Sellers offer fruits and vegetables, cheese and flowers, along with Belgium’s famous frites and waffles. Biting into a crispy-sweet Liège waffle – sweeter than those in Brussels and made with yeasted dough – is to experience momentary bliss. Meatballs – another Liège specialty – are sometimes served with a sweet sauce made from syrup of pears and apples from Herve.
When you’re ready to burn off some calories, climb the so-called Mountain of Bueren, an enormous staircase with 374 steps that cuts a straight and steep line through the city centre. You’ll be breathless at the top, and it won’t just be because of the effort. The view is spectacular, like so much of Wallonia.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Wallonia. It did not review or approve this article.