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Wonky Walking

Adventures on foot when living with disability and chronic illness

The chicken van

Not that you need an excuse for eating creme brulee for breakfast, but ours was that we’d run out of food and had set today aside to restock and rest up.

After a visit to Beauraing’s Carrefour supermarket we’d planned on perusing the Christmas market, but much to our disappointment it had closed the weekend before when we’d enjoyed a hot chocolate there on first arriving in the town.

Having envisaged being able to buy Christmas pressies for family back home, and not wanting to drive around in search of other markets, Rich and I then had an argument about how we were going to find ‘genuine’ Belgium gifts. To save driving each other nuts, after I’d pointed out that it was usually me who sorted everyone’s pressies, we decided to shop separately for a wee while and meet up back at the car, with Rich promising to find a present for his dad. Much to my suprise, he did, and later presented ‘Belgium in a basket’, with an actual basket he’d found in a local second hand store. He’d even gone into the butcher’s, explained his predicament (including an annoyed wife), and come out with vacuam packed pate and wild boar sausages that would survive the car journey home. With the local beers I’d found, we knew that his dad would be very appreciative.

In need of food ourselves, we then spotted a huge truck selling cooked chickens – apparently a regular sight at lunch time in Belgium, and bought two chicken portions before nipping over to the very popular take-away for a portion of chips and mayo to go with them. It all went down a treat back at the gite. We much prefer eating like this, or cooking with local ingredients, than dining a la carte, and some of the best food we’ve eaten has been in people’s houses, or small cafe/restaurants off the beaten track. Whilst we travel mainly for the walking and landscapes, food is definitely a close second, so when we’re not able to walk far, we’ll just travel by train and eat our way round the world.

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The rogue donkey

I got up early to watch the sunrise through the living room window, and of course Tinsel was already outside waiting patiently for her breakfast. She’s turning into a very spoiled kitty, but I just can’t resist the plaintive ‘stop me from starving!’ meows.

We’d planned to follow another guidebook walk from Javingue today, just south of Beauraing, but as this involved a lot of road walking we decided to go off piste and take full advantage of the network of farm tracks and footpaths. I worry about Rich walking on roads because his difficulty in balancing means that he can veer into the path of oncoming cars, and most drivers don’t anticipate the possibility that a walker might be deaf, so the experience becomes a tad stressful for both of us. You’d be surprised at the number of drivers who don’t slow down to pass walkers, or even leave a safe amount of space between the car and us.

Javingue seemed to be a particularly donkey friendly village, with several fields full of them, and as we cut through Bois de Beuraing we came across one that had managed to escape and decided to explore the forest track. After nibbling on my fleece, and following us for a while, it eventually got bored, or realised that we wouldn’t be providing snacks, and stayed put. A bit of a relief, as I wasn’t sure how we’d explain our acquisition of a stray donkey back at the gite. We later found out that the donkeys are used for donkey trekking during the summer, much like llamas and alpacas are back in the UK. Maybe the rogue donkey had just decided that it needed to go for a walk by itself, as it would have been a while since its last trek.

The rogue donkey

There’s obviously a problem with off-roaders damaging the tracks and woodland as we saw a few signs forbidding the use of motor vehicles. Fortuntely the network of footpaths is brilliant, and benches are even provided at viewpoints, as seems to be the case in France and Germany, and no doubt other parts of continental Europe which we haven’t yet walked in.

Once over the Viencimont to Javingue road, we walked through Grandes Virees before circling back to the village from the west. As has been the case since we arrived, we didn’t see another walker all day, despite amazing views and Winter sunshine. The Ardennes really are a hidden secret with regards to winter walking.

Back at the gite, the only way we could stop Tinsel staring daggers at us through the kitchen window was by giving her a small bowl of the meatballs that we’d fished out from our lunchtime soup. Fortunately, she doesn’t need to eat much to stop pestering us for at least a few hours, although she quickly reappeared at dinner time, and I felt obliged to save her some of the sausage from the stew. It’s probably  a good job we don’t have a cat back at home, as it would definitely rule the roost.

Bois du Roi

As we wanted a car-free day, we enjoyed a leisurely lie-in and cooked breakfast before heading off from the gite. Tinsel was of course waiting for us as soon as we opened the door, and I felt obliged to leave her a saucer of milk. I’m guessing that Dominique gets used to her farm cats getting fatter whilst guests are staying!

We walked back up the hill towards the holiday park, and then in to Bois du Roi where we followed forest tracks and footpaths through to Bois Madame, before crossing the Houyet road to Fond de Scrupian, or as Rich had decided to call it – ‘the conveyor belt’. When looking at the map without his glasses on that morning, he’d got excited after thinking that he’d found the local equivalent of a cable car, because the symbol for ‘escarpment’ looked very similar. Despite it not being a cable-car, it was indeed a very beautiful escarpment walk in typical Ardennes woodland – gently rolling with lots of dips and troughs.

As we’d found yesterday, most of the footpaths were well marked, and apart from a few churned up areas, in good condition. We didn’t really mind the churned up areas as they were where wild boar had been snuffling around for roots. This is also hunting country, and we saw several signs advising you not to walk in the forest on hunt days. We wondered aloud whether it was the same sort of hunting culture as in Scotland, where it’s become something conducted mainly by an elite who pay lots of money to use an estate, or whether it’s something much more local and community based, like in Sweden. We suspected the latter.

We saw one mountain biker early in the day, but again saw no other walkers. After working our way round the escarpment we followed another track through Bois Madame towards Petite Hour, before taking a footpath north of the chalet park to the gite. Sure enough Tinsel was waiting patiently for us at the door, but went off to hunt in the field opposite after we’d provided sufficient cuddles. As expected, she reappeared at dinner time, and gave Rich a fright by staring at him from the kitchen windowsill! Only two days in and she already had us under her paw.

Hiking back to Houyet

Today we’d decided to do a ‘train walk’, parking at Houyet train station to catch the 10.21am train to Gendron-Celles, a mere 5 minutes up the line that meant we could then follow the magnificent 8.5km trail back along the River Lesse. Despite the impressive views and Winter sunshine, we’d have the trail to ourselves all day, and by the end of it Rich had decided that it ranked as one of the best walks we’d done in years.

Gendron-Celles

Parts of the path near Gendron-Celles were a bit churned up thanks to what looked like off-road bikes making the most of the large car parks near the river, but we’re not strangers to wading through mud, and it was worth it to discover evidence of beaver activity on the other side. The other advantage to walking here in Winter is that without their leaves on, you can see the views through the trees, providing ample opportunities to appreciate the Winter light glinting off the river.

In places, the path climbed above small crags, and Rich got particularly excited about the short via ferrata section. It certainly wasn’t an easy walk, what with the mud and slippy bits (a hazard for those whose balance is already compromised, like Rich, and for those of us who dislocate bits easily when we fall), but definitely worthwhile. Towards the end, we came across the now disused rail station for Château royal d’Ardenne, once the private station for the notorious Leopold II – the man who’d claimed ‘ownership’ of the Congo. From here it was just a short walk back to Houyet, where we partook of a plate of Belgian frites each in the diner next to the train station. You can’t beat proper Belgian chips.

Back at the gite, after a Belgian inspired rustic dinner of chicken and chorizo stew, we wrapped up warm and headed outside to enjoy hot chocolate whilst sitting on the verandah. Of course the kitty was waiting for us, and kept trying to drink from our mugs, so I then had to give her her own plate of warm milk. Despite being a farm cat, she’s obviously learned how to turn on the charm for guests, and I’m a sucker for a daft cat. We decided to call her Tinsel, it being Christmas time…

Grand Hour

After being shown by Dominique how to clean the wood pellet stove, which we’ve fallen in love with, we headed off for a walk recommended in the Cicerone guidebook to the Ardennes. From Grand Hour we followed the minor road to Petite Hour, and then used green lanes to head north, before coming back round to the hamlet of Havenne. Here we found some more donkeys – every Belgian community seems to have at least a few, as well as a few goats, another creature which we have a very soft spot for. Even the sheep we passed in the fields seemed friendly, although this was probably more in anticipation of food than cuddles.

From Havenne we followed another green lane and footpath to a viewpoint named ‘La Justice’, so called because when Wallonia was still annexed to France in 1795, this was one of the spots where criminals used to be hung. Despite the mist, we stil had lovely views of the surrounding villages and woodlands. I love the red brick houses, but sadly the local brickworks in Waalin closed down a few years ago.

After admiring the scenery we headed back to the gite for a late lunch. We saw no other walkers, and only one road cyclist, despite the Ardennes being perfect Winter walking country, and definitely an area we’d return to.

 

More cats

After mashed bananas on toast for breakfast (we’d run out of food), we headed back to Beauraing to shop for groceries at the Carrefour. It took us a while to get our bearings, but despite being a small supermarket it was surprisingly well stocked, even with gluten free food.

We were both flagging after the drive over from England, and so decided to forego a trip to the tourist information office and head back to the gite for an early lunch, after which we set off on foot to explore the village, meeting all of its friendly cats along the way. Belgians certainly like their felines. We found two friendly donkey’s (Belgians like these lots too), the local cafe, children’s play park, and my favourite – the bread vending machine, before following a footpath to Chapel Notre Dame des Grâces, located on a small hill south of Hour. The site dates back to Celtic times, and the current church to 1856.

After admiring the view we headed back, only to meet one of Dominique’s cats waiting patiently for us outside the door. We eventually managed to get past it and inside, but I suspect it’ll be back. Cats always know when there are humans close by who are gullible enough to provide cuddles and sneaky snacks.

Beautiful Beauraing

After leaving Veronica’s B&B, we drove for 90 minutes before stopping for a cuppa at a service station just outside Namur. We liked it so much that we decided to stay for an early lunch. Something no one ever said about a British service station! We each had a large bowl of salad, and then shared a sublime chocolate mousse, before heading on to Beauraing, the town nearest to our Airbnb rental for the next ten days.

We’d not expected much from Beauraing. It’s not mentioned in the guide books, but we quickly learned that it attracts tourists because apparently apparitions of the Virgin Mary have appeared here, and so it’s become a pilgrimage site. Neither of us are believers, but we were grateful for the good quality public loos that go hand in hand with towns that sometimes get a deluge of tour buses! We strolled around and quickly fell in love with the place, even more so when we accidentally found the Christmas market, and an artisan hot chocolate stall, something which the Belgians excel at of course.

Not being able to contain our excitement much longer, at 3pm we headed north to the little hamlet of Grande Hour, just south of Houyet, to find our holiday home. Gite du bas des roches is owned by the wonderfully quirky and horse mad Dominique, and was absolutely gorgeous. She’d even decorated the gite inside and out with a Christmas tree and fairy lights. The website photos absolutely don’t do it justice. With solid wood furniture, a wood pellet stove, and a large terrace, before we’d even unpacked we’d decided that we’d be coming back.

The outdoor fairy lights and terrace

But I don’t have a cat!

Rich has driven into and across Europe before, but for my first drive over to the continent, we decided to head to the Belgian Ardennes, an area that is very much off the radar of most British walkers, especially in winter. Having thought it a good idea to book a room at Dover’s Premier Inn, and then get an early ferry the following morning, we realised that after no sleep we may as well have just kept on going to the B&B that we’d booked for the second night. Still, we enjoyed our ferry fry-up, and finding our way out of Dunkirk once we’d landed was surprisingly easy, probably because as always, I’d insisted that every part of the journey be pre-programmed into Dervla, our trusty satnav.

As we’d anticipated being knackered and not wanting to go out for dinner, we’d found a place to stay that had a self-catering kitchen, so stopped off at what was definitely the biggest supermarket I’ve yet to visit – the L.Eclert just outside Bailleul, to buy a pre-cooked chicken and some veggies. With fatigue levels increasing, we then decided to try and have a snooze in the supermarket carpark before checking in to the B&B, which meant that we attracted the attention of the security guards, and they insisted on driving past us again and again and giving us the evils.

We eventually found our base for the night, having driven past it a few times first because it was called something different to the name given on the website, and because typically, a migraine had started to set in. Virginie’s B&B lies only a few miles from the border with France, in a good walking area, and provided the peace and quiet that by then we were craving. Our room was called ‘Chicoree’ and was absolutely gorgeous, with its own entrance hall, wet room, and separate loo. There are even bee hives and free range chickens in the garden. We went straight to bed for a nap when we arrived, and fortunately the tryptan kicked in so that I could enjoy dinner in the double level lounge and dining area.

Fortunately sleep also happened that night despite the nap, but in the early hours I felt a sudden pressure on the end of my bed. We were in a twin room, and I knew it wasn’t Rich, so immediately went into warrior mode, pulled my legs up to my chest ready to kick out, and as I did so turned the lamp on so that I could get a decent aim, only to find that there was a small bundle of black fluff purring at me, and making its way up the bed in an effort to get beneath the covers. We’d opened the bathroom window as we like cool rooms, so this little puss cat had come exploring. Had it wanted to curl up and go to sleep I’d have let it stay, but it kept head butting me and purring so loudly, that I had to put it back out of the window. Needless to say, a few hours later it came back, and had just settled down on my bed when it heard Rich stir and decided that it had to investigate Rich and his bed at that very moment. Poor Rich screamed and shot out of bed when the cat landed on him! Of course it then wanted to head butt Rich so I had to shove it back out of the window, and hope that it would leave us in peace until the morning.

Over a fabulous continental breakfast (I’d bought my own gluten free bread – you learn to come prepared when you can’t eat certain things), we told Virginie that we’d met her cat in the night, and that it was very cuddly, only for her to announce that she didn’t have a cat. Turns out that it had come from a nearby farm, and must have sensed that there was at least one cat lover (me) in the room. It made staying in a lovely B&B all the more special to be honest though, and we’d definitely return, even if only for the glorious anticipation of the cat creeping back in. As we can’t keep a pooty at home because of Rich’s restricted airway and allergies, I need to get my cat fixes where I can.

Last day at the lake

To mark our final full day in Mittenwald, we headed back to Lautersee to spend some time swimming and sitting by the lake. The tourist bus was full, meaning that we had to stand and hold on for dear life, despite me not being tall enough to reach the hand supports, and Rich’s balance being off kilter. It seems that the elderly Germans on the bus that day thought that advanced years meant they were more deserving of a seat.

Once off the bus, we walked along the footpath circling the lake, to a spot we’d coveted on our first visit a few days ago – close to proper steps down into the water to make getting in and out easier for Rich, and in the shade. We then tried to preserve as much of our dignity as possible whilst stripping down to our cossies on the footpath, feeling proud that we were the first to arrive and get in the water.

After a few laps, and once our bodies felt suitably chilled, we dressed and headed back on foot along path number 828, which ends at the chairlift base station. It had turned into another hot day, so cool drinks and a nap were called for. Walking holidays are hard work.

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