Town and country in the Ardennes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am

Luxembourg and Belgium, while highly urbanised, share a wilderness area rich in natural and man-made attractions

LUXEMBOURG IS A remarkably young country by West European standards, having attained full independence as recently as 1867.

But it has come a long way since Karl Marx noted the poverty of Luxembourger wine-makers in the Moselle Valley in the 19th century, an observation that partly helped inspire his radical socio-economic theories.

Luxembourg is now the richest nation in the world, based on gross domestic product per capita.

The country's affluent citizens enjoy, in common with their EU neighbours, protection from economic exploitation by a raft of EU regulations.

Previously an industrial powerhouse, primarily in steel production, Luxembourg has for many years been growing as a banking centre.

Growth in the financial sector accounts for about 28 per cent of GDP, bringing sustainable prosperity to this tranquil and stable corner of Europe.

It has not always been tranquil. Occupying a geopolitically strategic position, the area now occupied by Luxembourg was once a much fought-over chessboard between various European powers.

Luxembourg's well-preserved historical city centre, whose fortress is a Unesco site, is often cited by visitors as a 'pleasant surprise'.

To the west is Belgium, which predates Luxembourg as a nation state by a mere 37 years, and it feels like a bigger, older sibling.

Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, which accounts for Flemish, a variation of Dutch, being the language of 58 per cent of all Belgians.

The Flemish community, Germanic in origin, is mostly concentrated in the northern half of the country, and the French-speaking Walloons, who make up 31 per cent of the population, live in the southern half that adjoins France. A large foreign contingent - increasingly East European - makes up the balance.

The capital, Brussels, is the most multicultural city in this polyglot nation, and is also a major player on the world stage, being the headquarters of the EU and Nato.

Some call Brussels 'the capital of Europe', but the locals prefer to consider it a Belgian town, albeit a grand one.

Brussels and the historic cities of Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent draw millions of tourists a year, mainly from Britain, France and Germany, but also from the Asia-Pacific region. Many long-haul visitors include a visit to Luxembourg on their itineraries. This year is a good time to visit Luxembourg, which has been named European Capital of Culture 2007, with a wealth of events and exhibitions lined up.

The border between Belgium and Luxembourg, two of the world's most urbanised and densely populated nations, runs for the most part through one of Western Europe's most pristine wilderness areas.

A vast expanse of unspoilt hilly countryside dotted with towns and villages from another, less frenetic, time, the Ardennes region sprawls across eastern Belgium and northern Luxembourg like a landscape from a Tolkien novel. A common Ardennes vista is a steep-sided valley carved by fast-flowing rivers, such as the Meuse.

Here can be found that slightly odd-sounding natural feature in a country known for being flat - Signal de Botrange, the highest mountain, which tops 700 metres.

The topography of the Ardennes is fairly rugged, but between the rocky outcrops lie forests and pastures that form a rich ecosystem, as many a hiker realises on sighting a fox, squirrel, or weasel scampering into the undergrowth.

One of the largest Belgian Ardennes towns is Bastogne (Flemish/Dutch: Bastenaken, Luxembourgish: Baaschtnech) in the slightly confusingly named Walloon province of Luxembourg. It is a picturesque town whose tower of the St Martin's church, and its baptismal fonts, date from around the 14th century.

Bastogne is best known as having been a pivotal battlefield during the second world war, and the Mardasson Memorial stands nearby to honour the memory of the 77,000 American soldiers who were wounded or killed while fighting the Nazis there.

Across the border, in Luxembourg proper, the town of Clervaux (Luxembourgish: Klierf, German: Clerf) is a typically delightful Ardennes town hemmed by dense forests of oak, with a medieval church and a well-preserved 12th-century chateau and castle dominating the low-rise skyline.

Another Luxembourg Ardennes town, Wiltz (Luxembourgish: Wolz), is on the banks of the river Wiltz.

Four times as large as Clervaux, but with the same serene hamlet ambience, the town is the focus of an annual pilgrimage, on Ascension Day, to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima.

Notably, the town attracts members of Luxembourg's Portuguese community, so large that Portuguese is spoken by 14 per cent of the population.

The Museum of Art and Handicraft in Wiltz is a must-see. Wiltz is also home to a musical festival of international renown in July, which features productions encompassing jazz, folk and opera.

The scenic beauty of the region and its comprehensive tourism infrastructure mean a wide variety of outdoor activities, including wild-boar hunting (with the appropriate licence), mountain biking, walking and canoeing, make the Ardennes an invigorating change of scenery from the quaint city streets of the Low Countries.

Wild boar and other game can be found on the menus of many an Ardennes village restaurant, with other local specialities being assorted pate and sweet tarts made with forest berries.

The Ardennes is not a great place for dieting, but one assumes you will be working it off on the mountain bike or scaling relatively unchallenging peaks on foot, all the while enjoying hilly vistas that many visitors are surprised to learn is the adventure playground of the Low Countries.