Viroinval is a gorgeous but relatively unknown municipality in the southern part of Namur, Belgium. It’s made up of eight small towns, and it’s heaven on earth for hikers and nature lovers alike. Trot Op! went camping in a cosy gypsy caravan and came back with six surprising tips for your next weekend in the Ardennes.
My French is absolutely god-awful and I’m not a fanatic hiker either, but this will not keep me from visiting the Ardennes now and then. There’s simply too much left for me to discover in good old Wallonia. After some very pleasant adventures in Gaume earlier this summer, I decided to cross the language barrier on more time before fall settled in. I’d get myself some fresh air, enjoy a bit of nature and stuff some dry sausages down my pie hole where possible: could it get any lovelier? This time, I decided to travel to Viroinval: a place I’d never heard of before. But when the always charming Morgane of Wallonia-Belgium Tourism tells me it’s worth going, I’ll be the last person on earth doubting her words. It proved a wise decision.
Camping in Viroinval: a full guide to your weekend in the Ardennes
Technically, Viroinval doesn’t really exist, as it is a municipality of eight separate small villages with different names. It’s located right on the French border in the south of Namur and it’s way less touristy than the Ardennes’ more famous draws. For hikers and nature lovers however, there are few places more suited to go nuts in for a weekend. Viroinval’s landscapes are green and forested, it goes up and down pleasantly and there are both charming towns and some unique sights to discover. Time to get a closer look I thought. So I quickly called two of my most decent looking corona-bubble friends and started preparing for a cosy weekend of camping. You only live once.
1. Cabania: sustainable camping in Viroinval
You don’t necessarily have to sleep in some leaky tent if you want to go camping in Viroinval. Ecocamp Cabania in Oignies-en-Thiérache – imagine writing that on all of your letters – offers plenty of unique glamping possibilities. Want to sleep in a Mongolian yurt, a custom-made bungalow or a see-through igloo bubble? It’s all possible here! Because I too am a vagabond at heart, I decided to book myself a real gypsy caravan. It came with a full kitchen and bathroom, a cosy little terrace and a separate bedroom for mom and dad (read: me).
“You don’t necessarily have to sleep in some leaky tent if you want to go camping in Viroinval. Ecocamping Cabania offers plenty of unique glamping possibilities.”
The camping itself is small but lovely and the food is surprisingly tasty. All veggies come from the garden or from local farmers and there are plenty of special beers on offer. The camping area borders a dark forest, which makes for incredible starry skies. Want to keep your romantic starlit date somewhat educational? Download the Skyview app. Nothing gets the ladies hotter than some factual knowledge on the cosmos. Live long and prosper my dudes! www.cabania.eu
2. Fondry des Chiens: marvel at Belgium’s deepest gorge
It’s hard to deny: as far as natural spectacles go, both Belgium and yours truly are not winning any awards. No Mount Fuji, Grand Canyon or even a small (Coffee) Table Mountain to enjoy here. There are still some spectacular sights to discover though. Fondry de Chiens close to Nismes for example: the largest sink hole in Belgium apart from the federal budget. Throughout the ages it created a 100m long and 20m deep ravine, which makes for some extremely photogenic views. You can easily get all the way down from one side of the gorge and walk the bottom. Lots of rare plant species grow there, making it the perfect and scenic endpoint for a hike – or for a wedding shoot, as you can see above.
3. Descent into the darkness of the Grottes de Neptune
Fondry des Chiens not deep enough for you? Take it one step further, do a Jamiroquai and go deeper underground. The Grottes de Neptune are a popular attraction in the region, and essentially a smaller version of the more famous Grottes de Han. You can of course only enter them on a guided tour – otherwise you’ll never be seen again – but the whole thing takes just an hour. You’ll start going down on foot, and then step into a wobbly boat to explore the wetter parts of the cave system. You’ll end the tour with a light and sound spectacle accompanied by some sweet 90s Vangelis tunes. Great experience for kids who aren’t too afraid of the dark, and once you get back to the surface, you can go for a couple of signposted nature walks on top of the caves. www.grottesdeneptune.be
4. Nismes: the most charming town in Viroinval
The town of Nismes is worth a visit as well. It’s one of the only villages in Viroinval home to more than just one bar or restaurant. It oozes southern charm, comes with a lazy little river full of silvery fish running through it, and the church in the town centre offers nice photo opportunities. The major attraction is the Jardins d’O. This is a vast park full of small water attractions, lovely for walking, having a picnic and rowing your little boat around. There’s a stately old castle near the entrance, and you can walk straight back to town over the river via several cute little bridges. Don’t forget to visit the “Museum of Small Size” while you’re at it. It’s not what your dirty mind thinks it is, but a museum exclusively showcasing art no larger than an A4 sheet of paper.
5. États d’Ânes: hug a pedagogically qualified donkey
F*ck turtles, I like donkeys! They are stubborn and goofy and look like an eight year old drew them as a joke. I’m a big fan, especially when they also have therapeutic value. États d’Ânes in Treignes is a brand new bar/education centre in the courtyard of an old castle farm, where six donkeys roam freely and harass you while you try slurping down your coke.
“Viroinval is probably the only place in Belgium where you can go hug a donkey for therapeutic purposes.”
The animals lead a peaceful life here on their little meadow, and will come and interact without you when they feel like it. They are also used elsewhere. They go to retirement homes where they’ll show the local old folks the time of their lives. Kids can come on a week long donkey workshop as well, and you can even treat one of your floppy eared friends to a forest walk. Even their poop is for sale here: apparently it’s the best fertilizer around. Lovely place, and if even hugging a donkey doesn’t cheer you up, it’s time for you to seek professional help. www.etatsdanes.be
6. Ride an authentic steam train to Treignes
Treignes is one of the other more interesting villages in Viroinval. And when you buy a ticket in Mariembourg on a Sunday, you can ride all the way there on an original steam train. Next to the station is the railway museum, which is a must visit. This large warehouse is full of old locomotives, carts and other relics from the days trains still ran on time and animals could speak. The other museums are much smaller in scale. Musée du Malgré-tout (“The Museum of Despite Everything”) is a tiny natural history museum with some Neanderthal tents and a mammoth graveyard outside, where in summer kids can learn how to throw spears like cavemen. Next to États d’Ânes is an Ecomuseum focused on traditional and forgotten professions, and in Espace Arthur Masson you can learn about the region’s most famous writer. Don’t enter this place if you have a train to catch in less than 90 minutes though. You will never make it.
“Camping in Virionval means getting to discover a beautiful but unknown part of the Ardennes full of natural sights.”
There you go: six fun tips to give your weekend of camping in Viroinval some extra spice. Did you visit the region before? Did I forget to mention some things? What’s your favourite destination in Wallonia? Let me know in the comments below.
Camping in Viroinval: practical info
For all tourist information on every Walloon destination, surf here: www.walloniebelgietoerisme.be
I went camping in Ecocamp Cabania. For all info on rates and accommodation, click here: www.cabania.eu. We slept in La Verdine de Michel.
Nature reserve Viroin-Hermeton covers 48.000 hectares all over Viroinval and in some surrounding townships. Click here for more info.
Already visited Viroinval and want to discover some other Walloon destinations? Click here for my blogs on Gaume, Spa, Liège and Charleroi. Want to travel a bit further? Read all about my adventures in Singapore, Kenya, Malawi, Taipei and Hong Kong.