Gaume lies in the southernmost point of Belgium, and this is quite noticeable when you drive through it. It’s a land of lush green hills and dense forests, dotted with tiny villages and ancient castles. Trot Op! took off to Camping de la Semois to stay in an authentic English double-decker bus, and visited four of the biggest sights in the Gaume region.
Sweet baby Jesus: we are finally free! The lockdown is a thing of the past. Terraces are filling up everywhere, Antwerp is full of morons not wearing masks and Tinder finally has an actual purpose again. To festively start summer after three lonely months, I decided to invite two of my most presentable social bubble friends for a weekend to a corner of Belgium I knew next to nothing about. The Gaume Region is a beautiful and relatively unexplored part of the country, located in the south of Wallonia, wedged in between France and Luxembourg. In contrast to the more rugged Ardennes, Gaume – or Belgian Lorraine for the well-read – is a hilly country full of gentle slopes. It’s Belgium’s sunniest region, which is reflected in its fertile meadows, forests and vineyards. Good road trip material indeed.
What to do in Gaume? Camping in the Belgian Provence
Except for Virton, you won’t find a single city of acceptable size in the entire region. Instead, the landscape is dotted with charming little villages and old castles. Want to experience a touch of Southern France, without having to drive all the way there? You’ll come closest to in Gaume. In some of the hamlets you visit, you can actually imagine yourself being in the French Provence. As far as our own trip was concerned, I decided not to book a hotel but to opt for a campsite instead. I’ve had my share of leaky tents in my festival days, so I picked a slightly more unique accommodation for the weekend. This turned out to be an excellent move. Our first post-corona trip – masks and hand gel aplenty – proved a major hit.
1. Camping de la Semois: sleep in a classic double-decker bus
Our base of operations for the weekend was Camping de la Semois: a wooded area on the banks of the river sharing its name, less than two miles from the French border. Here, an authentic English double-decker from the sixties was completely restored and converted into a place to stay for an entire family. Downstairs you’ll find a separate room with a double bed, two single beds, a shower and a toilet. Upstairs an entire kitchen and a spacious seating area were set up. The doors still slide open as if you were getting on as a passenger, and even the call buttons on the ceiling are still operational. Don’t tell your kids if you ever want to get some rest.
“The Gaume Region is full of nice camping spots. Camping de la Semois proved the most unique out of them all.”
If you don’t like public transport, you can either drag your own tent along, or opt for a luxury tree house, a tipi, a gypsy caravan or a Mongolian yurt to sleep in. Boredom is not an option here. Florenville is nearby and you can go kayaking, fishing, mountain biking and horse riding on site. You don’t even have to speak French, since the whole thing is run by a friendly Dutch lady who also provides fire baskets for those dreamy summer nights. Start practising those ballads. www.campingdelasemois.be
2. Drink a real Belgian trappist beer in Orval Abbey
What does one do for pleasure when one’s celibate and has to sit and pray half the day away? Brewing beer, getting piss drunk and holding cellar parties apparently. Fortunately, many monks shared this sentiment back in the day; otherwise we would be drinking a lot more shitty beers today. The Orval Abbey – where one of only six official Belgian trappist beers is made – was burned to the ground on several occasions in its 900 year history. The last time this happened was during the French revolution. It took until 1926 for a new one to be built, and this turned out to be a massive complex.
“Gaume is home to one of just six official trappist beers brewed in Belgium, and the Orval Abbey where it is made is a huge attraction in itself.”
Anyone wanting to explore the whole abbey will have to book a room for some quiet reflection, because most of the buildings and courtyards are not open to normal visitors. What you can admire are the impressive ruins of the original site, a beautiful herb garden, a monastery museum and an exhibition on the beer. Tasting can be done later in nearby l’Ange Gardien, where they serve Orval on tap. www.orval.be
3. Torgny: visit the sunniest village in Belgium
Tiny Torgny is one of Wallonia’s most beautiful villages, as well as the southernmost town in the whole country. It is sheltered from the elements by a wooded hill, and thus enjoys its very own micro climate. This not only ensures the highest number of sunshine hours in all of Belgium, but it also provides the local farmers with the perfect conditions for wine-growing. Torgny isn’t just known as “La Petite Provence Belge” as a joke. Both the vineyards and the colourful old houses complete the picture.
When we arrived in Belgium’s sunniest village, it was sadly raining cats and dogs. Of course. Fortunately, the only pub was open, and we could enjoy some local cheese and salami until the weather cleared up. Despite the rain, it really felt like everything was directly flown in directly from Southern France. There were flowers and grapevines everywhere, and more than fifty beautiful facades from the 18th and 19th century to admire. As soon as the covid crisis subsides completely, you’ll be able to go for tastings at the vineyards again. And that’s always a good idea.
4. La Roche à l’Appel: natural beauty in Gaume
Drive through the landscape for five minutes and you’ll know: the Gaume region is quite pretty. You can cruise for miles on winding roads through surprisingly vast forests, and in many places you can also strap on your hiking shoes and explore them. The most magical nature walk is probably the one to the top of La Roche à l´Appel in the Muno forest. Here you’ll cross an ancient stone bridge in a hilly wood, and then climb an impressive rock formation via a narrow little path. Once there, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view over the Ardennes forests all around.
“Belgium is home to a number of real natural treasures, and Gaume has more than its share of them.”
La Roche à l’Appel itself is quite close to the place where you have to leave your car, but several hiking trails were mapped out through the woods, which are very worthwhile to discover. You might have to look for them sometimes, but Belgium actually has some fantastic natural treasures in store.
5. Visit the monumental keep of Godfrey of Bouillon
Bouillon is officially not part of Gaume, but it’s very close by and far too pretty to pass up. The town itself was founded in a bend of the Semois and is very pleasant and touristy on its own, but the ultimate attraction is of course the gargantuan fortress towering over everything from an ominous rock. Bouillon Castle is probably the most impressive stronghold from the middle ages still standing in Belgium. Nearly a thousand years ago, this was the seat of Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the first crusade, and the man who got to rule Jerusalem after it was liberated – read: viciously and mercilessly sacked. He died quite horribly just a year later though, so there wasn’t much time to enjoy it.
“The castle of Bouillon is probably the most imposing stronghold from the middle ages still standing in Belgium today.”
You can learn all about good ol’ Godfrey’s life story during the audio-visual show in the Archeoscope downtown, which you should visit before you go to the castle. It’s a combination ticket anyway, and it will enhance your experience later. The keep itself is a maze of corridors, dungeons, immense vaults and extensive courtyards. Anyone who walks through the main gate over the two narrow bridges and notices the murder holes in the ceiling, immediately realizes how completely impossible it would have been to capture this castle in Godfrey’s day. The man probably slept like a baby.
There, you now know what to do in Gaume. Have anything else to add? Did I forget some sights? Where should I go next? What’s your favourite place in Wallonia? Give it to me good in the comments below, baby.
While organizing my weekend in Gaume, I was aided by the always ravishing Morgane of Wallonia-Belgium Tourism. Their official website offers a wealth of information on all Walloon destinations. Did you yourself take a nice photo while in Wallonia? Share it on social media with the hashtag #walloniewenkt. www.walloniebelgietoerisme.be
Want to discover some other parts of Wallonia after exploring The Gaume? Read my articles on Liège, Spa and Charleroi. There’s a lot to experience in Antwerp, Bruges, Koksijde and Borgerhout as well. Prefer your trips a bit further away? Read everything I wrote about Aruba, Oslo, Taipei or New Delhi.