Belgium… what do you know about this country that sits right beside France and Germany? We knew very little, but we were going there for a race at the world-famous Spa-Francorchamps racetrack.
Since we’d never been to Belgium before, we thought we’d spend some time after the race doing a quick tour of the area. With only about 2 ½ days before we were scheduled to be in Germany, we took in as much as we could in that short period of time… and nobody does speed-touring like us!
We arrived not really knowing very much about Belgium, and scouring the internet before leaving home just to find something to do in the Ardennes Region other than the racetrack, didn’t result in anything that seemed too exciting or even interesting – unless you love to hike and/or camp. After arriving, we found Belgium beautiful and charming – definitely worth taking the time to visit and spending more than just a weekend at the track.
The Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps (Spa) is one of those tracks that race fans around the world have on their “Bucket List” and we were not disappointed when we finally got there. It is called by many “the most beautiful racetrack in the world” and after spending even a couple of hours there you are left with no doubt – what they say is true…
We were there in combination with our friend and race car driver Andreas Wirth to see an ELMS (European LeMans Series) race, so we got to enjoy access that some fans don’t, get such as doing a track walk on the Thursday afternoon. We actually got to wander around the track and visit one of the most famous places in all of motorsport – Eau Rouge. As race fans, we couldn’t have had a better weekend as the weather, always tricky in that area, co-operated for the entire weekend.
– BTW if you are a race fan and haven’t watched the ELMS, you really are missing out on some terrific racing – nothing close to the SnoreFest that is Formula One. Racing is covered live, without adverts on YouTube
– BTW2 – Entry to the race is free for all spectators!! (Or at least before COVID happened and racing was a live, in-person spectacle)
If you’re planning a trip to the infamous Spa-Francorchamps racetrack in Belgium – Here are a couple of other places worth visiting while you’re there…
Francorchamps – The town you pretty-much have to drive through going to and from the race track. It leads you to the main VIP entrance and the renowned Hotel de la Source where the rich and famous people stay when in town. There’s a Circuit Shop on the main street that you can pass a dozen times (we did) and not see that it sells memorabilia and souvenirs of the track.
It’s a quaint little town with plenty of hotels, restaurants and shops. The restaurants we tried were pretty good – we got to sample two of them, and although a bit expensive (naturally when in a place like this) the food was very good. L’Acqua Rossa (reservations recommended) is very popular with the race teams as well as the public. Their pizza is very tasty and the ingredients fresh – one of the best and biggest pizzas we’ve ever had. For good steak (good but not fantastic) try Le Relais de Pommard Steak House, again a bit expensive and for some strange reason they put sauce (extra €3) on the steak!! You don’t kill a steak by putting sauce on it!! Who does that? Well apparently the Belgians and Germans do!!
Other places of interest in the area….
From our Airbnb home-base – just outside the tiny village of Hockai, we set off to do a loop of the area. First stop was the town of Spa, only 12 kilometres away.
SPA – The Town
It’s odd that we always associate the word Spa with the world-famous racetrack, but it’s even more famous outside of racing. First of all it gave its name to every spa in the world (duh), second – the first beauty pageant in the world was held at the Concours de Beauté, in Spa on 19 September 1888. Who knew!! And third and possibly most important to some people – it’s the birthplace of the casino. Built in 1763 it’s the oldest in the world and is still in operation today (open daily from 11am until sunrise).
Apparently, the Prince-Bishop of Liege (Roman Catholic Diocese/ruler in the region) way back in the 18th century thought of the idea and built one to remove people from their money with great success. The casino sits right in the middle of the town in a nice town square type of setting. Spa is a very nice looking town, however we were more enamoured with the roundabouts leading into Spa with their unique works of art and flowerbeds. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to spend wandering around, but that just gives us another reason to return some day.
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Coo – Waterfalls of Coo
After Spa we stopped in at a little village by the name of Coo. It’s a big holiday draw for families during the summer months and it’s easy to see why. There’s an amusement park front and centre with easy access – you don’t have to walk far to the park entrance. Parking must be a nightmare in the summer, but we had not trouble on a cool September afternoon. In addition to the park – for kids of all ages there are waterfalls, hotels and restaurants, along with camping and adventure tours that looked pretty good! If you’ve got kids, they’ll love it here, but adults also have plenty to do. One of the benefits of travelling during the off-season is that it’s not too crowded and that was certainly true with our couple of hours in Coo. The waterfalls are a big attraction and the quaint little town is also worth taking a stroll around. If you’re in the region, make sure you spend some time in Coo – it makes for a very relaxing couple of hours… in the fall/spring.
Waterfalls of Coo – Address: 4970 Petit-Coo, Belgium
Website: cascades-de-coo.be (once again great marketing by the Belgians – this site is only in French!)
Our last stop before heading back to our Airbnb for the evening was the town of Stavelot – famous…sorta, for the Abbeye de Stavelot – one of the oldest monasteries in Belgium… or a pile of rubble, truth be told.
We were really only interested in the Spa-Francorchamps Museum after-all, racing cars – that’s why we were in Belgium! But it turns out you have to visit two other ‘museums’ that looked very boring and the Spa-Francorchamps Museum was just a tiny exhibition in the dungeons… I mean “beautiful vaulted cellars of the abbey.”
From what we found on the Google and TripAdvisor – pictures actually do it justice, even a “large scale model and Playstation 4 consoles” couldn’t get us more disinterested than we already were! Check out the website to see for yourself how small this “museum” really is. The official recommendation is 30-60 minutes, so you just know there’s not much to see – what a shame considering the rich history of the track. Website: abbayedestavelot.be
Finding the Museum/Abbey is easy enough – its right in the centre of town, but thanks to our navigation system – we spent more time driving around trying to find the place than actually looking at the Abbey… from the car! After all of about 30 seconds, we left and drove right into the heart of the town square (about a minute away). The cobblestone streets around the square are very narrow but add to the “feel” of the town (the whole town is narrow and cobble-stoned, so it should actually be more inviting than it really is). In the end we can cross off the visit, but there’s no reason to really visit Stavelot – there are much nicer towns that are less grubby (we were very glad we didn’t end up staying there as originally planned).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot else to see in the immediate area of the track that we could find, but by skipping the visit to Stavelot you’ll get Coo and Spa covered easily within a day and there’s certainly plenty for the whole family to enjoy.
We’d highly recommend you make the time to travel a little further afield – about 90 minutes away, to visit Dinant (pronounced Dinan) – a beautiful town right on the Meuse River. Be warned though, there’s so much to do there you’ll need at least a couple of days to cover everything!
On our brief tour of Belgium, first and foremost on our to-do list was to sample real authentic Belgian Chocolate – not the store-bought stuff, it HAD to be from a chocolatier. Second on the list was a beer tour and tasting. In our searching for things to do, we found that there are lots of caves and tours throughout the country, so we put that down as a must-do as well.
With that in mind, we left the Spa-Francorchamps area and headed towards Dinant where we’d get to score off all three of our must-dos and add a couple more while we were at it.
There are apparently more than 2,000 Belgian chocolatiers, so finding a chocolatier should be easy… yes if you’re in a major city (Anderlecht, Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp or Liege) it’s very easy, but we never do easy. No, we had no intention of visiting a large city to get our “fix” so that made things interesting and problematic…especially with the lack of help from the tourism sites.
Based on our time constraints we singled out one chocolatier to visit and as fortune would have it – they were actually right on our route to Dinant and open the day we were travelling through, so we didn’t have to leave the main road except to drive up a little country lane. PLUS the chocolatier was also the creator of Praline chocolates – it doesn’t get more authentic than that!
*NOTE: All of the Chocolatiers that we found were closed on Mondays and some were closed on Tuesday as well. Many of the other attractions in Belgium are also closed on Monday – so plan accordingly.
Chocolatier Defroidmont – our time there was well spent learning about the origins of chocolate and the world of truffles, pralines, chocolate bars as well as the use of various spices that make each chocolatier unique. The museum tour was worth it and was far more interesting than we initially thought it would be. Living in Ontario wine country, we’re used to the skimpy “samples” or “tastings” that wineries offer people, thankfully the rest of the world is a lot more generous, but we were quite surprised to find a Belgian chocolatier being so frugal with samplings of their product. Tastings only happened after parting with €4 each for a ‘tour’ of the museum. We got to choose one chocolate before entering and one chocolate upon leaving – that’s it (though since there were so few people in the store we got a little special treatment and also got a very fresh truffle as well).
The 40-minute tour itself is quite clever and nicely set up using a pre-recorded presentation with pictures, props, lighting and videos to give you a comprehensive background on the family business dating back to pre-WWII, right up to present day – it’s definitely worth taking the time to learn about the intricacies of chocolate harvesting, manufacturing and packaging.
The hand-made chocolate comes in two varieties: Pralines and Truffles. Pralines are made with a chocolate shell and a wide range of creamy fillings, while Truffles have soft crumbly chocolate shells filled with buttercream.
After the tour the toughest decision was how much chocolate we weren’t going to buy!! The praline-filled chocolate is to die-for and the Truffles are by far the best we’ve ever tasted. Naturally we had to buy some to take home with us, but we had the weight and warm weather to consider. In the end we got about a kilo of incredibly tasty chocolate to share with our friends and family… oh and some for us too. As we were paying we got the opportunity to meet the owner and chocolatier Philippe Defroidmont – he suggested we take “The Bees Journey” tour before we left. We had actually taken a picture of a bee house/hotel before the tour and didn’t realize what it was. We probably spent 90 minutes or so in total at the Chocolatier Defroidmont and highly recommend a visit – even if it’s a bit out of your way.
Chocolatier Defroidmont – Website: www.chocolatier-defroidmont.be/en
Address: Briscol 19a, 6997 Érezée, Belgium
When driving into Dinant for the first time you see the following, in this order:
1) You drive through Le Bayard Rock, 2) The Citadel, 3) The rock cliff the Citadel sits atop, 4) Collegiale Notre-Dame church at the foot of the Citadel, 5) the Charles-de-Gaulle Bridge and 6) the Meuse River that divides the town in two.
After crossing over the Charles-de-Gaulle Bridge, we head up the hill to our next attractions – the Leffe Museum (pronounced: Leff-ah) and the caves (Grotte La Merveilleuse) both very close to each other on the same street. If you’re staying in town, you can easily walk instead of taking the car. Less than 3 minutes by car (10ish if you walk) from the centre of town is:
Grotte La Merveilleuse (The Marvellous)
Several areas of Belgium boast caves of all sizes, and many people say that the Caves La Merveilleuse are the best, so how convenient that we were right there! The 50-minute tour starts every hour at top of the hour. Parking is plentiful and free (toilet facilities are very basic – no sinks/soap) and there is a snack bar for before, or after your tour. The friendly guide speaks French, Dutch, very good English and waits for everyone to get close before starting his information so you never miss out. There is a huge variety of stalagmites, stalactites, cascades of colourful rock curtains and the largest stalactite deviating from perpendicular in the whole of Europe. It’s about 10C (50ish F) in the cave all year round so wear a jacket and comfortable sturdy shoes.
The caves are accessible for everyone but we had a couple of older people that had a bit of a challenge negotiating the wet stairs and damp floors. There are lots of stairs – be prepared for the final set – 120 to be exact – it’s the only way out – feel the burn!! The tour is great and definitely recommended. Pictures don’t do it justice because it’s just too dark, so enjoy the tour and just buy a book at the gift store if you want photographic memories.
Grotte La Merveilleuse – NO Website
Address: Rue de Philippeville 142, 5500 Dinant, Belgium
Tour: 50 minutes – begin promptly at top of the hour
Price: Adults € 9.00 / Children € 6.00
Brief history of the caves
Discovered in 1904 while trenching for the street railway that was planned but eventually never built, the stroke of a pickaxe brought to light the previously unknown cavity. After some exploration, the owners decided to develop the cave into a tourist attraction. The development turned out to be a huge job because they kept finding more caves with numerous elevation changes. There are a total of 3 floors with some of the chambers being 100 metres high as well as an underground river.
*** NOTE: There is a discount for the river boat cruise in conjunction with the ticket to Grotte la Merveilleuse – we saw the sign as we were leaving the parking lot! People on TripAdvisor.com have stated that if you visit the Citadel you get a €2 discount here – and vice-versa. Also, apparently you can also get a €2 discount at the Leffe Beer Museum! Sadly their co-branding/marketing is one of Belgium’s best-kept secrets and we missed out on the discounts!!
Being right next to Germany, you’d think the beer would be great in Belgium. If you’ve ever tried Hoegaarden you’d know right away it’s without a doubt one of the best beers in the world. Having already tested two traditional Belgian beers in the past 6 days or so, it was with great trepidation we entered the Maison Leffe museum (a former monastery) for a tour and taste of their beer – especially since one of the beers I’d tried – Leffe Blond was not very impressive – at best it was a 5/10. The other was a local beer called Jupiler (sold everywhere) and it was even worse – at best I’d give it a 3/10.
After parting with €8 each (and receiving 2 tokens each) we entered the museum… At first glance it’s pretty bare and unimpressive, but once you get involved it’s actually well done and very interactive. You get a very detailed explanation of the history of beer as well as a much better understanding of how different beers are made and why they taste as they do. Each station also has ‘smelling’ sensory stations which was cool, but after a couple of them they all smelled the same. The self-guided tour does get a little repetitive as you move from one display to another, and the urge to skip ahead became overwhelming. We learned a lot and would have missed a lot if we’d jumped too far ahead, so be patient as all is revealed.
Note: After all you’ve learned and looked at, decide on the beer you want to taste before leaving the museum (each beer is displayed along with its tasting notes before you exit) then proceed into the tasting area across the hall. The tasting area is a large bar/lounge type room with big comfy seats and a bar with stools. You can sit there or just retrieve your free glass of beer (in exchange for one of the tokens) and relax in the lounge. We actually thought we’d be sampling a variety of the beers in small glasses, but instead we each got one full glass of our choice.
Now the moment of truth… is the beer any good? Well there are plenty to choose from, both bottled and draught – naturally draught is the beer of choice because bottled just doesn’t cut it for a true beer drinker. Gail chose Leffe Ruby (refined red fruit notes and rosewood) and I chose Leffe Nectar (a blond, honey-flavoured, orange-coloured beer). Both were phenomenal, although I felt the Ruby was a bit too sweet – definitely a woman’s beer with its lots of berry-flavours. Gail loved it and declared she’d be a beer drinker if this was available to her all the time. As for the Nectar, Wow – it was just as I’d expected Belgian beer to taste, with lots of flavour and a nice smooth finish. An interesting side-note – Hoegaarden beer is brewed by the same company that owns Leffe.
Outside is a nice beer garden where you can relax and purchase…you guessed it…more beer. It’s in a great spot where you get a nice view overlooking the Meuse River and the town of Dinant. As you leave, you redeem the second token you’d received upon paying for your tour – in exchange for a “special gift.” We were thinking it would be something tacky and cheap but nope it was a very nice full-size beer glass! A great bonus souvenir!
A full glass of beer to drink and an authentic Leffe beer glass to take home with you – all for only €8… sweet. That would be worthwhile just coming in, paying for the tour and going straight to the tasting bar… if you lived in the neighbourhood. Now we had to figure a way to get them home without breaking them.
Maison Leffe – Website: www.leffe.com/en
Address: Charreau des Capucins 23, Dinant 5500, Belgium
Cost: €8 (€6 with the discount)
Heading back into town…
Charles DeGaulle Bridge
This bridge is one of the main reason we were attracted to Dinant, How cool is this?
Crossing the Meuse River, the Charles DeGaulle Bridge splits the town of Dinant through the middle. The pathway on the bridge is nice and wide with each side having numerous colourful saxophone sculptures in honour of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone who was born there in 1814. Each beautiful saxophone sculpture has a plaque explaining which European country it depicts. There are plenty of opportunities to take pictures on the bridge and the locals just walk by like you don’t exist. On one side of the river is a bronze statue of De Gaulle recalling his participation in the defence of the Citadel during the First World War.
Collegiale Notre-Dame (Church of Our Lady)
No matter which way you come into town you can’t miss this church – it stands front and centre right in the middle of town below the Citadel. Built in 1275 it has a rich history and connection to the town of Dinant as well as both World Wars. It’s not huge inside but has quite remarkable stained glass windows.
Cost: Free (optional donation boxes inside). Closed 12-1pm
Adolphe Sax Statue/Museum
Dinant is a very small town. When we were looking at it on Google Maps it looked quite big, but in reality it’s tiny. On the same side of the street as the Collegiale Notre-Dame (on Rue Adolphe Sax) – about 100 metres away, is the Adolphe Sax Statue and Museum. You can’t miss it, just follow the posts bearing sculptures of saxophone parts and the bronze footsteps embedded in the pavement. When you spot the statue, you’ll see the museum behind it. Once again, visiting tourist areas in the off-season is a treat because we were the only two people there and had the statue and museum to ourselves for about 15 minutes. The museum is tiny, but you have to visit it if you’re in Dinant.
Hours: 9am – 7pm
After visiting the museum we wandered into town looking at the various shops and looking for a couple of saxophones statues placed around the centre of town. We’d found a brochure at our Airbnb that had a map in it to show us everything we needed to know. The town itself is quaint but a little run-down. It’s obviously seen better days, but there was an extensive amount of roadwork being done along the waterfront that should bring the area to life in the near future. The main road through town – Avenue W. Churchill, was under construction too, and there were plenty of empty storefronts giving the town a shabby look. One thing we have to say though, at no time did we ever feel vulnerable or unsafe anywhere in the town. At the Town Hall we found a huge saxophone that would look amazing at night when it lights up, but unfortunately we didn’t have the time to go back after dark.
Citadel / Citadelle
We saved the Citadel visit for last as we would then continue our journey to Germany via Luxembourg. We’d grabbed a tourism brochure from our Airbnb and it did a better job of selling us on the river cruise and hospitality and banquet opportunities than the actual Citadel, so we didn’t have a very high expectation.
Having viewed the Citadel from afar during our entire visit in Dinant, it was a bit of a disappointment when we actually got there. There’s virtually nothing to see, and from outside it didn’t look like it was worth the admission price. Another annoyance was the fact that the entrance fee included a 2-way trip on the cable car that takes you right back into town – where we’d just come from. You can’t delete the cost of the tram – it’s all or nothing, so plan accordingly.
Tip… Drive to the Citadel and park for free. Pay admission to the Citadel and then take the cable car down into town. Wander around, visit the bridge, museum and saxophones, then take the cable car back up and enter the Citadel. Not only do you get to use the cable car, but it negates trying to find a parking spot (€1/hr) in town. Also, thanks to extensive comment reading on TripAdvisor (after returning home – d’oh), the guided tour of the Citadel is included, but not obvious (numerous people complained about this), and is apparently very good, taking you to areas that you can’t get to by yourself…meaning we should have gone in and taken the tour anyway… and got to see some spectacular views too. Ah well, we’ll just have to return again someday.
The Citadel of Dinant – Website: www.citadellededinant.be/
Address: Citadel Road, 1 to B-5500, Dinant
Price: €8.50 includes cable car into town centre (or take 408 stairs) // €14 citadel + cable car + river cruise
NOTE: There is a discount in conjunction with the ticket to Grotte la Merveilleuse – visit the Citadel you get a €2 discount there, and vice-versa. And you also get a discount at the Leffe Museum.
Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t have an opportunity to take a river cruise (45 minutes or 90 minutes). This had been one of our priorities when planning our trip to Belgium, but alas time slipped by way too fast and the weather wasn’t spectacular anyway.
Another place we wanted to see, but didn’t have time for was…
Parc de Furfooz
This woodland park has walking trails, prehistoric caves, a Roman fortress, Roman baths (rebuilt from their ruins), fantastic views, huge rocks and a pathway down to the Lesse River. Sounds great and yet another reason to return to this area again!
Address: Rue du camp Romain, Dinant 5500, Belgium
Price: Adults – € 4.00 / Students (under 25) and seniors – € 2.00
Belgium was a huge surprise for us. We had no idea it was that beautiful and it was a joy to travel in the country. The people we met were friendly and happy to help with any questions we had. Although the country is Polyglot (French, German, Dutch and English), we found everyone spoke French and most were able to also speak English. Although not a country we’d have ever put on our “must-visit” list (other than the track), it’s now firmly on our “must-return-to” list and we’ll definitely return the first chance we get. Be sure to put it on your list to see – you won’t be disappointed!
Pre-Trip – Airbnb
Before we even got to Belgium, we needed to find a place to stay. Since we knew very little about the area, we had no idea if any of the hotels were any good – and how would we begin to sort through them? It’s not like in North America where you have your chosen ‘brand’ of hotel chain and just go from there.
Everyone has heard about Airbnb, but we’ve never had the opportunity or need to use it. With few options on offer for the area we needed to stay, we decided it was time to give it a shot – let’s just say it worked out MUCH better than expected.
In Dinant we stayed right on the river facing the Citadel and only 5 minutes across the bridge to restaurants and all the touristy things. In the Spa-Francorchamps area we ended up staying just 12 minutes from the race track – most of the teams have to travel 30-45 minutes to and from the track, so we were thrilled to be that close!
Note: If you’re interested in trying Airbnb for the first time use this link (www.airbnb.ca/c/gails2301) and get a $40 CDN travel credit off your first booking (you’ll get credited in whatever currency you use).
Copyright © 2020 Iain & Gail Shankland / TravelBloggers.ca (at) Gmail.com. All rights reserved.
Text: Iain Shankland | Photography: Iain & Gail Shankland (unless otherwise indicated)
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Iain & Gail started blogging in order to inspire and motivate people to travel the world from their perspective – specializing in having the most fun while using the least amount of money, travelling on the cheap without sacrificing comfort.
In the end, you will only regret the things you didn’t do
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