If you’re visiting the eastern Ardennes, the handiest starting point is big and gritty Liège, an industrial sprawl from where it’s a short hop south to the historic resort of Spa and the picturesque town of Stavelot, with its marvellous carnival. You can use Spa or Stavelot as bases for hiking or canoeing into the surrounding countryside and to venture into the Hautes Fagnes, though the attractive little town of Malmédy. —The Rough Guide to the Ardennes
A short drive across the border from Maastricht, the hilly green region along the German border of Belgium has always been a draw for a day trip. Although the site of many battles during the first and second world wars, today’s roads wind through picturesque villages, along peaceful streams, and through quiet forests that are time and worlds apart.
It’s hard to envision tanks and infantry being able to navigate the rugged valleys and dense brush that covers most of the region. While it provides cover, it must have been slow going for any campaign. The abundant memorials suggest that progress got stuck, allowing battles to be fought, almost everywhere.
We started in Spa, predictably the home of one of the oldest mineral cold spring baths in Europe. Casinos joined the baths in the eighteenth century, and the German Army used the town as it’s principal headquarters in World War I. There’s a lovely local beer, Bobeline, for washing down ham and cheese croque whilst people-watching along the main boulevard.
Spa is relaxing.
Stavelot is the historic center of the region, the home of an Abbye that dominated culture and politics for centuries. The museum follows the evolution of the complex and the personalities who dominated it, some inspirational and some venal. The ebb and flow of wealth, repeatedly built up to the glory of God and then dissipated for the pleasures of men, mirrors both personalities and power.
So little is left: I didn’t realize the significance of the low walls and high arches when we arrived, then had to take a long walk around the outline before we left. It’s a remarkable construction.
Stavelot is thoughtful.
Incongruously, beneath the Abbye is the F1 Racing Museum. It’s a delightful collection of vintage cars and motorbikes, linked to the nearby Circuit de Spa Francorchamps. My son was a big fan of F1 racing, he didn’t understand my neglect of it. I made some amends today.
We made the stop at Malmédy late in the day, more for completeness and hunger than anything. A quick round of the church, then abundant frites, blond beer, and spiced meat-on-a-stick made the world right again.
Malmédy is comfort