What is it about the Ardennes tht people seem to either love or hate? Okay, maybe ‘hate’ is a bit strong, but to say the region is frowned upon would be an understatement. True, the Ardennes isn’t the place where one should expect a lot of glamour or hip must-be events, but some of us here at Luster have a thing for it, and we were surprised during our research for the book The Bright Side of Belgium about how much the Ardennes have to offer. A lush green environment and an exquisite cuisine for starters, but also a lot of enjoyable places for those who are interested in the finer things in life, like minimalist yet inviting eco hotels. And even a number of mostly small but always surprisingly interesting and charming museums. Here are five that are well worth a visit if you’re in the area and tired of hiking or outdoor adventures.
(Image: Musée Lapidaire de Montauban-Buzenol, Installation: C. Hunzinger © photo: Daniel Fouss & CACLB)
1) Lapidary Museum, Montauban
In the very south of Belgium lies a particulary fascinating museum: the Musée Lapidaire on the hill of Montauban in Buzenol. Here, the archaeological finds that were discovered on the hill can be seen. The site is designated as ‘Major Walloon Heritage’ and is surrounded by Iron Age dykes. In the middle is a rampart dating from the Carolingian period, and there are also the remains of a medieval keep. But we recommend the museum particularly for the building itself. It was built in 1959 according to the plans of the Belgian-Polish architect Constantin Brodzki, a student of Henry van de Velde who designed, among other things, the Belgian Congo pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. For his commission in Montauban, he worked with Corneille Hannoset, a designer with a great affinity with the Cobra movement. Their mission: to build a museum in the middle of the wood that can function without surveillance, without staff and without maintenance. The result is what Brodzki himself called a ‘pocketsized museum’. It consists of four cubes placed next to each other, half buried in the side of the hill, through which light enters through a glass side wall. The other walls and the double ceilings provide ventilation. It is a highly original building with a timeless beauty. The Archeological Park of Montauban is always open for visitors who want to admire the museum building, and free of charge. To visit the museum you have to make an appointment – go to www.museesgaumais.be or call +32 (0)63 57 03 15.
(Photo: Daniel Fouss - © CACLB)
2) Centre for Contemorary Art of Belgian Luxembourg, Buzenol
Another fascinating and wonderful location in Buzenol, not far from Brodzki’s Lapidary Museum, is the site of the former ironworks at the foot of the village. These were established in the valley from the 16th century: the presence of waterways and veins of metallic ore running close to the surface meant that the Gaume region was ideal for the metal industry. This industry brought prosperity, to which the ruins of the handsome mansions from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries bear witness. Today, the ironworks of Montauban are used by the Centre for Contemporary Art of Belgian Luxembourg, which exhibits contemporary art there. The extraordinary décor and the way in which the high-quality and fascinating works are integrated into nature make this site a place not to missed in the Ardennes. To know more, visit www.caclb.be.
(Photo: Lake installations by Isabelle Copet (on the water) and Xavier Dumont and Monique Calande (background), 2013 - © CACLB)
3) Bastogne War Museum
This new and modern museum (it opened in 2014) is a must visit for anyone who’s interested in the causes, events and consequences of the Second World War. The focus in this memorial centre is on the Battle of the Bulge, a crucial battle at the end of the Second World War that took place in the area around Bastogne and Houffalize in the Ardennes. Hitler chose this area for a final frontal attack: on 16 December 1944, the Germans bombarded the front from Monschau in Germany to Echternach in Luxembourg. Both sides then tried to be the first to reach strategically important Bastogne. On the way, heavy fighting took place in the bitter cold, with temperatures dropping as low as minus 25°C. The Allies under the command of General Patton reached the town first, which they defended tooth and nail, eventually overpowering the German troops. For this reason, the inhabitants of Bastogne are eternally grateful to the Americans. The Mardasson Memorial, next to the museum is testament to this: a monumental star-shaped memorial in honour of the 76,890 soldiers who were killed, wounded or went missing following the Battle of the Bulge. A visit to the museum really brings the struggle of the soldiers to life, thanks to the permanent infrastructure and temporary expositions – the current one is ‘From Texas to Bastogne’ and tells the story of five young Texans who travelled to the European battlefield to become heroes. For practical information, visit www.bastognewarmuseum.be.
(Photo: Kevin Manand - © Tempora)
4) Abbey of Stavelot
The most important claim to fame of the charming town of Stavelot is the abbey, founded by Saint Remaclus in the 11th century. Its former cloister foundations now house a historical museum, where you can find out all there is to know about the once all-powerful abbey principality of Stavelot-Malmedy. After a successful grand renovation, the abbey now also houses the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit Museum, as well as a museum devoted to one of the most striking personalities of the 19th century: the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The two museums are linked by a beautiful glass and stainless steel structure, placed onto the ruins of the abbey’s third wing. Plan your visit on www.abbayedestavelot.be.
5) Rops Museum
Strictly speaking, this museum doesn’t belong in this list because Namur isn‘t in the Ardennes. However this charming town does like to call itself ‘the gate to the Ardennes’ and rightly so – it lies at the crossing of the rivers Sambre and Meuse that form the borders of the touristic region of the Ardennes. Namur is the birth town of Félicien Rops (1833-1898), a famous Belgian painter, graphic artist and caricaturist. He shocked his contemporaries with his satanic and erotic works, populated by apes, witches, skeletons and naked women, whose lust was portrayed through accessories such as stockings or masks, as in his most famous work Pornocrates (1878, also known as The lady with the pig). But Rops wanted to do more than shock. He was always looking for ways to develop his technique or combine various techniques. This is something that you can discover in the relatively small but interesting museum that is dedicated to Rops’ life and work, located in a town house in the city centre. The museum organizes fascinating exhibitions in which Rops’s work is displayed alongside that of other artists. Info? www.museerops.be.
___ Text: Sigrid Vandensavel and Hadewijch Ceulemans, from The Bright Side of Belgium