Our trip went from the Abbaye d'Aulne on the Sambre across the northern Ardennes down to Reims in the French Champagne region.
Even on the third day of our journey from Brussels to Reims, Wallonia was to change its face several times, so varied is the landscape, so varied are the places. The landscape is beautiful, with a lovely gentleness that only the low mountain ranges have.
Good sleep and excellent breakfast
While our restaurant planning was rather poor on the first and second day - we picnicked on the Sambre the night before - we had a really good hand with the choice of hotels. It's the little things that make it special. The rooms with their quarry stone walls at L'Auberge de L'Abbaye d'Aulne are beautiful. There is free water in the central fridge. And we also slept excellently in the comfortable beds and woke up with the sun at our backs. It shone in from the east through one window and out the other. And at the same time, lying down, we could look at the ruined monastery of the Abbaye d'Aulne. A real recommendation!
The breakfast was very good and more than sufficiently fortified, we set off. In this photographic travelogue, you can expect to see the largest expanses of water in Belgium, an interesting railway station standing on a bridge, monastery beer, a beautiful castle where baroque festivals were held, ponds with lots of fish, a special recipe, almost abandoned villages, an old tram bridge and an impressive cathedral at the end of the day.
The first destination of our trip was Chimay, which might be known to some for the monastery beer of the same name.
Eau d'Heure reservoirs
Never underestimate the province
We leave the ruined monastery of the Abbaye d'Aulne on the right and a little later we are heading south on the dead-straight main road between Gozée and Beaumont. We turned off in the direction of Boussu-Lez-Walcourt.
Boussu-Lez-Walcourt is a district of the municipality of Froidchapelle and is located near the 5 Eau d'Heure dams in the south of Belgium. Since 1970, they have formed the largest water reservoir in Belgium with 86 million cubic metres and an area of 635 ha, equal to 6.35 square kilometres. By comparison, Lake Bigge has an area of 8.95 square kilometres, Lake Constance 536 km². In addition to tourist destinations, the lakes were to provide sufficient water for the Charleroi-Brussels canal, among other things, after its expansion to ships of 1350 tonnes. The lakes are also of great importance for the drinking water supply of the Charleroi region. In addition, a pumped storage plant generates electricity for peak loads. As we drive past, we see water skiers whizzing across the glistening surface of the lakes in the bright spring sunlight. We continue south over the long dam wall of the Plate-Taille.
The 132 line
The bridge station
Today, coming from the north on the N589, a section of the road crosses the former railway line of the Sambre-et-Meuse railway (Charleroi-Vireux, later also line 132 in the Belgian timetable) and passes under the former Cerfontaine station (historical pictures). The station, formerly located on the railway line inaugurated in 1853, fell victim to the construction of the aforementioned dams, as the line was transferred from Walcourt to Neuville to the east, thus eliminating the stop at Cerfontaine.
The station is an architectural feature, having been built in 1920 on a purpose-built bridge over the line. In front of the station, not visible in the picture from this side, a narrow road crossed the bridge. Stairs run down to the platforms on the right and left. The reason for a new station in 1920 was that the high! traffic volume on the entire line made a second track necessary. Golden times for railway fans and me. The building was designed by Léon Pèche, a civil engineer from Cerfontaine. The station has been an official Belgian monument since 1992 and has housed the Cerfontaine Regional Museum since 1973. At the time of the photo (Wikipedia.fr), the station was apparently being renovated, which was in 2013.
Many thanks to G.D. of Gares belges for kindly allowing me to use the historical pictures.
The centre of Cerfontaine, which we then crossed, was recently renovated, but with too much concrete and cobblestones for my taste.
From Cerfontaine, it is not far to Chimay on the N589. The road passes Lac de Virelles, which was formed from a swampy depression. In the 15th century, the water was dammed up further to power the wheels of two forges at the spillway with the runoff. In the 19th century, the Princes of Chimay leased the lake and the land around it for fishing and hunting. The great abundance of fish in the lake made it necessary to store them, so they copied a Spanish recipe with vinegar sauce, and a speciality was born for which the area around Chimay is still known today, escavèche. At least that is how it is told.
The music-friendly salonnière
Ahead of us, Chimay lies on a hill on a strip of limestone that was cleared before the monastic era and has been used for farming ever since. We stop to have a look at the place. We found it disturbing that even in Chimay people cannot break the habit of driving into the town centre, whether to the chemist's or to the café. I think it's nicer and better, because the centre of Chimay is actually quite charming and worth discovering. And it's nicer to sit and stroll there when there isn't a car starting up or driving around every minute.
The town centre is dominated by the large square, which is immediately adjoined by the castle of the Princes of Chimay. It is currently occupied by Elisabeth de Chimay, who should not be confused with Élisabeth de Riquet de Caraman-Chimay, a Parisian socialite. Chimay Castle itself is a 16th century manor house and was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1935. Reconstruction gave it its present appearance in the Renaissance style of Henry IV. The château houses a beautiful 200-seat theatre that has been the focus of Baroque competitions and festivals on several occasions.
The theatre traces its origins to a very famous figure in France, another resident of the castle, Thérésia Cabarrus, commonly and more often called "Madame Tallien", was born on 31 July 1773 at the Palace of San Pedro in Carabanchel Alto near Madrid and died on 15 January 1835 at Chimay Castle in what is now Belgium. She was a French salonnière and an influential woman during the French Revolution. (...) Her salon in her house in the Allée des Veuves, near the Champs-Élysées, became famous." (Source: Wikipedia) And via Madame Tallien we also return to the battlefield of Waterloo, for she is said to have sent bed sheets to the still uncommissioned future General Napoleon Bonaparte so that he could use them to improve his clothing or undergarments. As a result of the coup d'état of the 18th Brumaire VIII, she was expelled from the Paris court and married François Joseph de Riquet de Caraman, Prince of Chimay, on 9 August 1805. The Brumaire (also known as the Month of Fog) is the second month of the republican calendar of the French Revolution. So much time must be.
"During their 25-year life together, the music-loving couple received numerous artists such as Daniel Auber, Rodolphe Kreutzer, Luigi Cherubini, Charles de Bériot and Maria Malibran in Paris and later at Chimay, where Theresa formed a small court. Cherubini composed his Mass in F in this château." (Source: ibid.)
We leave Chimay on the Rue de Planchette in the direction of Bourlers, a town with really beautiful houses, but unfortunately completely dominated by paved parking areas in front of the houses. What wasted potential. (It's like this all the time on the trip, a few trees and benches, a few green spaces and you'd feel like you were on holiday, this is a chance missed by many places in Belgium that seem to have had it just as bad as their counterparts in Germany when the competition "Unser Dorf soll schöner werden" (Our village should become more beautiful) got the upper hand).
On the way to Scourmont Abbey - more on that later - we see a water tower on the right. An interesting photo stop.
Chimay - Monastery beer from Scourmont
A modern Cistercian monastery
Around noon we reach the famous Scourmont Abbey. Just in the year that Jenny Lind, the divine Swedish singer first set foot on American soil, 1850, the Prince of Chimay invited the monks of the Sint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren (West Flanders) to found a new Cistercian abbey near Chimay.
In the Sint Sixtus Abbey north of Poperinge in Flanders, the monks had been brewing beer since 1839, which is still known and successfully marketed today under the name Westvleteren. Was it the beer the prince was interested in? In any case, the plan worked, beer has been brewed in the abbey since 1860, and it still is today. The beer is brewed in the abbey. However, in order not to disturb the tranquillity of the abbey and because demand exceeded the production possibilities at the abbey site, bottling has been carried out since 1978 at the Baileux site, which is only a few kilometres to the east of the abbey.
The beer from Scourmont Abbey is one of only six beers in Belgium that are allowed to bear the designation Trappist beers. There are also only 14 abbeys worldwide that bear this designation.
You notice very little of the monastery's brewing history when you visit. Rather, you are surprised by the particularly peaceful tranquillity and devotion that seems to lie over the whole complex. The gardens are well tended, the trees are choice and old. You can find a little peace here if you want to. It is very worthwhile to walk down the wide path to the cemetery of the monastery, it is something peculiarly unique in its layout. From the cemetery, the landscape opens up to the west and you have a beautiful view of the fields behind the monastery, which is otherwise surrounded by forest.
After the visit, we continue south on the main road. The landscape changes its face again and takes on just British, southern English features with its small-scale layout. The meadows and pastures are dotted with beautiful buttercups and dandelions and shimmer like a golden river in the light of the Belgian afternoon sun.
It is beautiful here.
The story of a bridge
After the junction of the Rue des Sapiniéres (road of the fir groves or fir forests) with the N 589, I see a beautiful bridge at the side of the road and quickly take a photo. Here in the office, I could painstakingly research to which infrastructure the bridge belonged. Around 1900, Belgium was the country with the densest railway network. This included not only standard-gauge lines (for the non-railroad enthusiasts: a gauge of 1435 mm), but also narrow-gauge lines and tram lines contributed to this unique infrastructure network. Around Charleroi there was a dense tram network on which one could travel via Thuin to Chimay, but also in the Ardennes there were many lines with which it was even possible to travel across the border into France. One of these lines was the tramway line 453A from Chimay to Cul-des-Sarts, and it is to this line that the photographed bridge belongs, on which metre gauge tracks were laid. Addition of 17.07. 2022: On this map of the French railway network (Nouvelle Carte des Chemins de Fer, Lignes de Navigation, Canaux, Riviéres by A. Taride, Editeur, source: Timetable World, unfortunately unknown date) it is even marked. Thanks to the tram friends Hemer for this tip!
Let's take a step back in time. Even in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, the Ardennes were not a rich provincial region. The isolated villages were difficult to reach in winter via the impassable municipal roads (chemin vicinal). In Cul-des-Sarts, which still consisted of two houses in 1571, something like a settlement community first developed through lumberjacks, charcoal burners and raftsmen, followed by cattle breeding and dairy farming through the clearing of the dense Ardennes forests. Slowly, a certain pre-industry developed around mills and slate quarries, the first steam engines appeared, still rather rare in the province of Namur or in Hainaut. At the end of the 19th century, at least a match factory, a shoe factory and the Thomas Philippe cigar factory provided work for many hundreds of people; today there are no more factories in the whole of Cul-des-Sarts.
Finally, in 1904, the state-owned company Société nationale des chemins de fer vicinaux (SNCV, list of stations and depots), founded in 1884, built a metre-gauge tram line that connected Chimay with the village of Cul-des-Sarts via Bourlers, past Forges, on via Riézes, Nimelette (Here is a map). The idea of the SNCV was to free rural areas from economic stagnation with inexpensively built and simply equipped lines of the so-called Vizinalbahnen. (Perhaps a project with a future?). The minimum equipment of a stop was a cast-iron post, the maximum distance to a "real" station was 25 kilometres.
The timetable of the tram line, probably operated with very interesting rolling stock (comparable vehicles,route description), was impressive for such a sparsely populated region. At 5:50, 11:55, 16:15, 19:30 and 21:00 one could travel from Chimay to Cul-des-Sarts and further via line 453b from Cul-des-Sarts to Couvin. The journey was not particularly fast, the tram took 4 hours and 10 minutes to cover the total distance of 43km. Comfortable. There were also five connections the other way round in 1931. In Petit Chapelle, it was possible to reach the French railway network in Tremblois-les-Rocroi via a line of the French Chemins der fer départementaux des Ardennes (a metre gauge line,postcard of Le Chesne ) via the fortified town of Rocroi. From here it was possible to continue to Charleville-Mézieres on the Meuse.
In 1960, service on both lines was discontinued and the tram was replaced by buses.
Land and roads
Take a second look
As you've probably noticed, the charm of Wallonia often comes from a second glance. We continue on the N 589, where the Eau Noire forms a natural border to the Département Ardennes. Many fish ponds lie beside the little river and soon we reach the village of Regniowez, turn right from the N 589, which has now guided us so well for so long, onto the D32 and then the D22 and we are now in France. Adieu Wallonia, welcome to the Département Ardennes, with its 270,582 inhabitants on 5,250 square kilometres.
We had no plan at all for the Ardennes in France and so I leave it to my son to choose roads of interest as he sees fit. That's how I had imagined it. We let ourselves drift, the main thing is to somehow reach Reims in the afternoon.
We drive via Éteignières to Auvillers-les-Forges, through the small nest of Foulzy to Flaignes-Havys, where we visit the Église Saint-Laurent, an early Gothic fortified church. It has one of the few remaining fortified round towers in the region on the east side.
We often see houses like this between Chimay and Reims. However, the architectural character has completely changed when crossing the border.
We go via Cernion to Aubigny-les-Pothées, a village burnt down like so many others during the Battle of Rocroi - of 19 May 1643, we are 2 days late for a calendar commemoration - during the Spanish-French War. We turn left before the subway of the Valenciennes - Charleville-Mézieres railway line and unexpectedly find ourselves in front of these 2 aliens who have made themselves comfortable in a corner next to the railway line.
We drive via Lépron-les-Vallées to Signy-l'Abbaye, where we do a little shopping at the Carrefour and take a break in the sun in the beautiful centre of the village by the river La Vaux. What we didn't know is that beer is also brewed in Signy-l'Abbaye, namely the Biere de l'Abbaye de Signy.
Freshly strengthened, we continue southwest and end our beautiful country trip through the French part of the northern Ardennes by joining the A34 at Rethel and reach Reims in the Champagne region around 3:30 pm.
Mighty symphony of stone,
The immense work of a man and a people
Victor Hugo's quote from 1831 fits very well as an introduction to our big city visit. We are in Reims. I had quite forgotten how many famous champagne houses are located right in Reims, so we drive and walk past such illustrious names as Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot, Vranken, Pommery and others. We park at Square Georges Jantzy and walk into town. We want to see the cathedral. And I am delighted to see the impact of this immense building, which amazes my son and me. Truly a mountain of stone, this mountain of pointed arches, tracery, pillars, capitals, columns, pinnacles and window rosettes made of the Lutetian limestone of the Reims area. And how bright it is from the outside when compared to Cologne Cathedral, which is also a very large cathedral and taller. For centuries, French kings were crowned here, caused by destruction in World War I, many political gestures of reconciliation between France and Germany took place here.
Many architectural milestones were set by the architects of the cathedral, above all Jean d'Orbai from Orbai on the Marne, Jean-le-Loup, Gaucher de Reims, Bernard de Soissons, Adam and Robert de Coucy, who were a model for many cathedrals in France with the impressive rose window of the main façade, the new tracery and the moving and soaring façade. As the authors write on Wikipedia:
'The whole façade, with its enormous quantities of stone, is an intoxicating upward movement'.
The King's Gallery was originally gilded. There are 56 statues, all 4 m 30 high and weighing 6 - 7 tons. They are enlarged in proportion to the distance from the ground.
I would like to describe the design of the cathedral forecourt as particularly exemplary. I have rarely seen such a beautiful modern but appropriate design of a church forecourt. The choice of materials, also Lutetian limestone, the simple design, the restraint, the opening of the seating to the square, their arrangement in the shade of the trees leaves the square to the people and the effect of the cathedral. Here is a very beautiful, also visually prepared history of the forecourt, which should actually be compulsory reading for every city planner.
The redesign followed a 2003 competition won by the Madrid architects ofLinazasoro&Sánchez Arquitectura. A quite excellent piece of work. The square joins the list of my favourite squares, which also includes the Piazza del Campo in Siena and the Great Market in Brussels.
After an extensive tour, unfortunately we are too late to climb the tower, we head for the city centre. Those who have read Part II of our Wallonia trip know what it was like in Charleroi, the city was virtually deserted. Here in Reims it's the complete opposite, seemingly the whole city and another 20,000 tourists are on their feet and littering the city centre. I was so looking forward to Reims, but here it's too hot, too crowded, too loud and too busy. I just want to get away. What I also noticed is that there are no restaurants that stand out from the crowd. They are all very classically urban, with long rows of tables next to each other. I don't find that very attractive, it always has something of a check-in business. And just as strange: there are hardly any shops outside the pedestrian zone. That's completely different in Brussels. And more beautiful.
But we still experience a highlight, even though it is currently covered in scaffolding.
Rue de Thillois
On Rue de Thillois in Reims there is a beautiful, sadly neglected architectural gem to visit, the Cinéma Opéra cinema from 1922. It was built in the Art Deco and youth style. It was designed by the architects Émile Thion and Marcel Rousseau. Other artists were hired for the glass and sculpture work. Unfortunately, the façade facing Rue Théodore Dubois was demolished in 1926, the interior was rebuilt in 1981 and currently only the façade facing Rue Thillois remains. In 2021, work began to convert the beautiful cinema into an apartment building, but unfortunately only the façade remains. I will always be unable to understand why state preservationists only think in terms of the façade.
We drive to the hotel and reach it around 6.30 p.m. We had chosen the Mercure Hotel on the outskirts of the city because of the nice rooms and the price. It's an upgraded Mercure, with a brasserie and a relatively peppy lounge lobby. Liked.
In the room, we phone around for interesting restaurants, but us naïves! Sigh! It's Saturday! Almost 7 p.m. and almost everything that looks nice or nice is fully booked. So we decide to eat in the Mercure's brasserie. On the terrace, without a stunning view, but in the fresh air and with very friendly multilingual service. I learn again. Always book a hotel and a restaurant. Always. Always.
The day comes to an end, and as I write this, it becomes once again a richer, truly beautiful life experience. That remains.
In the last episode, we take a little tour of the Champagne region.
17.07.2022: Link to the railway network map of France added
Part III of our Wallonia trip took us from the Sambre, via Chimay, the Scourmont monastery and Signy-l'Abbaye to Reims. The review focuses on the landscape, beer and the development of the railway in Hainaut at the end of the 19th century.