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Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Short Visit to Bouillon‏ in the Belgian Ardennes

A few years ago, I decided to break up the travelling on a driving and wine-buying holiday to France by stopping off in Bouillon in the Belgian Ardennes.

About a 3-hour drive from Calais, the Belgian Ardennes in the south of the country is an unspoilt, somewhat forgotten land of gentle hills and rural woods.

Bouillon, a very small market town, is set in a magnificent horseshoe bend of the river Semois surrounded by a natural amphitheatre - its other claim to fame is an extensive ruined castle on a hilltop in the centre of the town - much of it carved out of the rock itself.

In 1082, the castle was inherited by Godfrey of Bouillon, who then sold it in order to finance the First Crusade (accompanied by some unlikely companions - his mother and Peter the Hermit). The castle was later fitted for heavy artillery by Vauban, Louis XIV's military architect in the late 17th century.

We made a day of it by first seeing the castle, then going for a walk up to the top of the surrounding ridge where a viewing platform takes you several storeys up, above the height of the trees, for an amazing view over the town.

After all this exploring, our accommodation for the night was La Ferronniere, a former forge as the name suggests which I had found in the Logis de France guidebook and which gets the guide's top-level 3-chimney rating.

The hotel, set halfway up a hill leading out of Bouillon, has superb views of the town centre and the castle and is an extremely pleasant place to stay.

Owners Wim and Angélique Philips have an eye for tasteful detail and, having picked out a beautiful building in a great location in 2000, have given the interior a classy and elegant but understated feel.

This approach extends to the food, which was not just innovative, but extremely well-flavoured and imaginatively presented.

We had a trio of cold starters - gazpacho, cream cheese with chives and parma ham and water melon - whilst the hot starter was a beef tomato with snails and pesto, before a main of oven-baked cod with courgettes and a dessert of pistachio cake wrapped in pain perdu.

We chose an Alsace Riesling from just across the border to get us in the mood for the next few days and it was, if I'm really honest, a little expensive and slightly disappointing - plenty of typical Riesling character, but somehow a little unfocused.

I often find this problem - you almost always do better going for something local and this means that in non-wine-producing countries you accept you'll probably pay a little more for something that is not quite so good.

However, in the context of the stay - and especially of the superb food - this really is a minor quibble.

Belgium is, of course, a land of beer - especially crafted Trappist ales - and the next day, we got up and went in search of what drinking in Belgium is really all about.


Bouillon website - http://www.info-bouillon.co.uk/
La Ferroniere - http://www.laferronniere.be/
Logis de France - http://www.logishotels.com/en.html

Image Credits

Photo of Bouillon by Jan Roegiers - link here
Photo of Bouillon Castle by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT: link here.
Photos of La Ferronniere from hotel's website.

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