Whatever area you’re visiting in the Belgian Ardennes, there will be something to discover. Take Bouillon for example, a small town that is nestled along the borders of the river Semois. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in location, in charm and in summer activities.
What? Bouillon is a historic small town (population about 5.500) that is especially known for the medieval castle that watches over the city. Touristy? Yes. Overcrowded? Never.
Where? In the Walloon region and province of Luxembourg, near the French border.
Why? Great food, lots of history, charming accommodations, dense forests and a beautiful river valley: that’s Bouillon and its surroundings in a nutshell. It’s a perfect summer escape, especially with the river Semois meandering through.
Climb to the viewing point
On the wooded hillside of the Côte d’Auclin you will find the best viewing point overlooking Bouillon. There has been a watchtower on this exact point since 1923 but it burnt down a couple of years ago. The new construction reaches out 175 meters above the Semois, the city and the surrounding forests. There are several platforms, with 114 steps in total to get to the highest point. It’s worth it though because this is where you can really see the unique position of Bouillon: right in the sharp curve of the Semois, like a bird in it’s nest or as some say like a pearl in a shell, hence the nickname of Bouillon: ‘Pearl of the Semois valley’. Getting there is easy: just follow the signs that start down the valley and take you zigzagging up the hill.
Eat, drink, relax
Bouillon is close to the French border, which explains the amount of yummy patisseries. There’s also a fair amount of restaurants considering the size of the town. The most popular restaurants are either higher up the hill with a view over the valley or along the borders of the Semois right near the old town, on either side of the river. See the tower popping up in the top left of the picture? That’s the viewing tower we talked about before!
Go paddling on the Semois
What’s better on a hot summer day than fun on the water? At the Quai des Saulx you can rent paddle boats from May through October. There are boats for two to five people, in different colors and shapes and they are wildly popular when the sun is out. At the boulevard Vauban (behind the castle) you can also rent stand up paddles or go kayaking (1 to 3 seats) all the way to Poupehan (15 kilometers downstream). A free shuttlebus then takes you back to Bouillon.
Cool down in the forests
Bouillon is neatly nestled in the woods of the Ardennes. If temperatures increase, you can always cool down in the shade of the trees, accompanied by the millions of purple, bell-shaped flowers of the foxglove plant. If you don’t want to wander about haphazardly, just go to the tourism office and ask for the several short walks you can do around Bouillon There are plenty!
Discover the old town
If you want to stay in the proximity of cooled drinks and ice creams, you can always explore the city by foot. There’s no transport needed to see all there is to see around the city centre, but be prepared for a few steep climb every now and then. Apart from the lovely boulevard on both sides of the Semois there are a few really magical little alleys that look like they were plucked straight from a fairy tale movie set. We won’t tell you where exactly they are, it’s all the more fun to discover them yourself!
Go see the giant’s tomb
This next stop lies 10 km further north from Bouillon. According to an ancient legend, this is the spot where a warrior from a Celtic tribe escaped the Roman army of Julius Caesar. He fled in the forest but was ambushed by Roman horsemen and in a fit of dispair he climbed the hill near Botassart and hung himself from a tree above the meandering Semois. The Romans then cut the rope and the body of the warrior went rolling down the hill. The next day, the villagers buried him right there and since then, this view is called the giant’s tomb (‘Tombeau du Geant’ in French, ‘Graf van de Reus’ in Dutch). Mother nature really outdoes herself here: with a biut of imagination you can actually see a giant’s head (eyes, nose and mouth) in the trees.
How to get there? There’s a road and parking area right next to the viewing point, but it’s much more fun to walk your way up there, starting in Bouillon. Ask for the ‘Giant’s Tomb walk’ at the tourism office, it’s a 14,6 kilometer long loop and will take you an estimated 4,5 hours. The map description isn’t very detailed so chances of taking the wrong turn somewhere are likely, but don’t worry, the river Semois is nearly constantly by your side so just let her be the guide.
Swim in the Semois
There are two dedicated river swimming areas close to the city centre. One is next to the Pond de France bridge, the other one is near the Pont de Cordemoy, in front of the tennis court. Both are nice enough for sunbathing, but for actual swimming these aren’t the most attractive spots – at least not when we were there in July. The first location is dotted with little pebbles that hurt your bare feet and at the second location you’ll need to wade through the algae first to get into the deeper water.
For a really great swim, we suggest you head out and follow the Semois downstream, by car (or by foot if you don’t mind walking a few kilometers). There are a few scenic and tranquil spots where the water is low and the stream is pleasant, even just to soak your feet in. Another gorgeous and more lively spot is at Botassart, right at the foot of the giant’s tomb, in the sharp bend of the Semois river. There are two pathways to get there: steep and less steep… Good to know: this pathway is part of the Giant’s Tomb walking trail from Bouillon.
Visit the medieval castle
If there’s one thing Belgians will know about Bouillon if you ask them about it, it’s this: Bouillon has a castle. It’s the pièce de résistance of Bouillon and yes it’s touristy, but the corridors, vaulted halls, viewing points and staircases that you can roam freely are so numerous that the crowd seems to evaporate with every next step you take. A dozen birds of prey are held on top of the castle and from March to November a mediaeval-
The Bouillon castle sits on a rocky spur above the old town so the views are splendid from all angles. Seeing the Cordemoy bridge from the 16th century Tour d’Autriche is particularly beautiful. You can easily spend a couple of hours here, learning about history and medieval times.
The Cistercian abbey
3 kilometers downstream from Bouillon lies the Cistercian abbey of Clairefontaine. It’s a lovely stroll (it’s part of the same walk as the ‘Giant’s tomb walk) and you can visit the church if you like, buy a souvenir at the store (like books and silk paintings) or take some artisanal cookies for the road. You can even spend the night in one of the wings of the abbey, but you need to make a reservation first.
Stroll around at night
It’s a different world in Bouillon after the sun sets. Cosy streetlights light up the boulevards, restaurants and bars have their terraces out until late on nice summer evenings, the castle is immersed in a sea of warm yellow light and all of it is reflected in the flowing river. Definitely worth staying up for. While you’re at it: go back to the castle, get yourself a torch and roam the maze of tunnels by night…
Hotel tip :
Hotel la Feronniere, a 19th century mansion set on a hill with a garden and view over the old town and castle. From here, it’s a 500 meter walk to the city centre.