The Valley Semois Semoy (When the Semois becomes the Semoy… )
Welcome to the land where the Semois becomes the Semoy, where you glide along in a kayak, at the pace of the untamed river. The most beautiful stretch of the Meuse as it makes its way through the Ardennes is doubtless to be found in Monthermé. This authentic region, hesitating between two countries, inspired Rimbaud who came back to his roots here.
A - The Blackcurrant River Voir sur la carte
Rimbaud came to see his friend Léon Poncelet in Nohan, where his parents kept a small brasserie. Usually hemmed in by steep hills, between Tournavaux and Haulmé the Semoy opens out onto a vast alluvial plain: in winter, the site radiates a unique atmosphere. The mist envelops the landscape; the hills and the river become a single element, a single colour. The poet ‘with soles of wind’ mingles his footsteps with yours.
'La Rivière de Cassis roule ignorée
En des vaux étranges : La voix de cent corbeaux l'accompagne, vraie
Et bonne voix d'anges : Avec les grands mouvements des sapinaies
Quand plusieurs vents plongent.
Tout roule avec des mystères révoltants
De campagnes d'anciens temps. De donjons visités, de parcs importants.
C'est en ces bords qu'on entend.
Les passions mortes des chevaliers errants.
Mais que salubre est le vent!
Que le piéton regarde à ces claires-voies.
Il ira plus courageux.
Soldats des forests que le Seigneur envoie,
Chers corbeaux délicieux!
Faites fuir d'ici le paysan matois.
Qui trinqué d'un moignon vieux.
Poem ‘La Rivière de Cassis’ (May 1872).
Unsuspected Blackcurrant river rolls
Through strange valleys.
To the sound of a hundred crows, true
Good voice of angels,
And sweeping forest pines lean
When several winds swoop.
Everything rolls with the sickening mysteries
Of olden-day lands;
Dungeons inspected, substantial parks;
On these banks you hear
The dead passions of knights-errant––
But how the wind restores!
Let the walker look through this lattice-work;
He’ll proceed with more courage.
You soldiers of the forest, sent by Heaven,
Dear delicious crows,
See off the cunning peasant, raising
A glass in his old stump!
(Translation by Martin Sorrell)
The Tournavaux plain
The poetry of this untamed river can be appreciated along the walk near Tournavaux: it goes to Haulmé before running alongside the wide, winding water. Superb!
Distance: 3.5 km
Waymarking: white/red and yellow
Time: 1.30 h
Start: from the town hall, cross the bridge and go along the river.
To go further afield…
Topo guide, Les Ardennes à pied (The Ardennes on foot), published by the French Hiking Federation. Walk No 6.
À Les Hautes-Rivières
B - Forges at home Voir sur la carte
There was nothing touristic about the Semoy in Rimbaud’s time. People survived there by turning to smuggling, by cutting tobacco plants using a copou or by making nails. In Les Hautes-Rivières, as in all the villages of the Semoy, noise and smoke emerged from workplaces set up in homes, where people made nails, never-endingly. This home-made metallurgy is said to have been imported by the people of Liège, chased out by Charles the Bold in 1467. An activity which, during the winter, enabled the woodcutters and rafter quite simply to survive. So they lit the forge and a dog operated the bellows by running to turn a wheel: a working dog doing dog’s work! And they ‘made nails’: there were over 700 nail makers in Les Hautes-Rivières in around 1850. This exhausting work, in the midst of sulphurous vapours, wore men out before their time. Rimbaud saw the Semoy as a valley of misery.
Did you know?
The nuts and bolts of the Eiffel Tower come from the work of the Ardennes forges, acknowledged for the high standard of their know-how. If the Tower is still standing, this is certainly due to the quality of the parts produced in the workplaces of the Semoy and the Meuse!
À Les Hautes-Rivières
C - Walking Voir sur la carte
The nail makers walk
Following this walk that leads to some lovely beauty spots, including the ‘Croix de l’Enfer’ and the ‘Roche Margot’, you will discover a region that does not ignore its industrial past.
In Les Hautes-Rivières, the path climbs suddenly to the panoramic view of the Croix de l’Enfer, encircled by a forest, surely one of the loveliest when adorned with its autumnal hues. Further on, following part of the Grande Randonnée hiking trail, the village has not forgotten its metallurgical tradition … During the week, the sound of pestles in the forge can still be heard in the Semoy valley, deafening and repetitive. Men still hammer iron: even today, these heirs of the nail makers continue to supply the cutting-edge automobile or aviation industries. The valley of Quality has not lost its reputation.
Distance: 6.5 km
Waymarking: yellow, then white/red (GR)
Time: 3 h
Start: from place de la Mairie, cross the bridge over the Semoy. Follow the path along the riverside that climbs along the rocks.
To go further afield…
Topo guide, Les Ardennes à pied (The Ardennes on foot), published by the French Hiking Federation. Walk No 7.
À La Neuville-aux-Haies
D - La Neuville-aux-Haies Voir sur la carte
The road that leads from Les Hautes-Rivières closely resembles a mountain path. Narrow and imposing, it criss-crosses the great Croix Scaille forest to the end of the world. La Neuville-aux-Haies is the rooftop of the French Ardennes.
E - The Valley of the Huts Voir sur la carte
From Bohan, our steps mingle with those of the French smugglers who took these secret paths to reach huts in the heart of the wood, trading places on Belgian territory where tobacco, coffee and other goods were sold far more cheaply… and where they could eat a fricassee and drink beer.
Walking Voir sur la carte
The Valley of the Huts (Vallée des Baraques) formed by the Bois Jean stream is also the scene of a lovely hike. Starting from Bohan and the superb ‘Roche la Dame’ beauty spot, it follows secret paths to these old trading places.
Distance: 14 km
Waymarking: red rectangle (No 37)
Time: 3.30 h
Start: the walk starts at the church in Bohan, climbing straight up from the route de Sugny.
Did you know? Voir sur la carte
The smugglers carried tobacco and bread, foodstuffs that were less heavily taxed and cheaper, from Belgium into France. This gave rise to manhunts. The customs officers, known as ‘les gabelous’, patrolled the forest, spending the night there to try and flush out these ‘fraudeurs’ who often had more than one trick up their sleeve…
F - The Jambon beauty spot Voir sur la carte
Between Membre and Bohan lies the well-known Jambon beauty sCOGpot which, along with that of the Giant’s Tomb, in Botassart, is one of the most famous in the Ardennes. The Semois traces a two-kilometre loop here. The name, referring to its shape, recalls an Ardennes cold meats speciality. Its slopes and hills make up most of the Membre-Bohan National Park. This nature reserve, which covers 177 hectares, is of interest mainly for its outstanding panoramas. It is home to a number of natural curiosities with highly evocative names, such as the ravin du Sautou, the Châtelet, the Cheminée, the Trou de l’Homme sauvage, the Roche la Dame, and the Table des Fées.