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The Ardennes in all directions
Culture and Hiking
The winter magic of that high region
In the high fens of the Hautes-Fagnes region, to find out the real meaning of winter, I pulled on my warmest boots to brave the blizzard and the biting cold.
5 FREEZING minUTES
Early December: the Hautes-Fagnes region already has a scattering of snow. On the high plateau, winter has made its spectacular entrance, without hesitation. At the Baraque Michel inn, dawn is breaking on the fen where a layer of ice has formed overnight. It's minus 20° celsius and the sun hasn't yet warmed up the air. My gloves and hat are meagre protection against the biting cold. Quite a few people have already arrived: the inn is a popular meeting place for cross-country skiers and meditative fans of the fens. In the 19th century things were different... The chapel and the inn were totally isolated in the middle of the moors. Whenever there was fog or a snowstorm, the bell was rung to guide travellers across the peatland, and the columns erected on the fens helped travellers and peddlers to find their way through this sea of vegetation. The Boulté column is still there, facing me, as a reminder...
A path across a sea of vegetation
I follow the footsteps of Serge Nekrassoff, a historian who works at the Mont-Rigi science base close by. The noise from the road quickly fades and I find myself in the heart of "our" massif. It has nothing to envy of the most prestigious summits because here, it is our emotions that reach new heights. Finally, the sun appears in the east and warms my heart. The vast nature reserve is now flooded in light as nature reveals its unique talent as a landscape painter. The snow is deep and I can barely make out the walkway. I slip on the boards which in a way are the legacy of an ancient path, the "Via Mansuierisca" that once crossed the fens.
According to Serge, "it was over 6 metres wide you know: our walkways are nothing compared with that path on stilts. It was an important thoroughfare for around 1,000 years between the 4th and 6th century..." So the fens weren't as isolated and desolate as popular belief would have us think... For Serge, the myth is maintained even today. "Walking in the fens without a guide is dangerous... It makes me laugh when I see comical photos posted on the web of hikers up to their wastes in the peat bog. All they have to do is stick to the paths and walkways, like the ones we're on now."
They say it freezes here 120 days of the year...
Ghosts of the fens
The snow, hardened by the frost, cracks under my footsteps. The Hautes-Fagnes region of modest mountains and deserted moors feels almost Scandinavian. Don't they say it freezes here 120 days a year and that the temperature tumbles into negative double figures? I come across a marker that used to be on the border between the Dutch Empire and Prussia. "And it was no imaginary border" states Serge. In 1911, the fens were ravaged by fire while on either side, people stood helplessly staring at each other as there was no coordination between the different countries." On the horizon, an islet emerges from the sea of white. The Noir Flohay, an ancient pine forest, will be my guide today. I turn left onto a path that's barely visible. It leads me to the scrawny pine trees, the ghosts of the fens. Planted by men in 1850, they have succumbed to the harsh winters and the forest fires. A trip through this stunted forest awakens the senses. The landscape is unique and totally unreal.
This isolation makes me shiver
The long firebreak continues south. It takes the skills of a fur trapper to stay on the right path. Up to my knees in snow, I somehow continue towards the black, peat-filled waters of the Helle. I'm relieved to be back on the walkway. At the wooden bridge, I cross the river to the opposite bank where the fen seems to want to dip its glacier tip in the water. Via the GR® trail, I head upstream along the Walloon Fens, the gem of this reserve, which is still lit by the pale January sun. This unique landscape is amazing. Gripped by the spectacle, I suddenly find myself in the fading twilight of dusk. No light on the horizon, no sign of human presence. This isolation makes me shiver. I quicken the pace and soon find the warmth of a brasserie. Around a hearth, we exchange the day's cold memories, to warm our hearts and souls: unforgettable moments in the very image of these bewitching fens.
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The itinerary - 13 km
The itinerary described in this article starts at the Baraque-Michel inn, opposite the car park and leads to the Helle river (head for Eupen): this is the only authorised route, following the walkways as far as the new wooden bridge, 3 km away. Cross the bridge and return in the direction of the Signal de Botrange and the Baraque-Michel, along the Walloon Fen via the GR® trails 573 and 56.
The inn's epic tale is told by its walls which sheltered the first travellers and smugglers from the 19th century... It serves local dishes and also proposes a few rooms, from €31 per person.
La Baraque Michel
Baraque Michel 36
4845 Jalhay, Belgique
To find out what winter really means, I pulled on my warmest boots to brave the blizzard and the biting cold