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It's a beautiful autumn, so we're surprised by the light rain. Philippe Collignon invites us for a steaming hot tea in his country gite, the Grange du Bout du Chemin. From this inviting house of stone, he takes fortunate hikers exploring his beloved Ardennes region to discover its most charming secrets.
6 mins OF ESCAPE
Without hurrying, we gear up with hoods and gaiters, and put our cameras in waterproof bags. After a last glance at the fire that heats the communal area, off we go to brave the elements without a second thought.
The Ardennes fairyland
For this excursion of a few hours, Philippe has planned a healthy walk for us in the Deux Ourthes Nature Park, via the Valleé des Fées (Fairy Valley).. Just a few minutes after leaving Achouffe we're propelled into a dew-sparkled kingdom of greenery full of curious beings that we can barely see but whose presence we feel.
As a hiking guide and mountain leader, Philippe Collignon accompanies walkers throughout his region. He also organises trips abroad and themed excursions (beavers, fungi, bellow of the deer, etc.), as well as proposing a gite in his charming property in Sommerain, the Grange du Bout du Chemin (the barn at the end of the path).
Philippe, who must have criss-crossed this region at least half a million times, has a tale to tell about every part of the itinerary and he tells it with the enthusiasm of those who discover it for the very first time. The birds, plants and fungi are all presented in an extraordinary new light. We are especially fascinated by the fungi, which Philippe seems to know like the back of his hand. His natural hunger for observing and learning is contagious and if he weren't a guide, I could imagine him making an excellent teacher.
Boletes, puffballs, false chanterelles and so many others... there's an entire collection! The forest is dotted with fly amanita (pictured above) which give it a fairytale feel. (Beware: these are not to be picked, they're poisonous.)
Philippe and I feel like overgrown children, both marvelling at anything and everything. We share a fascination for the tiniest details... After all, they're what make all the difference!
The Ourthe beavers
What would the Ourthe valley be without its landscape architects? Present everywhere yet almost impossible to see, the beavers have left their mark everywhere. We walk past many impressive dams and perfectly cut tree trunks. These rodents are not very popular but they can be very helpful.
When there's a flood, for example, their dams spread the water along the banks, avoiding an acceleration of the flow.
The stagnant water where the beavers make their nests contributes to the creation of a new ecosystem, providing a haven for frogs, insects and many species of birds! Lastly, the plants that colonise their habitat filter and purify the water flowing through it.
Fun in the rain
The hiking is a little challenging because of the rain, the slippery ground, and the roots, bark and fallen trunks we have to negotiate. But we find all this highly amusing, like a treasure hunt punctuated with spectacular views. The autumn colours are emerging and the gentle murmur of the river accompanies and soothes us all the way.
My companion starts taking a succession of photographs of all the different species of fungi found in the Ardennes forest. He is to pursue this for the ten days of our trip in the region. Philippe's passion sparks new ideas and enthusiasm!
An Ardennes-style dinner
After a small glass of dandelion liqueur made by Philippe himself, we take the road back to Achouffe.
We sit at one of the tables in La Grange, one of the local restaurants. There's a special atmosphere here: it reminds us of an old timber chalet with its very high ceiling and the comfort of its warm, dark decor. Here we try a few local specialities, like trout from the River Ourthe and Ardennes ham, while getting to know Philippe a little better. He truly is a man of many resources. We put the world to rights over a few glasses of Lupulus, one of the local beers. Then it's time to raise the curtain for the highlight of the show...
The bellow of the deer
At this time of year, the bellow of the rutting stags can be heard at nightfall.
Philippe guides us to the edge of the forest where we try to be as discreet as possible. Around us, the ground turned by foraging wild boar and the heavy mist give the woods a strange, mystical appearance.
And there they are! As night falls over the valley, all we can hear is our own breath, the rustle of fallen leaves beneath our feet and, in the distance, the bellow of deer and rattling of their antlers. There must be a thousand wild boar hidden around us, but any fear is dispelled by the magical appeal of this place.
Two parallel worlds meet for a short while, before it's time to leave for new horizons in the Ardennes.