Via Vallonia / The Way through Wallonia
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The Via Vallonia is a 217 kilometer, not marked, walking Trail. It runs from Maastricht in the Netherlands, through Wallonia in Belgium and ends in Rocroi in the North of France. The Trail passes through villages, towns and countryside filled with history. It connects with the Pelgrimspad 2 and functions as a Pelgrimspad 3.
In Rocroi it connects to the Via Campaniensis or GR 654. It runs partly parallel to the Via Mosana, the Via Monastica or the GR 654 but follows a more direct and shorter Route to Rocroi.
The Via Vallonia is a long distance walking Trail/Pilgrims Way through Belgium and as such one of the Routes you can use on your pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella. The Trail connects Maastricht in the Netherlands to Rocroi in France. On your way to Santiago de Compostella, it links the Pelgrimspad 2 with the recently constructed Via Campaniensis or the longer GR 654.
The Trail was designed to be short, pleasant and practical. It uses sections of existing Routes but avoids more difficult parts and avoids sections that meander through the countryside or along the Meuse River.
Where possible the Trail was planned near accommodations. The result is a 220 kilometer Trail. In comparison the length of the combination of the Via Mosana with the GR 654 between the same start and endpoint is 270 kilometer.
The Trail is not marked which for some might be a disadvantage. However, the Trail description gives clear information on which way the Trail is going. The Trail is also shown on 1:50.000 maps of the Belgian Cartographic Organization, scaled up to represent a 1:25.000 map. Because you probably have covered the Pelgrimspad 1 and 2 already, reading a map should be not too difficult.
Besides information on the Trail, other practical information such as where to find accommodation and about available public transport is provided. No information is provided about the spiritual part of a pilgrimage and only basic information about the area and villages you are traveling through.
The Trail passes through the French speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia, from which it derives its name. And it passes the Condroz, a region of Wallonia. The Trail roughly follows the river Meuse but runs only for short sections along its bank. Walking along the bank of the river would have made writing this guide a lot easier. But using tracks along the river as the only Route has its drawbacks. The valley is a major thoroughfare for road and rail traffic, making it a noisy place. It is also a place where a lot of industry is located, making it not the most scenic place.
Also the tracks along the Meuse are paved and the temptation arises of walking long distances because the going is good. This can mean developing blisters or other strain related problems. Of course you can deviate from the Trail and continue on the bank of the river but my advice is to do this sparingly; enjoy the quiet countryside away from the river.
Because of this, the Trail is often away from the Meuse and passes through rural Belgium. Most of the Trail is on unpaved roads or paved local roads. The Trail is not as flat as the Pelgrimspad 1 or 2 since every now and then the Trail descends to the Meuse and later ascends out of its valley. In general this involves a short climb of about 100-200 meter. Which is a good exercise for crossing the Pyrenees later on in your travels. Steep climbs are rare.
The climate in Belgium in general is similar to that of the Netherlands. It can be wet but in general the summers are dryer. The Trail passes through an area where heavy snowfall during the winter is not uncommon.
Things to see
Most of the Trail passes through the (lower) Ardennes, a low mountain range covering the east of Belgium, Luxembourg and part of France. It is covered with large forests.
The Meuse River and its valley form a sort of backbone for the Trail. The Meuse valley is and was of major economical importance for Belgium.
It is considered to be the first industrialized region in Europe. However, this role has strongly diminished over the years and unemployment in
the region is now high. Forming a logical border, the number of forts along the valley is a good indication of its strategic importance.
Maastricht: Beginning in Maastricht the Trail follows the Meuse, passing a museum and later the Provinciehuis. One of the first places of interest is the small town of Eijsden. It has many nice features and is the most Southern town in the Netherlands. In the center of this town is a pleasant square and on a warm day, there is an ice-cream parlor!
Just before leaving the town you pass Eijsden Castle. Its gardens are open to the public. This castle was a favorite place for generals to stay during battles fought in the region; for instance when Maastricht was besieged.
Visé is the first Belgian town along the Trail. A good place for getting provisions for the next section. In the town you will find a lot of images of geese; the town has a long relation with these birds, dating back to around 1376. In that year the town was besieged. A young girl, geese herder by profession, got hold of the banner of the enemy, which proved to be the turning point of the battle. However, this relation is not much of a blessing for the birds; a well known local dish is goose meat, prepared in a special way; a secret kept by two cooks.
Liège is a major town along the Meuse and a lot of heavy industry is/was situated here. Over the last years this industry is in the decline.
From Liège the option was to follow the Via Mosana, via Esneux, to Huy. Along this Route are some scenic places. But accommodations are not plentiful and this route is 16 kilometer longer. The Via Vallonia takes a more direct approach, along the Meuse River for a change. Not an attractive section, with a lot of steel related factories. On the other hand, this way you get a good impression of the economic and historical importance of the Meuse.
After Liège and its industry, the Trail continues uphill and you arrive at the village of Neuville-en-Condroz, the location of an American war cemetery. The cemetery contains the graves of about 5400 military casualties, mainly from the Ardennes offensive (Battle of the Bulge).
Through fields the Trail continues to Saint-Séverin, a small village where there is a refuge for Pilgrims. It offers simple accommodation. A meal can be had at the lady that supervises the refuge. The refuge is next door to the church of St Peter and Paul, former part of a priory. The church houses one of the nicest Baptismal fonts in Belgium.
Villers-le-Temple is named after the Templar Order that once had a house here. Near the Trail remnants of this building are located; a templar's cross can still be seen along the wall, next to a defensive tower.
On the way to Huy you pass the Chateau de la Motte en Gee. The Castle is abandoned. However, there still is a website advertising the castle as a hotel; considering the prices mentioned, the website has not been updated for years.
Huy is one of the oldest towns of Belgium. Formerly well known for its industries, now tourism plays a major part in its economical situation. It is strategically situated and houses a large and because of its height, easily defended fort. Because of this fort, the town suffered from many
sieges until the locals got fed up with this and demolished the fort. Later it was rebuilt again; this rebuild fort can be visited by cable car.
Nearing Huy you pass the church of Notre-Dame de La Sarte, itself a pilgrim's destination. A statue of Our Lady was found here by a poor woman. First a chapel and later a church was build. During a drought special prayers were said to the statue and plentiful rains followed. Every 7 years the Statue is paraded through town. Opposite this church is a holiday center.
From the church the Trail continues steeply downhill. This is a major section for a local cycling event where the cyclist have to go uphill as part of the course; this section is called the wall of Huy. Also along this road you find Stages of the Cross. Peter the Hermit, leader of the first crusade, was born in Huy.
From Huy the Trail takes you uphill out of the Meuse valley and passes through some forest and rural area. At Groyet you pass through the small valley of the Samson River. Here there are caves, an important prehistoric site in Belgium. From Groyet the Trail continues to Mozet, considered to be one of the most beautiful villages of Wallonia.
In Mozet, at the Domeine de Mozet, there is an accommodation run by the Belgian catholic scouting organization; you are welcome here.
After passing underneath a highway, the influence of Namur, one of the major cities of Belgium becomes noticeable.
Namur is situated at the confluence of the Samber and the Meuse River. Over the centuries the town has been of strategic importance and it has a large fort overlooking the town. It is the capital of the French speaking part of Belgium, Wallonia. Compared to Liege, industry is off less importance in this town.
After passing through Jambes, a large suburb of Namur, the Meuse is reached again. Crossing the river, Namur proper is reached. Here the Trail climbs about 100 meter to the top of a hill where the citadel of Namur is located. This is one of the biggest old forts in Europe.
During its history it was frequently besieged. In recent history its function was taken over by a defensive ring of forts around the city. These forts saw action at the beginning of both the First and Second World War. From the citadel, the Trail continues through park like surroundings,
passing the Château de Namur. This castle houses a Hotel; price-wise, you are not in its target group.
Through fields and some forest the Trail winds its way through the countryside, passing some villages on the way. Near the village of Profondeville the Trail arrives at the Meuse again. From here it follows he river for some kilometer, a nice and quiet walk.
At Annevoie-Rouillon the Trail leads away from the Meuse, gently uphill. It passes the Gardens of Annovoie, a major attraction in the region. The gardens are situated around a castle and were started in 1750 by a wealthy iron merchant. The gardens cover about 55 hectares. It is open to the public from the end of March to the beginning of November, there is an admission fee.
Until now villages were spread out without much of a center. New extensions of villages were built along the same line. In this region villages tend to be more compact and often have a proper center. This is convenient because a village center usually means there is at least a bakery or a shop or even a small restaurant.
After a walk through the countryside, the Trail leads you to the Meuse valley again, this time to the village of Anhée. Passing through
this large village you now have another stretch along the Meuse, crossing to the left side for a change. From here it is a short distance to Dinant.
Dinant is the last major Belgian city the Trail passes through. It has a long history and over the centuries, because of its strategic location, it saw a lot of battles. During an uprising of the local population against Charles the Bold, 800 inhabitants were drowned by him. At the beginning of the First World War about 670 inhabitants were executed by the Germans. During this war the town was mostly destroyed. Overlooking the town is the citadel, now an arms museum. It can be reached by climbing 408 stairs but there is also a cableway for your convenience.
In Leffe, just before entering Dinant, the Norbertine Order has an Abbey with a refuge for people on a pilgrimage. The church Collégiale Notre Dame de Dinant dominates the center of the town. It has a typical onion shaped tower. It was build during the 13th century, replacing a church
that stood at this location but that was knocked down by a large boulder. One of the stained glass windows of the current church is among the biggest in Europe.
Couque de Dinant is a specialty of Dinant, it is a biscuit made in various shapes and sizes, made from flour and honey. It is widely available but mind you teeth when eating one.
Metalwork used to be a major industry and Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant.
After Dinant, the Trail leads away from the Meuse River only to return at Hastière Laveau. Across a bridge, on the other side of the river, is Hastière-par-Delà where some accommodations are located.
At Dinant, the railway that accompanied the Trail along the Meuse stops; there used to be a railway to the South, but that is closed and the tracks removed. However, from Hastière the Trail continues to Hermeton on a Ravel, located on the old railway track so in this form it is still useful for you. The iron rails are replaced with tarmac and only pedestrians and cyclist are permitted to use this. For the coming 12 kilometers the Trail follows this Ravel; at times close to the French border. From Hermeton the Trail leaves the Meuse River behind. Along the Trail is a detour to the French town of Givet, where there is accommodation.
Viroinval is a municipality of 8 villages. It derives its name from the small river that passes through it, the Viroin. The Natural Parc Viroinval-Hermeton covers most of the area. With much forest, this is an area that is rather different to the countryside the Trail has passed through until now.
Treignes is the first of the Viroinval villages you pass through. It houses a railway museum that uses the facilities of a now defunct railway. Volunteers and railway enthusiasts maintain old railway material and every now and then a train can be seen or heard traveling
along the rails. It also houses an Ecomuseum with exhibitions of the tools used by artisans in the past in the region. The Trail passes in front of the Espace Arthur Masson, this is a museum dedicated to Arthur Masson, a well known Belgian writer who was born in this region.
Walking through the village of Vierves-Sur-Viroin you probably will not notice that the village is considered one of the nicest of Wallonia.
To appreciate the village with its castle you make a small detour; even its cemetery with its green copper domed chapel looks appealing.
It takes about 7 kilometer of walking through the forest to reach Oignies-en-Thiérache which is surrounded by forest. It is quiet here. The village is situated near the geographic center of the original 15 countries of European Union.
From here the Trail continues alongside the Via Monastica and the GR 654 through forest to the border of France and then in the direction of Rocroi. This is a section on sometimes narrow tracks through dense forest. The markers of both the Via Monastica and the GR 654 will
help you passing through this area.
Nearing Rocroi the Trail leaves the Via Monastica and the GR 654 and continues on the Via Campaniensis to Rocroi.
Rocroi is an old border town. The center of the town is fortified. In 1643 Rocroi was the location of a battle between Spanish and French armies, the French won; one of the first and rare occasions that the Spanish lost a battle.
Rocroi marks the end of the Via Vallonia. From here you can continue on the GR 654 or the Via Campaniensis to Vézelay. The Via Campaniensis was recently designed to offer a shorter alternative to the GR 654.
When to go
Climate-wise, the best period for this walk is between April and November. When camping, this is roughly also the right period. However, campsites tend to close earlier than in the Netherlands; most campsites will close in October.
Hunting is a factor to consider. The hunting season starts at around October and lasts until January. When hunting is in progress parts of the forests will be closed. When hunting is in progress or planned is indicated with posters at the beginning of a forest. Sometimes the forest is only closes early in the morning or in the evening.
How much time to allow
The Trail is approximately 220 kilometer long. Most, but not all, accommodations are close to the Trail. To reach accommodation you may have to walk a few extra kilometer which can add another 20 kilometer to the total journey.
How many days it will take to complete the Trail depends on the kind of walk you have in mind, your physical condition, and the pack you are carrying. For a relaxed walk, for a person in regular physical condition, carrying normal luggage for overnight stays in hotels or pensions, allow for 9 - 12 to 15 days.
There are different categories of accommodation along the Trail. A complete list of accommodations on or near the Trail is given. These accommodations are not rated. Accommodations that cost more than 75 Euro per night, including breakfast, or require a detour of more than 3 kilometer are not included in the accommodation list. Specialized accommodation for pilgrims is available but you need a Pilgrims Credential to be able to use these.
Using public transport to get to and from accommodation is possible but most buses run only a few times a day. However the railway lines along the Meuse valley can be used to get you to accommodation.
Hotels: Hotels are available in the bigger towns along the Trail, but most hotels fall outside the price range used in this guide. Price is about 50 Euro or higher for 1 person. Most of the time you can pay with a credit card.
Pensions: Pensions are widely available along the Trail but tend to be of the more luxury type for which you have to pay the price. Price is about 45 Euro or higher for one person per night. Payment is in cash.
Youth Hostel: There are 3 youth hostels; in Maastricht, in Liège and in Namur. Because of the rail connections between these towns and other places along the Trail, they can be used as a base from which some sections can be walked. Besides Youth Hostels there are a few other, Hostel like accommodations, along the Trail.
Camping: There are several campsites along the Trail, but it will be difficult to walk the entire Trail using campsites.
Wild camping is illegal in Belgium. Since most of the area is more remote, this facilitates wild camping. But in most cases wild camping will not be necessary; people tend to be very hospitable towards pilgrims and information on the various blogs of Pilgrims shows that they were often allowed to camp on peoples land. Of course when camping wild, be careful with fire.
Pilgrims Accommodation: Along the Trail there are several places that provide accommodation for pilgrims. When you use these accommodations a Pilgrims Credential has to be shown. In practice the credential is rarely checked.
A Credential can be obtained at your national Pilgrims Association but usually you have to become a member to obtain one. While walking to Santiago de Compostella is usually associated to a Christian Pilgrimage, a credential can be obtained by anyone looking on a walking retreat.
The Pilgrims Accommodations are run by people who find it their Christian or Human obligation to provide shelter to Pilgrims in general. Some
are run by volunteers, some by a religious congregation and some are located at people's homes.
Prices for a Pilgrims Accommodation are in the 20 Euro range, but often lower and sometimes only a free donation is asked for. Facilities can be
simple. The Wallonian pilgrims association has a list for its members with volunteers that provide accommodation for pilgrims.
Booking: To be certain of a bed at the end of the day, my advice is to book at least one day ahead. When making a reservation, write down or mark the accommodation you have booked; this will save you confusion or even embarrassment the next day.
Other facilities along the Trail:
Shops: The local people go to large supermarkets to do their shopping and most villages lack a small shop. Getting supplies is therefore something to plan ahead. Bakeries are more widely available so getting bread (or pastries) is usually not a problem.
Banks: Especially when staying in pensions, your cash supply will diminish rapidly. Along the Trail, cash machines are often far between so here again it is wise to plan ahead.
Bus: Along the Trail you will find many bus stops. These are mostly school orientated with buses running in the morning and late afternoon and few in between. There are different schedules for Wednesday and extra buses during the examination periods and regular buses cancelled during these periods. During Saturday the frequency is reduced and on Sunday few lines are running. During school holidays the frequency is reduced.
However, except for the weekends and public holidays, in general the schedule is often useful for walkers with buses available in the morning and late afternoon.
Train: Along most of the Meuse valley and near the Trail runs a railway and this can be useful. Railway stations are indicated on the map. There are regular services between the larger towns and stations in between. These are also serviced during the weekends and public holidays.
On the website www.belgianrail.be you can inquire on point to point time schedules for rail and bus connections. In the Appendix a map with available bus and rail connections on or near the Trail is given.
When you plan your Camino in sections, Rocroi is actually not a practical place to end your journey; only one or two buses a day connect it to public transport to the North. An alternative is to take a taxi to Revin with its railway station.
An Alternative is to end your journey at Olloy-sur-Viroin and from there take a bus to Couvin or to Dinant.
What to bring
Emergencies: Unfortunately, accidents and other inconveniences do happen. Minor cuts, blisters, dog bites or even worse scenarios are possible. Of course it is not practical to prepare for every possible condition, but I suggest you bring a basic first aid kit and some knowledge on first aid.
Also bring a thermometer, a space blanket, a pain killer like paracetamol, a pocket knife and a tick remover (see last section of the introduction). For obtaining help, carry a whistle and a torch (flashlight). Your mobile phone can be useful for obtaining help; the number to dial is 112.
Condition of the Trail: Most of the Trail is on unpaved roads or paved rural roads. Only short stretches are on tracks. Walking or hiking boots are rarely essential and then mainly because some stretches tend to be muddy when wet. In general European class A/B walking shoes or boots will do, but consider a class B when carrying a heavy pack. In dry weather most of the Trail can be walked in sturdy walking sandals.
Drinking water: Tap water is drinkable in Belgium but bottled water is widely available. Since you will often pass through villages, there is no need to carry a large supply of water.
Weather: Belgium has a mild climate with usually fine weather for walking. When lucky you can have a spell of beautiful weather and
with bad luck you can have rain every day. Often you pass through patches of forest which will provide some shelter against the elements.
Winters tend to be somewhat colder than the Netherlands with chances of serious snow.
Considering the average climate in Belgium, bring serious rain protection and when walking in spring and autumn bring proper protection
against the cold and stormy weather. On the bright side, also bring a hat for protection against the sun. Unless you have experience in hiking during winter/snow and the equipment that comes with this, I do not recommend walking in winter.
Food: Breakfast is usually provided with the accommodation, but some places charge extra for this. Some of the more basic pensions
provide a bag for making a lunch parcel from the breakfast.
Lunch: Can be a problem since most of the rural villages lack a center so there are few local restaurants to provide lunch. Some villages have a
bakery or a shop and some villages have a 'fritery'; a snack bar, where lunch can be bought. My advice is to carry some food for lunch.
Dinner: When going from pension to pension, dinner can be a problem since some of them are located in rural areas and have no restaurants in the vicinity. Some pensions provide a meal.
When staying in a pilgrims accommodation there are often kitchen facilities or the host will provide a meal.
When having a proper evening meal is a must for you, my advice is to carry a ready made meal. Most supermarkets have them; get one that does not need to be refrigerated. You can prepare this meal when kitchen facilities are available, or ask your host to prepare your meal in a microwave (get a new meal the next day). This has worked for me most of the times and provides an affordable option.
Wildlife: Along the way chances are that you will encounter wildlife. In general I do not worry about wildlife but it is prudent to take care when encountering boar especially when there are piglings.
Cattle: The Trail passes through some meadows which might have cattle in them;these can be of the male and female type. I did not encounter any problems in this respect. The general rule is to keep your distance, do not pay attention to the animals and take care that you do not inadvertently corner them (because then the only way out for the cattle might be the place where you are standing).
Dogs: Dogs are usually behind a fence or on a leash and are not a problem. However, the Trail passes through some farms and sometimes the smaller dogs are not on a leash, and these can be vicious with sharp teeth. In general having a walking stick helps, since you can put this between you and the dog. Also (pretending) to pick up a stone often is enough to scare a dog away.
Ticks: Ticks transmit Lyme disease; the Trail often passes through grass and low bushes; a habitat for ticks. An active prevention of tick bites is recommended:
- Wear clothing with long sleeves and long pants
- Wear your pants inside your socks
- Wear light clothing so ticks can be spotted
- Use an insect repellant
- Check you body for ticks
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