On its meandering course through the Ardennes the Semois River has carved out some of the most iconic landscapes in Belgium.
The views over the long loops at Bouillon, Frahan and Le Tombeau du Géant are timeless.
For many centuries the peninsulas created by the river were ideal for defence, good news for a city at an important strategic crossroads between Reims, Liège and Aachen.
The Castle of Bouillon on the rocky neck of Bouillon’s river loop has more than a millennium of history to tell, recalling the crusader and King of Jerusalem Godfrey of Bouillon, and adapted for 17th-century warfare by the French mastermind, Vauban.
1. Castle of Bouillon
There has been a fortification defending Bouillon’s ridge at the narrowest part of the peninsula since time immemorial.
The first mention of the Castle of Bouillon was in 988, but you can add a few hundred years to the age of the site, in chambers and tunnels hewn from the rock.
As we see it now, the castle is mostly the work of French military engineer Vauban during Louis XIV’s wars of expansion in the 17th and 18th century.
Visiting you’ll discover just how well the fortification could withstand sieges, with access to a water source and a sophisticated network of tunnels 30 metres deep bringing in food from the riverside.
There’s a warren of tunnels and passageways to investigate, beckoning you down to dungeons, chambers lined with antique weaponry and up to the scenic parapets.
2. Bouillon Belvedere
On the right bank, north of the meander you can either drive or hike up through the forest to reach an observation tower for a knockout view of the city.
You’ll see Bouillon and the castle hugged by the Semois, and can look into the distance over the wood-cloaked Ardennes.
The tower is more than 30 metres high, reaching a total elevation of 385 metres above sea level, and 180 metres over the river.
There are 161 steps to the upper platform, but you’ll forget about your exertions at the top.
It’s also interesting to remember that this upper lip of the valley was vital for communication in Medieval times, receiving signals from the north and west via the church towers on the plateau at Paliseul and Bertrix.
3. Musée Ducal
With a satisfying view across the Semois, the Ducal Museum is in a pair of listed buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The older of these is the Maison du Gouvernement Bouillonnais, a residence for officers of the castle.
The galleries lead you on a journey through more than a millennium of local history, touching on the 11th-century crusader Godfrey of Bouillon, the printing, iron and steelmaking industries that put the city on the map, and the savoir-faire of local craftsmen over the centuries.
One outstanding item is a plan-relief, a military scale model of the city and its surroundings from 1689. You’ll see inside a traditional dwelling in the Ardennes, and will be introduced to art from the region, by the likes of Guillaume Edeline (1902-1987) and Albert Raty (1889-1970).
4. Le Tombeau du Géant
Looking over another bend in the Semois you can marvel at one of the most treasured views in all of Belgium.
Le Tombeau du Géant can be seen from the north bank of the river outside the village of Botassart.
Here you’ll behold a wooded scene, with grassy meadows along the apex of the river loop and few signs of human habitation in any direction.
The name “Tombeau du Géant” (Tomb of the Giant) comes from the wooded ridge extending for 30 metres along the spine of the peninsula.
This has neat triangular contours resembling a coffin.
There are benches at the viewpoint and the scene is always extra special under a layer of typical Semois mist.
5. Archéoscope Godefroid de Bouillon
A descendant of Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon (1060-1100) was Count of Boulogne and educated here in Bouillon by his uncle Godfrey IV (The Hunchback), Duke of Lower Lorraine and Lord of Bouillon.
When Godfrey IV died in 1076 his nephew inherited his titles.
He was one of the commanders of the First Crusade, and led the recapture of Jerusalem and the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly building a siege tower from ships’ timbers.
He became the first King of Jerusalem in 1099 and died in the Siege of Acre a year later.
In the old Convent of the Sépulcrines there’s a multimedia presentation and exhibition, about Godfrey of Bouillon, the First Crusade and the Ducal Castle.
Tickets for the Castle of Bouillon and the Musée Ducal will also be valid here.
6. Abbaye Clairefontaine
Follow the Semois downriver and in a few minutes you’ll arrive at a Cistercian monastery in a bucolic riverside setting.
Abbaye Clairefontaine, originally located near Arlon in Belgium and suppressed in the French Revolution, was re-founded in 1845 near Chartres and relocated to this spot in the 1930s.
The complex, designed by architect Henri Vaes, is a remarkable synthesis of modern and Gothic.
Vaes also designed Orval Abbey, another monastery dissolved in the late-18th century.
The church is open to the public, and you can take part in the Trappistine sisters’ prayer.
The cloisters leading to the church has lovely frescoes, and the church’s stained glass by the noted glassmakers Eugeen Yoors and Florent-Prosper Colpaert.
Call in at the abbey shop for homemade cookies, silk screen painting and ceramics.
7. Point de Vue Frahan
If you can’t get enough of the Semois river’s beautiful, elongated meanders there’s another staggering viewpoint in the village of Rochehaut, looking south to the hamlet, Frahan.
This listed settlement is encircled by the river loop and then defended to the south by a wooded hill at the base of the loop.
In medieval times the hill was crested by a castle, Château de Montragut, traces of which are still visible.
You can survey the scene and its dramatic wooded backdrop through a coin-operated scope, picking out old tobacco dryers and little farms.
8. La Ferme des Fées
One look at the countryside around Bouillon and you’ll understand how the Semois Valley could inspire all sorts of legends and folklore.
This is a land of fairies, dryads, witches and elves, and you can get to know them at this twee attraction close by in Les Hayons.
The couple, Marie-Laure and Michel invite you into their workshop, inhabited by scores of hand-carved and painted 1/4 scale figurines.
Also intriguing are the dioramas showing different aspects of daily life in the Semois Valley, portraying bakers, washerwomen, potters, shepherds, woodcutters, the parish priest and many more.
The agricultural heritage of the Semois Valley is the subject of this museum a short drive away in Rochehaut.
At the Agri-Musée you’ll embark on a tour through 20 different exhibits, all put together with a lot of skill and care, and using special lighting and sound effects.
Among the many scenes brought back to life are a dairy, the interior of a farmhouse and typical festivity in this region.
All of these spaces are furnished with original costume, tools, machines and appliances from the 19th and 20th century, most in working condition.
On the grounds is an animal park for domestic and wild species found in the Semois Valley, like Ardennes sheep, Belgian draft horses, Ardennaise roosters, Belgian blue cattle and mouflons.
10. Le Musée du Tabac de la Semois
Semois is a byword for the tobacco industry that cropped up along the river in the second half of the 19th century.
Thriving in the poor, acidic Ardennes soils, Semois tobacco is brown, with a highly distinct aroma caused by the valley’s damp climate and the unique way the tobacco is processed.
By 1910 there were 400 hectares devoted to tobacco, and more than nine million individual plants.
Production has since dwindled to just a few planters, but travelling through the valley you’re sure to see the old dryers, still standing in villages like Frahan.
If it’s an industry that you want to delve into, you can make the short trip to this atelier museum in Corbion.
This has implements dating from the early 1900s and still in working condition, and will guide you through the traditional stages of tobacco production, from seed to pipe.
You can also view a rare collection of vintage pipes and pipe stands.
11. Église Saints-Pierre-et-Paul
At the heart of old Bouillon, the town’s parish church is a Neoclassical construction built in 1848 from sandstone, schist and limestone.
Dedicated to saints Peter and Paul, it sits on the site of an Augustinian college, and merits a peek if the door is open and you’re passing by.
One reason to stop is for the paintings at the entrance showing the legend of Godfrey of Bouillon.
Inside, there’s a three-aisled nave and semicircular apse.
Displayed on the walls are paintings evoking the gospel and life of Jesus.
12. Bouillon Wildlife Park
Up the slope to the east of the town there’s a zoological attraction laid out in hilly countryside.
Here, in wooded paddocks and enclosures, are more than 500 animals from a big diversity of species, among them zebras, tigers, wallabies, white lions, reindeer, pygmy goats, mandrills, llamas, ostriches, highland cattle, baboons, emus and capybaras.
You can see the park’s residents along a two-kilometre walking trail.
Especially for kids there’s a large adventure playground laid with soft woodchips and adapted to the hilly terrain.
The park’s restaurant comes with a relaxing outdoor terrace, for a meal, drink or sweet treat.
13. Semois Kayaks
Although the Semois has gouged a spectacular valley through the Ardennes, the river itself is placid, especially during prolonged dry spells in the summer.
So even if you’re a kayaking newbie it’s worth paddling downriver to contemplate the valley and its verdant banks and deep wooded slopes.
A couple of rapids will inject some adrenaline into your voyage, but are more fun than daunting.
Semois Kayaks has a choice of itineraries, with two options departing the city: Bouillon to Poupehan-sur-Semois (roughly 3h30) and Bouillon to Frahan (around 5h). After you reach your destination, a free shuttle bus will be waiting to take you back to Bouillon.
14. Liaison des deux châteaux Sedan-Bouillon (The Two Castles Trail)
Over the border in France and 15 kilometres from Bouillon, the city of Sedan on the River Meuse is also under the watch of a gigantic castle.
Sedan has ancient ties to its neighbour that go back as far as the Treaty of Verdun in 843 when the Carolingian Empire was parcelled out.
At 30,000 square metres on seven storeys, the Castle of Sedan is claimed to be the largest feudal castle in Europe.
It’s easier than you might think to cross a patch of the Ardennes on foot and visit Sedan, as the two cities were once linked by a railway line, “Le Bouillonnais”. This is now a greenway, for a two-day hike or shorter ride that you won’t soon forget.
The line was laid down in 1910 to serve the spinning mills of the Givonne Valley, and there’s lots of old industrial architecture to spot on the route.
15. La Route des Fortifications
For those in the mood to travel by car, Bouillon is at the beginning of a 570-kilometre, 22-stage historical driving route snaking through the Ardennes.
This is a land where the fate of Western Europe has been played out time and again.
La Route des Fortifications is also a journey through 2,000 years, from Roman camps to the Maginot Line, from star-shaped fortified towns to impenetrable Medieval castles roosted high in this epic massif.
And at each stop you’ll immerse yourself in legend and myths, but also real life stories of sieges, looting, massacres, political marriages and alliances.
If time is limited you could keep it short and make a loop to Sedan via Virton to the south-east.
On this tour alone you’ll see the ruins of the Medieval castles, centuries-old forges, archaeological sites at ancient forts, citadels, Maginot line defences and the imperious Castle of Sedan.