The town of Houffalize in Belgian Luxembourg is at the very heart of the Ardennes.
Think primeval forests, sharp valleys with gossamer mists and idyllic pastures.
Many thousands of hectares of countryside around Houffalize are preserved as a natural park, waiting for adventures on foot, by water or on a mountain bike.
You can journey up to viewpoints with no sign of human life for miles, float downriver through canyons and explore little villages that were caught up in the fighting during the Battle of the Bulge.
Houffalize didn’t escape the bloodshed, and as a monument there’s a German panther tank that was fished out of the Ourthe River three years after the battle.
1. Parc Naturel des Deux Ourthes
Houffalize is surrounded by an immense protected space, covering 76,000 hectares on the deep slopes of the Ourthe Valley.
The Parc Naturel des Deux Ourthes encompasses both the western and eastern arms of the Ourthe, which meet near Houffalize at the Nisramont dam.
There’s something almost Nordic about the countryside, with its frosty winters, coniferous forest and a mist that hovers over the valleys.
Out on a hike you’ll cross moorland, peat bogs, sunny pasture dotted with dairy cows, fragrant woodland, and will occasionally come face-to-face with giant schist formations.
2. The Rock of Hérou
At the village of Nadrin, also part of Houffalize, the course of the Ourthe River is obstructed by a colossal schist outcrop 1.5 kilometres long, 80 metres wide and up to 80 metres high.
At the Belvédère de Nadrin you can stand on the edge of this ridge and survey an Ardennes landscape completely devoid of civilisation.
Far below, wrapped in forest and often beneath a veil of mist, the Ourthe wriggles past on its circuitous course through the hills.
There’s a restaurant by the car park with its own observation tower and you can walk a 5.4-kilometre loop from the centre of Nadrin, down to the riverside and up again.
3. Brasserie d’Achouffe
Even by Belgium’s lofty standards, the brewery ten minutes out of Houffalize makes some top-class beer.
Brasserie d’Achouffe began as a hobby between two brothers-in-law and now produces 300,000 hectolitres a year and exports to more than 70 countries.
In 2006 the brewery was bought by the Duvel-Moortgat group.
The signature beer is La Chouffe, an unfiltered lager with fruity and spicy (coriander) hints.
Also in the range is a dark beer, a hoppy lager, a spicy winter beer, a citrusy summer beer and a fruit beer introduced in 2017, infused with cherries.
You can learn the brewery’s secrets on a 90-minute multilingual guided tour, setting off at 14:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays.
Just the ticket if you’re in town with smaller members of the clan, Houtopia is a multisensory indoor and outdoor attraction that was updated in 2018. The interior is a kind of hands-on children’s museum with up to 80 subtly educational “experience stations” involving senses like touch, sight, hearing and even taste and smell.
There are interpreter’s on hand all along the trail to help kids get the most out of these activities.
Outside, the adventure playground is like nothing you’ve seen.
There’s a safe, netted bridge crossing the Ourthe to the rocky right bank, leading to 30-metre an enclosed slide returning across the gorge.
5. Église Sainte Catherine d’Alexandrie
Houffalize’s Early Gothic church started out in the 1230s as the chapel for an Augustinian priory.
The building suffered during the bombing in January 1945, but there are some extraordinary fixtures that came through unscathed.
One is a lectern in the form of an eagle with outstretched wings, cast in 1370 by Dinant goldsmiths.
Also exceptional is the 13th-century recumbent tomb effigy for Thierry II of Houffalize, carved from black limestone and showing him in chainmail with a shield at his side and lion at his feet.
6. Point de Vue du Vieux Château
Beside the Rue du Barrage (N843) at the hamlet of Filly you can scale a promontory for a knockout view of the Ourthe Valley.
The viewpoint is set on the foundations of a lost castle.
At the foot of the rise there’s a state of the folkloric figure, Pogge.
This is a member of the burgher class from Schaerbeek in Brussels, known for its wisdom.
The monument recalls the help given to Houffalize from Brussels after its total destruction on 6 January 1945.
7. Barrage de Nisramont
Not far downstream from where the western and eastern arms of the Ourthe meet there’s a hydraulic dam built in 1958 to supply drinking water to the Bastogne plateau and the Ourthe and Aisne basins.
For visitors the Barrage de Nisramont is a place to bask in the Ardennes countryside.
There’s a 14-kilometre path weaving through the deep woodland on the banks of the reservoir, set up with barbecue grills and picnic tables.
This walk has a medium difficulty level but pays you back with awesome views.
And in the summer you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard at the dam.
8. Projet de Canal Meuse et Moselle
Between 1827 and 1839 there was an ambitious attempt to link the Meuse in Liège with the Moselle at the Luxembourg town of Wasserbillig.
This project would have created a connection between the Meuse and Rhine basins, but would have needed up to 400 kilometres of waterway and more than 200 locks.
The plans were supported by William I of the Netherlands, but scuppered by the Belgian Revolution of 1830 and the the advent of the railway.
Traces are strewn over the region, and in the Houffalize municipality you can see one of the trickiest pieces of infrastructure.
The incomplete Tunnel de Bernistap would have been 2.5 kilometres long, only 1,130 metres of which was excavated.
Although you can’t go inside, there are 15 kilometres of marked trails along the towpath, and you can visit the entrance to peer into the darkness.
9. Escapardenne Eisleck Trail
There’s a famed hiking trail more than 100 kilometres long, between Kautenbach in Luxembourg and La Roche-en-Ardenne in Belgium.
This path is signposted in both directions and is broken down into five stages.
Travelling northwest towards La Roche-en-Ardenne, Houffalize is at the end of the third stage, which puts you in a great position to try a couple of day hikes.
Heading southeast on the way to Asselborn you’ll be walking on the towpath of that unfinished canal.
Going northwest towards Nadrin the vistas are spectacular, as you traverse a narrow ridge between the valleys of the eastern and western arms of the Ourthe.
10. Houffalize Panther (Panzer)
Where the N30 (Rue de Bastogne), turns off onto Rue Saint-Roch sits a reminder of the Battle of the Bulge in the shape of a Mark V, Panther tank.
This vehicle belonged to the 116th Panzer Division, which captured Houffalize on December 19, 1944. The American counterattack began on January 3 and the German troops had to pull out by the middle of that month.
During the fighting this panther ended up overturned in the Ourthe and wouldn’t be retrieved for another three years.
From 2017 the Houffalize Panther was taken apart and reconstructed in a two-year restoration.
11. Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Forêt
Out in the woodland north of Houffalize there’s a chapel off the road to Sommerain, held as an important piece of 18th-century religious heritage.
The first mention of this building, which can be reached along a forest trail, dates from the middle of the 17th century when a local man bequeathed 50 guilders for a chapel to be built in honour of the Virgin.
The current hexagonal structure is from a century later, and has a distinct Mosan character, with onion domes capping the chapel and the porch in front.
Inside, there are five paintings of an unknown date, while the altar was produced in 1766 and the panelling dates from 1768.
12. Tour de l’Ancienne Église Saint-Urbain à Dinez
For photographers there’s a picture-perfect little sight not far out of Houffalize in the hamlet of Dinez.
Here standing alone on a scenic hillside is the whitewashed tower for the former church of Saint-Urbain.
In a low walled enclosure, the church is now in the middle of a cemetery with some eye-catching old monuments.
The tower dates back to 1755 and the rest of the church was pulled down in the 1930s, with a replacement built across the road.
One element left over from the old building is the basin of the baptismal font.
13. Outdoor Centre
The same company that rents out equipment at Barrage de Nisramont also organises all sorts of adventures in the Ardennes wilderness to the west of Houffalize.
Setting off from the dam you can kayak or ride a raft downstream on the awe-inspiring Ourthe to La Roche-en-Ardenne, with all equipment included in the price and a shuttle bus to bring you back.
Depending on the water level there’s an alternative route between Maboge and La Roche-en-Ardenne.
Outdoor Centre also provides mountain bike rental, and can arrange rock climbing and abseiling trips across the region.
14. Carnaval du Soleil
On the first weekend of August Houffalize gets into party mode with a summer festival that has now been going for more than 20 years.
During the Carnaval du Soleil there are parades, tons of children’s activities, live music, a fireworks display and lots of fun customs.
One of these is the coronation of the Sun King (Roi Soleil) and Princess Carnaval in front of the town hall.
On the Saturday afternoon there’s a parade for children, while the main event is the Grand Parade with more than 30 troupes and floats.
15. Foire Sainte-Catherine
In November there’s another annual event, this one observed for the first time in 1338. Taking place on the Saturday before the feast of Saint Catherine, the festival packs a lot into one day.
The celebrations get underway with a fanfare, and there’s a large market throughout the town.
You can catch all sorts of street theatre and live music performances, and every year a Miss Catherinette and a Mr Catherin are elected.
One of the most curious spectacles is the competition to see who can eat the most crâss d’jotte, a local cabbage dish similar to choucroute.
This recipe is entwined in Houffalize’s history to the point where the townsfolk are nicknamed “magneux d’jotte” (cabbage eaters).