The little town of Rochefort is wrapped in a loop in the Lomme River, under the eerie ruins of a Medieval castle.
The region around Rochefort is the Famenne, where the limestone hills have been hollowed out by the Lomme and Lesse Rivers, creating labyrinthine cave systems.
There’s one right on the edge of town, while the endless Caves of Han-sur-Lesse to the south are a famous destination, and part of an estate that includes all sorts of other visitor attractions, like museums and a safari park for European species.
Beer aficionados may know Rochefort for the world-class Rochefort 10, a potent dark ale brewed behind closed doors by the Trappist monks of Rochefort Abbey.
1. Grotte de Lorette-Rochefort
The entrance to this cave system is only a brief walk from the centre of Rochefort and features six subterranean chambers.
The cave has a Christian name that comes from the chapel of Our Lady of Loreto on the surface.
Unusually, the Cave of Lorette descends sharply, almost vertically, into the earth.
A 90-minute guided visit begins in the new pavilion with a movie, Videokarst, which delves into geology and tectonic phenomena.
At 60 metres below the surface you’ll be in the Salle du Sabbat (Sabbath Chamber) where your guide will release a little hot-air balloon to show off the cathedral-like scale of this space.
This is followed by a light and sound show, before you return, blinking, to daylight.
2. Grottes de Han-sur-Lesse
A five-minute trip south on the N86 and you’ll be at an enormous estate, set around caves gouged from a limestone hill by the Lesse River.
Southeast of the cave entrance you can see where the Lesse plunges into the earth down a sinkhole at the mysterious Gouffre de Belvaux.
It stays underground for two kilometres before rising to the surface once more.
The Caves of Han-sur-Lesse were mapped out in the 18th and 19th centuries, but had been frequented by humans for many thousands of years before.
The only way to reach the entrance is by a vintage tram, an artefact from a century-old transport network, departing from the centre of the village.
A mind-boggling 14.25 kilometres of galleries have been discovered to date, and you can walk a course two kilometres long in epic chambers lit with energy-efficient LEDs.
The largest chamber is La Salle du Dôme, 150 metres wide and with a ceiling soaring to 127 metres.
3. Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottes de Han
The Massif de Boine overlooking the caves shelters a 250-hectare native safari park that first opened in 1970 and shows the species that once resided in temperate Western Europe . The park’s inhabitants are able to roam in large enclosures, and can be seen either on foot from a special trail, or a “Safari Car”, a kind of tourist train pulled by a truck.
There are around 20 species at the park, counting wolves, wild cats, Przewalski’s horses, lynxes, ibexes, brown bears, various deer species, Highland cows and Poitou donkeys.
That walking trail is five kilometres long, and is accompanied by tree-top observation posts, benches and picnic tables, as well as a shuttle bus that will carry you to the bear enclosure.
4. Parcours Speleo
Hardy explorers can go off trail and play the part of a speleologist on a guided journey through the Caves of Han-sur-Lesse.
You’ll be kitted out in boots, overalls and a helmet with a light to scramble through the river mud and scree and go places that are off-limits for ordinary visitors.
The Parcours Speleo follows a loose theme, as you hunt for the treasure left by an infamous group of brigands that once hid out in the caves.
Book online to avoid queues.
5. Le PréhistoHan
The Caves of Han-sur-Lesse have more than 9,000 years of human history, which has left behind a lot of evidence dating from the Mesolithic to modern times.
These are displayed at the PréhistoHan exhibition, abounding with finds like spear and arrowheads, pottery and jewellery, much of which dates to the Late Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago.
The museum also covers the riveting history of the discovery of the caves, and has memorabilia from the first complete exploration in 1817. You can view a large-scale model of the system, rendered for the 1939 Liège International Water Exhibition, and discover all you need to know about the geology of the caves.
6. Han 1900
Our final attraction at Domaine des Grottes de Han is still worthwhile, by any measure, especially if you’re interested in work and domestic life in the Famenne in times past.
Han 1900 has more than 50 dioramas showing scenes from everyday life.
The museum is enriched with some 5,000 authentic tools from the period, and takes you around dozens of places of business, including a general shop, bakery, laundry, shoemaker, farrier, tinsmith, blacksmith’s forge, clockmaker, cooper, potter and many more.
7. Château Comtal de Rochefort
For many centuries until the start of the 19th century Rochefort was under the watch of the largest castle in the Famenne.
Even though it’s in ruins today, the Château Comtal de Rochefort still holds away overr the town from its rocky ridge at the base of that loop in the Lomme River.
In its time, the castle has been in the hands of some of the most important noble families in Western European history, like the House of La Marck.
You can head up to this perch to view the surviving stonework, check out interpretation boards and soak up a view that rolls out for miles across Rochefort and the Famenne.
8. Malagne – Archéoparc de Rochefort
Two thousand years ago there was a palatial Roman villa just east of modern day Rochefort and commanding a huge swath of farmland in northern Gaul.
The ruins of the villa have been carefully excavated and labelled, and can be explored on stairways and footbridges.
On paths through the Archéoparc you can find out about the ancient domestic species that lived on this land, discover the various trades in Roman times and see reconstructions of the farm’s old buildings and implements from the era like a towed harvester.
A nice touch is the Roman garden and vegetable patch, planted with 350 species common in Roman times.
9. Château de Lavaux-Sainte-Anne
In the 15th century, the Lord of Lavaux Jean II de Berlo, loyal to Louis de Bourbon, Bishop of Liège, built this fine moated castle a brief drive west of Rochefort.
This property never had great strategic value for long, but was made more habitable down the years and today is considered among the most beautiful in Belgium, blending Late Gothic with Renaissance architecture.
There’s a powerful keep with limestone walls 2.5 metres thick, as well as a drawbridge and three smaller domed towers.
The castle is open to the public, and has three museums inside.
One goes into the lifestyle of the Lords of Lavaux with a snapshot of domestic life in the 1600s.
In the museum on the first floor you can study the ecology and natural history of the Famenne region, while the sprawling cellars and dungeons has an exhibition about the reality of Famenne peasant life in the 1800s and early-1900s.
10. Rochefort Abbey
The Cistercian Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy is a pleasant walk up the road from the town centre, although access is restricted to just the abbey church.
The abbey’s history dates back to a Cistercian monastery for nuns in the 13th century, and these were replaced by monks in 1464. The monastery was suppressed and demolished in 1797 during the French Revolution, but in 1887 a monk from the Trappist Abbey of Achel re-founded Rochefort Abbey on this site.
The Trappist brewery here, a source of income for 500 years, is famed in beer circles for what may be the best quad in the world (Rochefort 10). The Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance puts the abbey off the tourist map, but you will be able to visit the sparsely decorated church to attend prayers.
11. Rochefort Beer
That seclusion required by the monks means that you can’t visit the brewery, and there isn’t even a cafe on site.
But of course there are brasseries, cafes and restaurants in Rochefort, particularly on Place Roi Albert 1er, all stocking Rochefort beer.
These genuine Trappist brown beers are brewed using top fermentation, and with water still drawn from a historic well at the monastery.
There are just three in Rochefort’s lineup: The red cap 6 (7.5%), the green cap 8 (9.2%) and the world-famous blue cap 10 (11.3%). Rochefort 10, a quad, is one of the world’s best-reviewed beers, and is brewed with two malts, pils and caramel malt, two types of hops and has candy sugar steeped in its wort.
And while Rochefort 10 is undoubtedly powerful at (11.3%), its strength is concealed under a rich palate of prune, cherry and brown sugar.
Stop at Drink Scaillet, a beer distributor on Rochefort’s outskirts to take a few bottles home.
12. Autrucherie du Doneû
From Easter weekend to mid-November you can visit the only EU approved ostrich farm in Belgium.
The Autrucherie du Doneû also raises emus and rheas, and has a very picturesque location on the grounds of a château.
The ostriches inspire a lot of fascination, being able to reach a speed of 100km/h and packing a deadly kick for defence.
You’ll get to see them in their paddocks and may even witness their curious courtship rituals.
As part of a visit you can try a pancake made from ostrich egg at the cafe, and there’s a shop selling all sorts of ostrich-derived products.
13. Anticlinal de la Cluse du Ry d’Ave
A ten-minute trip to the village of Ave-et-Auffe will bring you to a geological wonder, high on the rugged right bank of the Ry d’Ave stream.
Through the foliage from the N86 you’ll catch sight of a limestone anticline, a giant convex fold in the rock.
Here great pressure caused by tectonic movment has resulted in the sedimentary strata bunching up into an arch, 35 metres tall.
The Anticlinal de la Cluse du Ry d’Ave is Middle Devonian, dating back around 400 million years, and the oldest rock is at the centre of the arch.
14. Parc des Roches
On both banks of the Lomme in the middle of Rochefort there’s a park with facilities to add some fun or relaxation to a sunny day.
The main draw is the heated outdoor swimming pool, with reduced rates for children.
Right beside it you’ll find a mini-golf course, as well as tennis courts and a big playground for kids fenced by hedges.
The two banks are linked by a footbridge, and there’s lots of grassy space for picnics.
15. Centre d’animation Permanente Du Rail Et de la Pierre
In what used to the town hall of Jemelle, a couple of minutes to the east and in the Rochefort municipality, is a little museum devoted to the area’s rail history and geology.
These have long been two important sources of income for Jemelle.
Children will love the model railway, and there’s a trove of train memorabilia, including tools, uniforms, posters, photos, signs, train consoles and tickets, as well as dioramas.
You’ll also learn about the brave feats of resistance by Belgian railway workers during the Second World War.
There are two rooms at the museum all about the local geology and the history of Lhoist, which has been here since 1924. Jemelle is home to the mineral corporation, Lhoist, and the quarry in the town supplies quicklime to the steel industry in Belgium and Luxembourg.