It's the end of summer and lazy balmy nights are gently being replaced by chilly, dark evenings accompanied by the occasional drizzle. Last night was such a night. Autumn has finally found its way back. An approaching storm was casting a gloomy shadow over the afternoon, disregarding any ray of sunshine trying to penetrate the oppressing rainclouds.
Heavy raindrops plopped on our windshield and the trees along the road showed the first signs of amber and ochre tinted leafs. I cracked open the car window and it poured in, the heavy air filling the car with the musky-sweet smell of fall. It's late September and we found ourselves driving towards the Ardennes, a region of extensive forests and rolling hills which stretches to the South and East of Belgium.
Summer has gone, but we didn't care. We were ready for some immersion in nature after months of relative confinement due to the COVID-19 outbreak. An autumn weekend break in the Ardennes was exactly what we longed for and subconsciously needed.
Go slow on an autumn weekend break, hearing the bellowing deer of the Ardennes
Experiencing the bellowing of deer of the Ardennes
Every year, between mid-September and mid-October, the primal cries of bellowing deer resound through the forests of the Ardennes. The deer then find themselves in rutting season and start their dramatic mating dance, which involves a very typical sound: the bellowing. To be honest we had never heard of and never witnessed the deer's unique cries until we explored the surroundings of Saint Hubert.
"On any other day, it would be particularly rare to come face to face with a deer, but during fall season one's chances rise significantly" says Michael from Rando Evasion. We've left our car near the petite church of Ciergnon and were heading out with Michael into the open field for an evening walk. Accompanied by a flashlight, Michael took us into the darkness near the Lesse river, close to the Royal Castle of Ciergnon, a residence and a Summer retreat for the Belgian Royal Family.
"Dress warmly, but don't pick something that can make noise and… don't wear perfume, it bothers the animals during their mating dance" was our briefing before heading out this weekend. It is crucial to remain as silent and unobtrusive as possible when trying to hear the Stags' bellowing ritual.
There's a secluded corner in the forests of the Ardennes where those in the know snare glimpses of bellowing deer and rootle for it's fine game cuisine.
Michael brought us to one of his secret spots. The male deers choose the same spots each mating season to start their ritual, so a local's experience is paramount for bellowing hearing success. The almost pitch dark sky presented us with a continuous flood of fresh rain from the moment we headed out for our autumn weekend in the Ardennes. We stood still for minutes, somewhere in the forests near Saint Hubert, patiently awaiting that particular cry. Nothing happened, except for the fact we were getting soaked thanks to the weather gods. Until something magical happened.
The slight cracking sound of our rain boots crushing the fallen leaves was muffled by the thuds of big raindrops plopping on our hoods. It seemed there was no one else but us. When all of sudden the vast empty darkness was ruptured by a loud roar. A stag had seemingly started his mating dance.
The sound of bellowing overwhelmed us. It's so powerful, expressing strength and dominance. A call to impress, to show fortitude. Both magical and exciting. Entranced, we kept listening for a few minutes, becoming one with nature and completely absorbed in our murky surroundings. There is undeniably a secluded corner in the forests of the Ardennes where those in the know snare glimpses of bellowing deer, and we've just been let into the secret.
Make it happen: trace the bellowing deer and admire their primal cries in complete silence by joining one of the organized group walks or a private guided walk with Rando Evasion.
Soaking in the autumnal ambiance
B&B Gaussignac is a cheerful stop on the country road between Ciergnon and the former pilgrimage village of Saint Hubert. The tradition and love for wildlife has been extrapolated from the forests of the Ardennes into our lovely accommodation - the intricate keepsakes dotted around the communal rooms of the B&B and the crackling wood fire immediately immersed us into the Ardennes ambiance.
Located a mere 3 kilometers from the centre of Saint Hubert in the small village of Hatrival, the traditional Ardennian farm has been converted into a guesthouse by Michel and Françoise a few years prior. The preserved stone exterior greeting us and inviting us into its warmth inside. Escaping the capricious weather outside, we relished the warmth seeping back into our bones in the Italian-shower of our lovely room. Ready to enjoy a spread of local delicacies.
Supper means big plates of home-cooked food, followed by a brandy or an Orval beer by the crispy fireplace.
Our table was set as if we were going to spend an evening with friends: simple but cozy and designed with dedication and attention. Love for the outdoors was evident - the menu of the evening respecting the rhythm of the seasons and created from regional produce. At B&B Gaussignac supper means big plates of home-cooked food, followed by a brandy or an Orval beer by the crispy fireplace. Depending on what the market has to offer in fresh produce, Michel alternately draws inspiration from family recipes or famous chefs.
Pork and green pepper pâté with toast, venison chops with sweet caramelized figs and a chocolate mousse to top it off. Supper is copious and satisfying. During rutting season, Françoise and Michel accompany their guests -as a sort of unique nightcap- to their personal secret "bellowing" spot in the woods. When lucky, the wondrous symphony of the forest might be the best lullaby ever to send you off to sleep.
Make it happen: An aperitif is enjoyed in one if the checkered armchairs next to the crackling fireplace while waiting for a homemade three-course dinner. Staying overnight at B&B Gaussignac is possible from 95€ per night..
Foraging in the woods of Saint Hubert
Autumn introduces a whole new chapter of flavors. Hunting seasons has opened and this is the time that local game begins appearing on menus, Autumn mushrooms are in abundance, and various types of nuts are ready to be picked. With its spectacular larder of forgeable goods, Autumn is the perfect time to indulge in languid strolls through the woods of Saint Hubert. Mushrooms of the wild variety come into their own in this leafy season, with Yellow Stagshorn, Ink Caps, Trumpets and of course the common Honey Fungus to be frequently spotted. The Ardennes is rich in more than 10.000 species of mushrooms, most of which are not suitable to eat.
During autumn, guided hikes are organized from the pretty Ardennian town of Mirwart. Head out into the forest together with a specialist, whose tips and tricks can help you identify the different species. This really is the forager’s season in full swing, and a wonderful opportunity to partake in a new pastime.
Make it happen: For €10p.p. you can join specialist on a 2 hour mushroom foraging walk from Mirwart, near Saint Hubert, and end the afternoon with a delicious hot bowl of mushroom soup.
To understand the forests of Saint Hubert, you have to hike them
I take a deep breath, and the scent of spruce trees tickles my nose. The morning dew intensifying the earthy smell of my surroundings. I exhale in slow little puff, trying not to destabilize my camera. It's 7a.m. and Kristof and I have hidden ourselves in one of the 5 observation towers located in The Great Forest of Saint Hubert. The cloud covers that were so prevalent yesterday, give way to cautious sunbeams illuminating the plain down below. We're about to spend a day hiking the Great Forest of Saint Hubert.
Some parts of the forests are closed during rutting and hunting season. It is essential to respect local instructions so as not to disturb the animals as well as for your own safety. Note that the Great Forest of Saint Hubert is inaccessible until September 30 from 5:30p.m. until 9:30a.m except on the open observation points like Tour de Priesse and Bilaude. On the spot, red and/or yellow posters indicate if a hiking trail is accessible and between what hours of the day.
We leave our observation deck behind and head deeper into the forest, hoping to catch glimpses of the herds hidden in the vast greenery. The forests are a must see, especially during autumn. for its paths lead you along a multitude of rusty colors and let you get acquainted with the whimsical attitudes of its game.
When venturing in Saint Hubert's forest, chances of spotting deer rise significantly when following these tips:
- Head out early, chances of spotting dear are the greatest during dawn. You'll probably need to be patient and keep still for some time so dress warmly. It's so much more magical if you can enjoy this moment without getting cold.
- Avoid bright colored clothing and opt for dark colors.
- Do not pack a flashlight, it might scare the animals. Instead, bring a pair of binoculars with night vision.
- Be quiet and keep at least one hundred metres distance of you encounter wildlife.
- Put your phone on « silent » mode, or, even better, to turn it off.
- Keep in mind that the king of the forest has a very developed sense of smell. He will not appreciate the strong smells of perfume or tobacco so much and will go to fight elsewhere if he is disturbed…
- Follo the instructions on the posters you'll encounter on hiking trails, for both your own safety as well as for the animals.
Make it happen:
You can access the observation decks Tour de Priesse here and Bilaude here or access both of them via the "Promenade de Mochamps" (9,7km or about 6 miles).
✔️ IGN map of Tenneville "Between river and forest" / Marked itinerary n°7
A little something for the culture lovers
The former pilgrimage town of Saint Hubert
An autumn weekend in the Great Forest of Saint Hubert is not complete without a visit to the town of Saint Hubert itself, a former place of pilgrimage with a striking basilica as its key witness. Today it is above all a cosy village where tradition and love for the deer are still very significant.
The basilica is largely dedicated to honor Saint Hubert, the patron of the hunters. It contains a number of art works consecrated to him, including paintings, the choir stalls, a 17-meter high altar and the tomb of Saint Hubert donated by the Belgian King Leopold I. Most of them embellished by antlers or deers carved out of wood or marble. The basilica can be entered without admission fee and the crypt is also open to visitors. Enjoy a hearty lunch at cozy Romain Des Bois in the town center.
The Saint-Hubert game park
In the game park of Saint-Hubert you can take a closer look at the Ardennes game via een extensive network of hiking trails. Just 2 km outside the city centre, and in a beautiful wooded area, deer roam free in a protected park. While the animals roam in several hectares of woodland, visitors can enjoy the hiking trails and perhaps catch glimpses of it whimsical inhabitants.
During rutting season, the park's access is limited in order to not disturb its occupants but outside of rutting season, you can freely walk the hiking trails of the game park and encounter the wildlife!
The village of Redu
In the early 80's of the last century, the village of Redu was virtually extinct, but this all changed when one man decided to turn the small town into a haven for second hand books.
Redu is now widely known as a village of books, printing and crafts. And with the Mudia, an interactive museum of art, it has yet another trump card to play. Sounding names like Bruegel, Klimt, Rodin, Picasso, Magritte and Warhol are hanging on the wall, waiting to be admired.
A big thank you to Wallonië België Tourisme and each individual operator who hosted us during our stay. As always, all words and opinions are our own.