I first visited this lovely, low-key corner of western Europe in August in stultifying heat and electrical storms to celebrate my 50th birthday. I passed that milestone with surprising contentment at a fine, old country inn. Then I went back to see the way autumn sneaks into the Ardennes, turning old oak and beech forests yellow, laying morning mists over the Semois River and filling the markets with squash in surprising shapes and colors.
The Ardennes is an amorphous region of southeastern Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The name — which comes from the Gaulish word arduenna, goddess of hunting — denotes a forest and weathered massifs lined by rocky cliffs. I doubt many Americans could pinpoint it on a map.
The confusion is understandable because the Ardennes is in the geographically confusing, culturally blended heart of the Continent. The region, contested in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge, was a German portal to the west in both World Wars. Its language and wines are French; its taste for robust meat and potatoes German; its modest, gray stone villages with bulb-shaped church steeples quintessentially Belgian.
The region is cleaved by the Semois River, which flows through Belgium and France before emptying into the Meuse. Along the way, it twists and turns through the forests and meadows like a loose spring, inviting walkers and cyclists, kayakers and canoeists. Country lanes, rarely posted with signs, meander back and forth across the river, making it fun to explore by car but hard to figure out where you are from one bend to the next.
On my first visit, I drove a rental car from Paris, where I live, to the Ardennes, a three-hour trip. I got lost almost as soon as I turned off the main highway in Charleville-Mézières, a city on the French-Belgian border, and headed north in search of little D31, which follows the French stretch of the Semois River (known there as the Semoy) as it slices deep valleys into the Ardennes.
Belgium around the bend
Once I found the road and river, I stopped for lunch at Café de Blossette, in Tournavaux, where there was just one thing on the menu: delicious, homemade meat pie. When I told the men smoking unfiltered cigarettes and drinking coffee at a table nearby that I was headed across the border, one of them shook his head sadly and said, "Don't bother. The scenery is better in France."
The river makes no such distinctions as it wanders into Belgium near the hamlet of Rochehaut. The road, which has been traveling through a mixed hardwood forest, rounds a curve, bringing into view the fairy-tale village of Frahan far below. It sits prettily inside a full loop of the Semois at a spot that, but for its palette, recalls the goosenecks of the San Juan River in southeastern Utah.
Bouillon, the biggest town in the area, is a 30-minute drive east. Its 5,500 inhabitants live, feudal style, in tidy cottages and row houses around the base of a razorback ridge, hemmed in by the river on three sides. On top is a seemingly impregnable castle.
Built in the 8th century, Bouillon Castle was the seat of the House of Ardenne until 1096, when the fifth duke, stalwart Godfrey of Bouillon, sold it to finance an army of Crusaders headed for Palestine. They conquered Jerusalem in a bloodbath, earning Godfrey the title of Defender of the Holy Sepulcher (and, later, his name on the label of a Belgian beer).
It would be hard to imagine a more postcard-perfect medieval castle than Godfrey's, with slit windows for archers, dank dungeons, thick walls and three gates hewn out of solid rock, separated by bridges.
A young man presenting a falconry demonstration in the courtyard sent vultures, falcons and big-eyed owls — seemingly too stout to get off the ground — flying, at his command, to perches on the castle wall. Then he launched a stuffed rabbit on a skateboard across the courtyard, which was set upon by the carnivorous birds, much to the glee of the kids in the audience.
By this time, I was more than ready to get to Auberge du Moulin Hideux, near Bouillon, one of the first country inns outside France to be accepted into the vaunted Relais & Châteaux chain. It is expensive ($265 to $335 a night for a double, $70 to $95 per per- son for the set-price dinner, without wine) but not nearly as dear as other Relais & Châteaux hotels I'd priced in the nearby French Champagne country. I was ready to splurge for ironed sheets and foie gras to grease my 50th going down.
The auberge occupies a restored 18th century millhouse, so deeply tucked into its valley that my cellphone didn't work. It has a pond with swans and geese, a small indoor swimming pool, trailheads leading into the forest, a delightful second-floor sitting room, tasteful chambers and the air of a country house party.
Dinner was wonderful, a long, lush ritual that started with a flute of champagne and chevre-cheese-wrapped green grapes under an umbrella table on the front lawn. Then I was ushered to my table in the dining room to study the menu and order, advised by both the sommelier and waiter. I had tuna carpaccio with green tomatoes, codfish in a sauce of North Sea mussels and baby shrimp, a little ball of blackberry sorbet to cleanse the palate between courses, pheasant in cherry sauce, selections from the cheese table and chocolate mousse cake, all accompanied by a white Chassagne Montrachet 2000.
Understandably, I slept in the morning after the celebration. But I spent the afternoon sightseeing along country roads that led to the ruined 12th century castle at Herbeumont and to the thriving market town of Florenville. There I bought a hiking map (for future reference) and a pâté Gaumois for a picnic lunch at Jean-Claude Romain Boucherie-Charcuterie, just off the square, expecting the same sort of meat pie I'd enjoyed at the Café Blossette on the French side of the Ardennes. But this one was fundamentally Belgian, filled with dense, spicy pork, underscoring the subtle differences even in recipes across tight European borders.
Florenville's 19th century Our Lady of the Assumption church was bombed in World War II and rebuilt in 1951. I climbed to the top of the 150-foot tower to see the snaking Semois and the forests that surround it. Coming back down the spiral staircase, I froze, clutching the banister, as the church bells commenced to boom in a scene right out of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo."
Frosty mug at the Abbey