Exploring the two souls of Belgium

Exploring the two souls of Belgium 01

«What could be more foolish than a train that always follows the same route, on the same rails ad infinitum?» asked George Simenon, the creator of Maigret. This question by the great writer from Liège may sound paradoxical, but it reveals a great deal about the Belgian soul: behind an apparent calm lurks a desire to escape, to venture beyond the rails of everyday life.  Perhaps this is the reason why a small town with many souls, at the centre of Europe, has created such a strong bond with the world of speed and motor sport. And Spa, half an hour’s drive from the Simenon’s Liège, hosts a racetrack that has made and continues to make the history of motoring in all its variants. The track at Spa-Francorchamps is set between hills and conifer woods, in a peaceful atmosphere in marked contrast with the roar of the grand tourer engines that will be competing this weekend in the 24 Hours Blancpain GT Series, the most testing race for cars and tyres and the toughest and most alluring challenge for the world of Pirelli.

Deep down, relaxation and speed are the two souls that distinguish Spa, a town in French-speaking Wallonia that gave its name to centres of well-being everywhere: it was the Romans who first discovered its natural springs in the depths of the Ardennes countryside. And yet, if you manage to tear yourself away from the pleasurable feeling of idleness at the spas scattered around the city, there are many on-the-road driving itineraries in the area where you can follow a series of gentle hills and straights. The roads of the High Ardennes, nicknamed the “Blue Ardennes”, take you along routes that never cease to surprise, with varied stretches leading, for example, to Lake Gileppe, an artificial basin created in 1875 by one of the largest dams in Europe. Leaving the car here, you can plunge into the forests along endless miles of paths on foot or bicycle.  And then there’s Liège, only forty kilometres away, with its countless churches, a fusion of old and new (like the station designed by Calatrava or la passerelle, the footbridge that crosses the Meuse river). Having been subject to a succession of foreign rulers - from Spain to Holland to Napoleon - Liège is a perfect fusion of influences with a decidedly international air. Here, in one of the many cafés and pubs, it’s well-worth trying some frites-mayonnaise accompanied by a glass of beer, Belgium's two main gastronomic contributions to the world.

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Remaining in the Spa area, Blegny is also worth a visit. It’s a town known for its coal mines - now closed for thirty years - where thousands of Italians came to work after the Second World War. The mines, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are now open to the public, with guided tours enabling visitors to understand what life was like underground.

Venturing further afield you discover that Wallonia is a wide expanse of greenery where the landscape rises and falls, where the sinuous route takes you between towns, hamlets and castles like the Château des Comtes de Marchin in the village of Modave, with a medieval tower and twenty rooms adorned by tapestries and paintings from the seventeenth century. Also hidden among the forests of the Ardennes is a small gem called Durbuy, the smallest city in the world with only 400 inhabitants. Durbuy is everything that you expect from Belgium, to the nth degree: captivating views, medieval alleyways, sixteenth century buildings, a quiet river (the Ourthe) flowing through and a wall of rock dominating the scene.

Obviously, whatever route you decide to take from Spa you can’t miss doing a lap of the old Francorchamps racetrack, which hosted Formula 1 races up until 1970. The original 14-kilometre layout passed entirely along public roads flanked by trees, street lamps and houses, the drivers flashing past at over 200 kilometres an hour.

One such driver was Jacky Ickx, a Belgian who made his mark with an impudent driving style across Formula 1, endurance racing and rallies. His was a talent that defied labels and was described by Enzo Ferrari as «a blend of calculation and daring». The best example to illustrate the two souls of a country that's there to be discovered, that loves to appear calm while nurturing within a passion for the roar of engines. 

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