It's the hilly terrain of this area that attracts cycling enthusiasts but also professional riders. Here among the hills of the Flemish Ardennes the annual Tour of Flanders cycling race is staged. For one weekend cycling simply dominates everything in this region. On the Saturday cycling fans from across Flanders and beyond get an opportunity to pit themselves against some of the most arduous cycling terrain in northern Belgium, while on the Sunday all eyes are on professional riders with the steep Wall of Geraardsbergen as the greatest challenge.
The area is also full of natural springs. Pure, clear water bubbles to the surface supplying the ten breweries of the Flemish Ardennes with one of their key ingredients. All told, the ten breweries produce over one hundred beers that are on offer in pubs, hotels and cafes that you will encounter along the cycling routes and hikers' paths set out by Toerisme Oost-Vlaanderen, the East Flemish Tourist Board, in its handy map “7 Routes of the Flemish Ardennes”. The map is available via the planbeer.be website that includes a wealth of information on beer, cycling and rambling in the province. Here you can download the maps, print them out or use them on your GPS!
“7 Routes of the Flemish Ardennes” clearly sets out four cycling routes for all levels of proficiency. The Zwalm Village route is only 24 km long along the flattest terrain of all four cycling routes. Its starting point is easily accessible from Ghent: just follow the River Schelde or Scheldt upstream. The route takes you through idyllic villages and past historic water mills.
The Adriaen Brouwer (or Brewer in English!) e-bike route is 29 km long. It's named after the painter Adriaan Brouwer, a contemporary of Sir Peter Paul Rubens. Brouwer was born in Oudenaarde, the main city of the Flemish Ardennes. Oudenaarde possesses a magnificent medieval city hall and world famous tapestry museum. It's the beer capital of the Flemish Ardennes and home of the 'Oud Bruin' or 'Old Brown' brewed in a variety of guises by the Roman, Liefmans, Cnudde and Smisje Breweries. This more challenging route takes you along genuine cobblestone terrain and up steeper climbs. Authentic village pubs and magnificent views of the city and the out-lying area are your reward. Here you can enjoy beers like the famous 'Oudenaarde Brown' brewed by four local breweries. Best to rent an electronic bike at the start!
The Zottegem Route covering 36 km is centred on another of the larger towns of the Flemish Ardennes. The route takes you past two craft breweries and a wealth of fabulous pubs! Great beer is brewed here too and what better place to taste it? Zottegem organises an annual beer festival in October. It's a town with a long-standing beer tradition that today is maintained by the Hoevebrouwers, a local microbrewery, whose beers are available locally.
Taking you over a distance of 42 km the Grail Route is the longest developed by the East Flemish Tourist Board. It starts in the town of Geraardsbergen, famous for its 'Mattentaart', a local delicacy. Here too you find the Wall of Geraardsbergen, as we mentioned, the greatest challenge of the Tour of Flanders. It's not included in this route and that should come as a relief! Try it on your own time!
The Wall of Geraardsbergen also gave its name to the 'Giesbaargs Muurken', an interesting craft beer produced by a local microbrewery. Why not try the beer at the 't Hemelryck (or 'Heaven') pub at the Wall itself. It's an excellent vantage point at which to marvel at the many cyclists making it up this steep and treacherous incline and to dream of what could have been!
Pure water and clean air contribute to the quality of local beer production, but so do experience and tradition. The oldest family brewery in Belgium, the Roman Brewery, has been operational since 1545! The famous Liefmans Brewery too is located here. If you're visiting the Flemish Ardennes, 'Oud Bruin' or 'Old Brown' is the obvious choice. The beer is typical of the region, has a long and rich history and has been perfected over the years by the many brewers based in Oudenaarde.
Sofie Vanrafelghem is an internationally acclaimed beer sommelier and author. She lives in the Flemish Ardennes but also travels the world as a true advocate of Belgian beer and judges in international beer competitions. Michael Jackson, one of the world's leading beer authorities, confessed his love for Valeir Extra, an IPA produced by the Contreras Brewery of Gavere, but what's Sofie's choice? Our beer connoisseur says Oud Bruin from Liefmans is underestimated. With an ABV of just 5% it proves exceptionally refreshing! Sofie argues that Pater Lieven Wit, a white beer from the Van den Bossche Brewery, hasn't received the attention it deserves, while Gouden Arend 125, a golden blond hoppy beer brewed by De Ryck Brewery and marketed in a 75 cl bottle is described as “a fruity corker”!
If cycling isn't for you, but you still fancy a healthy breath of fresh air in the Flemish Ardennes, why not check out the hikers' routes developed by the East Flemish Tourist Board? The Muziekbos Forest Hike outside the fair town of Ronse is ideal for families with children. The Muziekbos Forest is stunning in any season and the 5km route includes a couple of brasseries where you can rest and taste the local offerings!
The 9 km Pastoral Parike Route outside Geraardsbergen takes you past the 't Klein Verzet pub that boasts eighty regional beers on its drinks' list. Steven De Backer of the East Flemish Tourist Board, who did the research for “7 Routes of the Flemish Ardennes”, also recommends 't Fameus Verleden for a tasty bite.
The Little Switzerland Hike in Zwalm covers just over 10 km. This is a route that won't leave you hungry. It includes up to five possible stops for a drink and a snack! Three are located in historic watermills along the River Zwalm.
Have we whetted your appetite for the Flemish Ardennes? For your free copy of the “7 Routes of the Flemish Ardennes” map log onto planbeer.be and head for the web shop. A similar guide to the delights of the Scheldeland, the Land of the River Scheldt or Schelde is also available, while the handy Beer Guide that includes more cycling and rambling than you or me could ever accomplish and is full of information and local tips is available for 9.95 euros.
(Photos in this article kindly provided by the East Flemish Tourist Board.)