intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
Open the secret door to Ardenne’s history – one told through its folk tales and legends. The Aisne Valley in the Ourthe basin in Belgium, with its hidden nooks and crannies has its mysteries to share as you wander through its wild countryside or sit near a cosy wood fire. You will be captivated by the magic of its enchanted stones heightened by filaments of mist weaving through the lower branches of the trees and the pungent mushroomy smells emanating from its forests; above all, enjoy the unaffectedly warm hospitality offered by the locals. Welcome to Tante Alice at Durbuy!
The Aisne Valley in autumn © oil on canvas by José Wolff
For centuries, the only stone constructions to be found in the Aisne Valley itself were the mills; the villages were spread along the heights and bordered the old Roman roads and pasturelands. Only a few humble dwellings of dried mud and wood were built near the river. It wasn’t until just a few generations ago, that a road was built for wheeled traffic following the course of the river, which attracted people to settle in the valley where they made widespread use of the local grey-beige limestone to build their new dwellings.
The mill of Aisne-sous-Heyd, one of the oldest buildings in the valley
Tante Alice’s house and its guestrooms date back to 1906. It started life as a farmhouse and was converted into an inn between the two world wars – just at the time when Durbuy and the Ourthe Valley with its railway were beginning to attract holidaymakers. The valley’s rugged contours, the game and smoked meats, the trout and prawns, and not least, the pure Ardenne air – that allowed one to sleep as if bound by a spell – greatly attracted the citizens of the industrialized towns.
Tante Alice’s house, now converted into a charming Bed & Breakfast
Tante Alice’s portrait, by José Wolff
For a time, the house was a paint shop, and then in 1950, it was transformed into a café. With its boules court, next to the chapel, it soon became the village meeting place.
In those years, José Wolff, the celebrated Liégeois artist and former pupil of Amedeo Modigliani, painted his best landscapes of the Aisne Valley. It is to him we owe the portrait of Tante Alice, which still hangs in the sitting room.
George’s room, with its period decor © Chez Tante Alice
At the end of the 1990s Marie-France and Didier Lardot-Lesage bought the house from their aunt Alice with the intention of turning it into a B&B. They were determined to keep the wonderful fifties atmosphere which was the soul of the house. They have preserved as many features as they can of that time, in particular, the wood and tiled flooring; some still have touches of painted decoration that was typical of that period. The rooms were renovated in the spirit of the area, with clay plaster walls and ceilings, oak woodwork, wainscoting in the library, and post-war furniture – finds from various flea markets (the Durbuy ‘brocante’ market takes place once a week from May to the end of October.) The main sitting room boasts a typical cast-iron spiral staircase, which came from and old butcher’s shop in Liège.
The living room with its cast-iron spiral staircase
The house abounds with old knick-knacks, pictures, furniture, and other decorative items, whose provenance and history Marie-France will be glad to regale you with. You will breakfast from a 1958 coffee service – the ‘Atomium’ model by the Boch ceramic company and made to commemorate the Brussels World Fair. The large pine breakfast table is from a quarry canteen, and the chairs from the old church hall.
Dider and Marie-France
Marie-France and Didier’s families have live many generations in the Aisne Valley. Some of their forebears were millers, others were famers; there was also a mayor, a teacher, a florist, and a grain merchant.
’Our feet are rooted in our history’, they will proudly tell you. Didier is a passionate photographer, and loves to capture the moment when nature and history spring to light – in the stones, the monuments, the river, and the countryside. Marie-France is a trained nature guide, which enables her to better understand her environment, the land and its people, their roots and their lives.
History is everywhere, but it still has to be appreciated. Marie-France has devised a number of unusual outings for you to discover the area – its hilly landscapes, its picturesque villages and the numerous legends surrounding them.
Do not hesitate to ask Marie-France for one of her theme (cycle) rides!
For example, the neighbouring village Wéris is home to a number of prehistoric megaliths, dolmens and other standing stones – the source of many arcane traditions.
You will soon see why Durbuy, this little medieval town, attracts so many visitors. Its ancient streets, its houses of local stone, its chateau, its old church, its river, its restaurants, and its traditional shop fronts hold an irresistible charm. In December, its Christmas market draws thousands of sightseers. As the town is almost entirely pedestrianised, one can safely wander the streets with young children, who will also delight in losing themselves in the famous maize labyrinth.
The small medieval town of Durbuy on a sunny autumn day © Stephan Van Es
One of the dolmens at Wéris © Jens Olaf Walter
The megaliths at Wéris will immerse you in their mysterious celestial rites thousands of years old. This site has the most important grouping of menhirs and dolmens to be found in Belgium. There are about thirty to be found, scattered around the outskirts of the village. (See circuit de découverte – in French only). The Romanesque Church of Sainte-Walburge (11 – 12th century) is another milestone in the area’s history.
For fans of the Middle Ages, the ruins of the château fort de Logne, the lair of the ‘Sanglier des Ardennes’ – the ‘boar of the Ardennes’ – are well worth a visit.
The old tram along the Aisne River
You can also discover the Aisne Valley as it was at another age, by taking a tram tour with the Tramway touristique de l’Aisne (TTA) whose old carriages are real museum pieces, some of which are over a hundred years old!
Model of Modave’s huge hydraulic wheel © Château de Modave
The magnificent château de Modave built in the middle of a vast natural reserve has some remarkable 17th century stucco work and an important collection of 18th and 19th century furniture. Its impressive hydraulic machine, which supplied its fountains with water, was constructed during the ‘Grand Siècle’ (17th century) and was the prototype for the system used at Versailles.
An aquatic interpretation centre Riveo, at Hotton, offers an aquarium, educational activities, and day’s initiation into river fishing.
And finally, for those with a sweet tooth, a quick look at the chocolaterie artisanale Defroidmont at Erezée, which has a little museum and tasting area – impossible to resist!
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of Chez Tante Alice, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Learning and understanding
Books to be devoured in situ
Period music to be enjoyed on location
Although Chez Tante Alice B&B is not very old, staying within its walls is an invitation to get carried away by the magic of the region, very early colonized. The Ardennes is not a land without history. Its wild atmosphere and misty landscapes generate legends and mysterious rites since the dawn of time ... A wave of moving and beneficial emotions!
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