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Natural treasure
A newly honoured Walloon project is flying the flag for sustainable tourism development
t was established in the 1970s, mostly for technical reasons. The Lakes of l’Eau d’Heure were artificially created as a water reserve for maintaining the levels of the nearby river Sambre. But over the years it has become a popular tourist attraction in its own right, while at the same time earning a reputation for its efforts in the field of sustainable development. Now the sprawling 1,800-hectare site, near the village of Cerfontaine, 50km south of Charleroi near the French border, has scooped a prestigious European award for its endeavours. It has won the Aquatic Tourism category in the annual European Destinations of Excellence (Eden) project, a European


Martin Banks
welcome the recognition of a site that has created jobs, directly and indirectly.” He said the Walloon Region would continue to support the project, particularly at a time when it had to “meet ever-increasing and goal-oriented expectations”. His comments were echoed by managing director Vincent Lemercinier, who said he was “very proud” to have won an important EU-wide competition with the aim of promoting the best European examples of sustainable tourism development. He said, “This is a sign of recognition for us and for this site which, let’s remember, was created at the start for technical purposes.” As well as being a genuine tourist destination for visitors both from Belgium and further afield, the site also comprises dams and a hydro-electric power station. Indeed, features that impressed Eden competition judges included the site’s water treatment capacity and the preservation of the water quality. Its areas of biological interest, waste management and development of activities respecting natural heritage and the environment were also vote-winners. Lemercinier said, “Ever since its creation, some believed in this project but others didn’t. Today, it is obvious that the Lakes of l’Eau d’Heure have become a major tourist resort, not just in Wallonia but Belgium.” The area consists of five lakes: Plate Taille, Eau d’Heure, Falemprise, Feronval and Ry Jaune, and the site has gradually tapped into its tourist potential. This started in earnest in 1994, when the site was able to access EU funds usually given to some of the poorest regions in Europe. The site now offers 10 new hiking paths between two and 24km long, as well as watersports and fishing, and visitors can stay overnight or longer at villas and apartments. Currently under construction are 240 exclusive properties, called Golden Lakes Village, providing nearly 1,500 beds. A 160-bed hotel is also in the pipeline. Run in conjunction with the Tourist Federation of the Province of Namur, this facility is said to be a first for tourism in Wallonia. It is estimated that the number of people directly employed on the site has almost doubled in the past few years, from 130 to 230, and Lemercinier says the wider region stands to gain from increasing visitor numbers to his project. While emphasising the importance of tourism to the regional economy, Lemercinier, however, is mindful of the potential damaging impact the influx of tourists can have on the environment. He said, “Under no circumstances should tourism disturb or disrupt the natural heritage of this site and the region. “Rest assured: the environmental policy guiding the management of this site will do its very best to guarantee that.”

Water of the hills
Lush and laid-back, Belgium’s highest point is a verdant escape from the city Katy Holliday
he Ardennes is an oasis. The region undisputedly has the most breathtaking landscape in all of Belgium; a network of lush rivers and streams, gorges and verdant hills mounted by the trees that bulge at the banks of the train tracks. It makes a nice change from the endless farmland that blankets the rest of the country. Where exactly is this water coming from? As I head towards the small German-speaking town of Eupen on a train from Brussels, I feel like I’m following the water. More creeks spring forth. It’s a face of Belgium I hadn’t seen before. I’m off to hike through the Hautes Fagnes (High Fens) nature reserve. It is one of the largest wildlife sanctuaries in Belgium: 4,500 hectares of forest, heath, peat bogs and other wetlands. The region also hosts part of the nation’s water supply, with mineral springs, brooks and streams trickling over the years through rich, mineral soil and eventually joining some of Belgium’s biggest rivers. After refuelling at one of Eupen’s many pavement cafés, I catch a ride into the reserve. I am dropped off at the Signal de Botrange, the highest point in all of Belgium at a whopping 694 metres. Because of its altitude, it’s generally where the first snow falls come winter, and it’s my departure point today. The Belgian Government even had a six-metre tower built for people to climb and reach exactly 700 metres above sea level. There is parking, a café and friendly information desk. Just a few steps further on, the Nature Centre provides guided tours or a place to leave your bags. The reserve is lined with duckboards that make for easy walking and help to protect the vegetation. Signposts are plentiful too. I cross the highway and disappear into nature, breathing more easily as I leave thoughts of the city behind. I gaze out across a sprawling plateau. At this time of year it’s flourishing and green. It is easy to imagine how the other seasons treat the wetlands: the stark, austere colours of autumn when the tussocks are dried out and golden; or in winter, when

Going for gold: An impression of how the Golden Lakes complex will look when complete


Union award given each year to initiatives promoting sustainable tourism development across Europe. The project, coordinated by the European Commission, is based on national competitions that result in the selection of a tourist “destination of excellence” for each participating country. A key feature of the selected destinations is their commitment to social, cultural and environmental sustainability. The recipients of the award are usually emerging, relatively little-known European destinations in the 27 member states and candidate countries. Past Belgian winners include Après Durbuy, Ath and Viroinval and now the Lakes of l’Eau d’Heure can claim to be a European destination of excellence. The theme this year was water tourism, which seems appropriate for an attraction that can boast the largest lakes in Belgium. In fact, it has 600 hectares of lakes and the same surface of forests and grasslands, with 70km of shoreline – longer than the Belgian coast. A beneficiary of “substantial” regional funding, its recognition as an Eden winner was applauded by Paul Furlan, tourism minister for Wallonia. Describing it as an “exceptional” project, he said, “We
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the moors are dampened with snow, a blanket of quiet for cross-country skiers keen to explore; or in spring when tufts of cotton bloom and daffodils come alive. The sound of grasshoppers ratcheting follows me around the boardwalk, a constant companion. Sparse remains of cotton and hare’s-tail dot the landscape. In the woods, I hear what I imagine to be a woodpecker, though I see no sign of him. The delicate eco-system of the Fagnes is supported by an extremely wet climate and low-permeability subsoil. It rains, on average, 170 days per year, with 76 snow days. When there is too much water, the sponge-like earth is flooded and the water swells to the surface, forming active peat bogs and attracting an array of spectacular fauna. As I continue, I see lizards sunning on the duckboards next to ginger butterflies. Meadow pipits sing out as they dive and drop in flight, and bumblebees are hard at work. I find bilberries, and an abundance of tormentil. It’s interesting to consider the influence of humans over nature, when originally this land was home to woods alone. The impact of man and his agricultural activities has created a new eco-system; one that now needs much protection and attention to keep the peat bogs alive.

High hopes: The Hautes Fagnes are a peaceful spot and an important part of Belgium’s natural heritage


Exploring the High Fens
• Look out for Baraque-Michel, a family hostel built in the early 19th century as a shelter for weary or lost travellers. There is also the inn at Mont-Rigi, founded in 1862, which was originally on Prussian turf. The two buildings also acted as customs posts. • Marked crosses and stones were used as reference points in the early days to signify land borders; many of these markers remain. • Rent a bike and spend a day exploring the region at your own pace, weaving along a multitude of signposted cycle tracks. • Test your eyes and patience bird-watching – you might catch a glimpse of the endangered black grouse.
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katy holliday