Besides crisp air and picturesque landscapes, Belgium’s elevated Ardennes region has many a museum on offer. From immersive war displays to temples worshipping singular geniuses, these nine places guarantee a cultural afternoon well spent.
One of Liège’s pride and joys, the Grand Curtius hits the mark on both location and collection. Expertly lit treasures from ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece as well as impressive glasswork and early firearms can be seen in a renovated 17th-century mansion that overlooks the river Maas. With over 5,200 objects on display and an audio guide to escort you through 7,000 years of applied arts history, you better clear half a day for this educational doozy.
Liège presents an excellent opportunity to delve into the culture of Belgium’s French-speaking half at the Musée de la Vie Wallonne. Set in the 17th-century Franciscan monastery in the heart of the historic center, the museum runs through life in Wallonia from the 19th century to today. Families can catch live puppet performances in its traditional folkloric theater.
To check out what the life of the French and Belgian beau monde looked like in the late 18th and early 19th century, step inside Mons’ most cherished museum. At Decorative Arts Museum François Duesberg, you’ll discover the lavish jewelry, precious porcelain, and decorative tableware collected by Baroness Betty Duesberg and Baron François Duesberg, the result of two lives dedicated to decorative arts. Unique in the world is its exotic collection of over 300 rare clocks and watches, all made between 1785 and 1815.
An essential stop on the route of painter Vincent van Gogh’s life was, somewhat surprisingly, the mining region of Borinage, close to Mons. His stint as a preacher in the village of Cuemes lasted a little over a year, yet was essential in the artist figuring out his life’s calling. Today, the modest house a young van Gogh lived in, the Maison du Marais, has been turned into an intimate museum that shows his thought process at the time through reproductions of his letters and one of his authentic works. It’s clear that the hardships of the coal miners and farmers in the region would come to have an enormous influence on the painter’s later themes.
The fairly new Bastogne War Museum has reaped praise since its opening in the spring of 2014 for its immersive account of one of World War II’s worst battles on the Western Front. Throughout the exhibition, personal stories of Bastogne inhabitants and facts about the wider context of the war are woven together to tell the story of the Battle of the Bulge. Three multimedia scenes or ‘flashbacks’ make the visitor part of realistic wartime settings, such as a café filled with locals listening to the sounds of explosions outside, or the edge of the Ardennes forest where Allied troops are sheltered.
In the same vein, though even more enjoyable for military gear enthusiasts, the Bastogne Barracks displays WWII tanks and armored vehicles in active barracks of the Belgian military. This is the very place where the Allied troops were headquartered, and the place where General McAuliffe of the 101st Airborne Division delivered his ‘Nuts!’ line in response to the German demand for surrender. One of the rooms is filled with old pictures of the veterans that risked their lives, and guests are guided around for free by actual Belgian soldiers.
Born and bred in Namur, 19th-century artist Félicien Rops was too much of a local hero and infamous figure not to have a museum dedicated to his work in the historic center of town. In its permanent collection – an extensive retrospective of his life and art – you’ll soon bump into Rops’ fascination with the erotic, the taboo, and the macabre while always keeping an ironic note and a light humoristic spark alive. One of the foremost examples of this is the museum’s best-known piece Pornocrates, in which a prostitute walks the streets naked with a pig on a leash.
The prestigious racetrack of Spa-Francorchamps, with its picturesque vistas and challenging turns, has been drawing race fans to the Ardennes since 1921, so naturally, a museum dedicated to what some drivers call ‘the most beautiful track in the world’ was inevitable. In a curious mix of history and present-day technology, exceptional Formula I vehicles from the past to the present are displayed in the vaulted cellar of Stavelot Abbey.
Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, lounges comfortably on a bench set right outside his place of birth in his hometown of Dinant. Not exactly a museum but more of an interactive experience center, you can run along its saxophone-shaped floor to hear different saxophone tunes and turn the pages of a book filled with love letters to the essential jazz instrument.