Spa and Echternach: Deluxe walking, gawking in Belgium and Luxembourg
Stars and Stripes November 24, 2023
Within an hour’s drive of Spangdahlem Air Base are two awe-inspiring hiking trails, each boasting the added attraction of being near a charming city begging to be explored.
The farther of the two, an hour away, is Belgium’s Promenade de La Hoegne, whose name refers to the river alongside which it rambles. Speaking of water, the path is a short distance from Spa, the Belgian city whose name is synonymous with hydrotherapy.
A 40-minute drive south leads to the stony splendor of Luxembourg’s Gorge du Loup and neighboring Echternach, which was founded in 698, making it the country’s oldest town.
I sought to time my trips so I would be hiking at the peak of the surrounding foliage’s fall coloration. The weather, however, was less than cooperative, to put it charitably. But that’s the tradeoff in these parts, and I encountered a surprising amount of company.
Promenade de La Hoegne
Signage bills the Hoegne valley as “wild and picturesque” and “one of the most beautiful in Belgium.” This treasure of Wallonia definitely was as advertised.
The river looked like a roiling torrent of Guinness, complete with suds and foam, as it hurtled down its rocky channel and formed eddies near the edges.
Halfway into the hike, I paused to read information explaining that the froth is produced as organic matter decomposes, creating compounds that reduce the water’s surface tension.
Two small waterfalls — one named after Queen Marie Henriette and the other after her husband, King Leopold II — are among the highlights on this stretch of the Hoegne.
From the trailhead at the Belleheid Bridge, where the river flows unimpeded over the road leading into the parking lot, the Promenade takes visitors on a hike of about 6 miles round trip.
The trail consists of walking paths and a series of bridges, meaning hikers alternate riverbanks throughout the journey. The estimated completion time is three hours.
By the time I made it back to my car, Spa was sounding especially inviting, and not just for its famed waters. As an architecture buff, I was there for the free pleasure of sightseeing in a sea of exquisite buildings.
The stroll along the main drag, Avenue Reine Astrid, took me past the striking facade of the Pavillon des Petits Jeux, the Spa casino and the Pouhon Pierre le Grand, which envelops an iron-rich springs named in honor of a 1717 visit by Russia’s Peter the Great.
Later I learned that the funicular railway I had stopped to gaze at whisks people up to the new hilltop bath complex, the Thermes de Spa. Maybe next trip I’ll reserve some time there for a relaxing soak.
For fans of quirky museums, the Musee de la Lessive, or Laundry Museum, with its exhibitions about the work of washerwomen and the evolution of clothes laundering, fits the bill.
Gorge du Loup
Meaning “wolf’s gorge” in French, the Gorge du Loup is an area of sheer sandstone cliffs and other rock formations shrouded in forest on the doorstep of Echternach. Visitors will also see its Luxembourgish name, Wollefsschlucht, on signs in the vicinity.
I left the car in a parking area near the Grand Hotel and set out for a strenuous uphill climb. It’s advisable to make a pit stop at Camping Officiel Wollefsschlucht, near the E1 trail marker pointing into the forest, because that’s the only bathroom I came across along the way.
The Gorge du Loup can be accessed from either the 6.8-mile-long E4 trail or the 8.4-mile-long E1, which also features a fascinating cave called Huel Lee near the town of Berdorf.
Once in the canyon, I was awed by the scenery and majesty. In some places, standing beside the high rock faces felt a little like being in a cathedral. No wonder this region of Luxembourg is known as Little Switzerland.
Also, the sandstone spire dubbed Cleopatra’s Needle for its resemblance to an Egyptian obelisk is quite the spectacle.
Local legend holds that the gorge is guarded by a count who lusted for money and hid riches in the area’s caves, but was turned into a wolf as punishment for his avarice.
It’s also said that anyone who places a rosary in the right cave will restore the count to human form and be rewarded with the treasure.
A rosary might also be handy for those who step inside the basilica at Echternach Abbey, around which the town grew up. The church can be the starting point or the end point of the hike, depending on which direction one wants to traverse the trail.
After spending about 15 minutes touring the basilica, I wandered around the Place du Marche, a lovely nearby square dominated by the gabled Town Hall. The mix of vibrant modernity and storied past of Echternach was exhilarating, even in the rain.
On the QT
Address: Promenade de La Hoegne, Roquez 49, Jalhay, Belgium; Gorge du Loup, 27 Route de Diekirch, Echternach, Luxembourg
Hours: Hiking trails available 24 hours a day year-round. Thermes de Spa open Saturday and Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; holiday hours Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31 and Jan. 1.
Cost: Parking is free at the Belleheid Bridge lot (high-clearance vehicles recommended) and on the surrounding street. Limited free parking is available outside the train station in Spa and at the Trooskneppchen lot or near the Grand Hotel in Echternach. At the Thermes de Spa, discounted admission of 26 euros is offered after 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and nonholidays. Otherwise, 41 euros for the full day, 30 euros for three hours, 25 euros for students age 15 and up for three hours.
Information: www.tourismejalhaysart.be/en/promenade/promenade-55-la-hoegne/; www.visitluxembourg.com/destinations/mullerthal; www.thermesdespa.com/home/; https://visitwallonia.com/en-gb/produit/attractions/activites/musea/discoveries/musee-de-la-lessive-laundry-museum-in-spa/9258