The little bus that could
The Bulletin, 19.5.06
The Heuvelland is a little-known Belgian delight for walkers, cyclists and drinkers - and buses are the best way to enjoy it, says Paul Stump
Just as I start to glance anxiously at my watch, stood like a lemon on the side of a road seemingly in the middle of nowhere near Ypres, it appears. A dinky little minibus in the white, grey and yellow of the Flemish operator De Lijn hoves cheekily into view, looking for all the world like something out of Bob The Builder. And only 30 seconds later than the time we agreed on the phone.
Belbus is not a specifically Belgian concept, but nowhere else so successfully operates dial-a-ride policies. De Lijn has a network of these minor routes throughout Flanders. The principle's easy - you can ring and reserve a seat two hours in advance at any given point on the route, which is in theory almost anywhere. As such beguiling areas like the Heuvelland, ironically termed the Flemish Alps, can be visited without getting the car out of the garage.
Heuvelland ('hilly land'), to the south west of Ypres and forming part of the French frontier, is Flanders' highest point, and although the summit at Kemmelberg is only a puny 159m, size definitely doesn't matter here.
There are nine 'alps' - Kemmelberg, Rodeberg, Zwarteberg, Scherpenberg, Baneberg and Monteberg as well as Mont Cassel, the Mont des Cats and the Mont des Recollets over in France. This was terrain highly prized by the armies of World War One, their panoramas over the surrounding plains and polders of priceless strategic significance. Their heavily wooded slopes got off surprisingly lightly in terms of damage and the woods and hamlets now ooze timelessness. This is also prime cycling country; the hills are fixtures in the Four Days of Dunkerque race every May, and teem with tourist-routiers young and old every Sunday.
It's an extraordinarily self-contained little enclave more French than Flemish in character but strongly Dutch-speaking (Belbus staff, as a rule, speak good English). It's rustic but with an undercurrent of well-earned prosperity. Above all, it is very beautiful, gently rolling and verdant with small square fields of sheep and maize, of morning mists in spring and autumn, little villages snug as bugs in rugs, modest steeples and spires peeping above the bumpy horizon. It demands to be walked in, luxuriated in, appreciated. The locals are proud of this landscape - in the absence of railways, or even much in the way of a population, Belbus is the greenest and most economical way of getting visitors around and not spoiling the place.Once you start walking, it's not easy to stop - there's always a quainter view just around the corner. Or, more to the point, there's always a better pub or restaurant just around the corner.
One of the best is in the village of Kemmel, which sits timidly on the flank of the enormous, beached-whale bulk of the eponymous, malachite-wooded Kemmelberg. Het Labyrint not only serves delightfully-cooked snacks and a very fine range of beers, it boasts its own maze (hence the name) and even its own bizarre museum of archaeology (29 Dries, tel 057.44.65.81, nearest stop ). If you're planning to visit the village's rather good Museum of Rural Life, best go there first. As its name suggests, Het Labyrint won't let you go easily.
The almost impossibly endearing rural gem that is De Kauwackers is so remote that it's a fair step even from the nearest Belbus stop in Nieuwekerke, but worth the effort (1 Kauwackersstraat, tel 057.44.57.94). Named for a rare breed of crow, its ramshackle exterior concedals a lovingly-crafted interior. The only snag is that its once-famous beer list of 160 has been replaced by the perfectly acceptable but far tinier and more homogenous range of the De Bie brewery of Loker, who are in the process of buying up local hostelries. De Tere Plekke in Dranouter is another wonder of rusticity, all tiles, repointed brickwork, ivy and pavé courtyard (21 Koudekotstraat, 057.44.65.67). Dranouter is big on terroir and authenticity, as evidenced by the stout, fresh, farmers' nosh served up in these establishments, and this makes it ideal to host the annual Belgian Folk Festival, when those with a phobia of bagpipes could do well to give the village a miss, although the excellent displays at the Muziekcentrum Folk museum on the site (224 Dikkebusstraat, 057.44.69.33) could fail to intrigue only the terminally unimaginative or those with tin ears. Those craving more genteel refreshments usually beeline to In De Wulf, a fast-rising bistro-cum-estaminet (1 Wulvestraat, tel 057.44.55.57). It's by no means flash, with an estaminet's rawness, but the food is stylish and inventive on basic Flemish themes, and its magret de canard à la kriek and eels cooked in beer have spread ripples as far as Paris. Accommodation is also offered and is of a high standard of cleanliness and service - not to mention value. For those pooped after the paths of the Zwarteberg or Rodeberg - and this is excellent walking country - a night spent here is perfectly apt R'n'R.
Ah yes, those hills. Those strategists weren't wrong- the views (over the hopbines and wheatfields and village spires to Diksmuide, west over the polders to Dunkerque, south to the slagheaps of Arras, east to the towers of Lille) are breathtaking for what, after all, isn't a particularly lofty place. But self-respecting alps have chairlifts, even if they're only little alps. And the Flemish alps has a little chairlift. At 900 metres long, linking Zwarteberg and Rodeberg, it's conceivably the most pointless télépherique in the world, but it's fun - it starts at the Brasserie Cordoba on Rodebergstraat in Westouter - ask your Belbus driver.
We're a casual promenade from In De Wulfhille (29 Rodebergstraat, tel 0496.41.94.08), a little gingerbread house of an estaminet of low timber beams, the oldest building in the village (it's supposed to date back to 1650). Artist Axel Fabry's excellent De Neerplaats, with its oddball staircase, is also worth a detour (32 Poperingestraat, tel 057.44.40.50). This is also the best place to enquire about a tour of the Heuvelland in a horse-drawn carriage, or even on horseback yourself.
A few Belbus stops along, the equestrian theme comes into its own again at De Klijte's pub De Diligence (4 Kasteelmolenstraat, tel 057.44.79.39), where more rides and tours are proposed, and visitors with their own horses are encouraged. The earthier In De Zon (80 Dikkebusstraat, tel 057.21.26.26) is rated by connoisseurs as one of the very finest examples of a preserved estaminet in the region, and its little Art Nouveau flourishes are particularly idiosyncratic and charming.
There's not much glamour about travelling by bus, and there never was. There's never been much glamour about the Heuvelland either. That really ought to change.
Where to stay. In De Wulf is your best bet (see above). De Hollemeersch (4 Lettingstraat, also in Dranouter, tel 057.44.44.06) also has beds and a more than agreeable restaurant to boot.
How to get there. Belbus No.68 serves Poperinge SNCB station and then Westouter, Dranouter, Loker, Nieuwekerke and Kemmel. No.79 serves the same area and departs from Ypres SNCB station. Both are roughly hourly on weekdays and two-hourly on Sunday from late morning. Ring x two hours before every departure to ensure the bus arrives at the agreed stop on time.
Note: some of the bars mentioned have opening hours that are, to say the least, eccentric, and change frequently. Ringing first is advisable.