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Summer city trips in Belgium #16: Arlon
On first acquaintance, Belgium’s smallest provincial capital can seem as impenetrable as its former city walls. Once it’s breached, though, you’ll discover a loyal and down-to-earth community. The town occupies a hill in the southern corner of Wallonia, close to the border of Luxembourg and France. Its lofty spires are a distinctive silhouette to passing motorists and train passengers, but consider lingering awhile to discover its charms.
Arlon has been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. Roman traces include remnants of walls and thermal baths, while the archaeological museum is one of the country’s finest. The town’s emblematic site is the Saint-Donat cathedral, on the grounds of a long-disappeared castle. Reach it by walking up the listed Way of the Cross, a restored 19th-century stone pathway. Look down on pretty terraced houses with period features that reflect French rather than Belgian architecture. Like the majority of Belgian cities, the ravages of fire and war have resulted in less romantic pockets of urban construction. The cathedral’s belvedere, or lookout point, has just reopened after 25 years of renovation. On a clear day, it offers a 50km view over three countries. It’s open to visitors every weekend between May and mid-September.
Although Arlon has its share of gourmet addresses, Le Belvédère in Rue du Marché-au-Beurre provides hearty food at fair prices in a friendly setting. Admire the photos of Arlon’s carnival gilles behind the bar, drink local Trappist beer Orval (the patron is a member of the brotherhood) and enjoy regional fare alongside more exotic specialities, courtesy of the owner’s Brazilian wife.
Arlon is associated with the potent Maitrank, or May drink. It originates from the Middle Ages when German Cistercian monks planted Asperula odorata (woodruff) in local woods. Sprigs of the plant are macerated in white wine for up to 48 hours. Orange and sugar are added, then Cointreau or cognac. The Maitrank festival in May is one of Arlon’s most popular folklore events.
Insider tip - Jean-Jacques Guiot, Arlon correspondent for L’Avenir newspaper
“Three kilometers from Arlon, the village of Clairefontaine is a back-to-nature experience. It’s known for the ancient ruins of its Cistercian abbey, once the burial ground for the family of the counts of Luxembourg. From here, walkers can stroll along the riverbanks and horse riders can follow the Grand Duchy border.”