“Listen closely and you should be able to hear them.”
I strained my ears, shivering in the cold dark parking lot. All I heard was the shuffling feet, of several other journalists, gathered around me.
It was almost midnight and we were huddled together in a forest, in the Ardennes, listening for a special sound – the mating call of wild stags. That’s right; I had forgone my comfortable bed at the Auberge du Sabotier to listen to deer pick-up lines. Nobody can say the life of a travel writer is boring. (Weird, but not boring).
Meanwhile Andrew was at our favourite wine bar celebrating the end of his MBA. So why had I agreed to this crazy adventure?
Well, to be honest, I’m game for just about anything when it comes to exploring Belgium, so when Brussels-Wallonia tourism asked if I’d like to learn more about sustainable tourism, I readily agreed. Especially when I learned, we’d be staying at the Auberge to Sabotier, in Luxembourg province, and dining in the on-site restaurant, Les 7 Fontaines d’Awenne.
During our stay, we’d be taking part in several sustainable activities including: nature walks, learning about sustainable activities in the area, and watching draft horses pull trees from the forest in a traditional, environmentally-friendly way. However, no mention was made of late night deer escapades.
L’Auberge du Sabotier Hotel and 7 Fontaines Restaurant
Our base for the weekend is located in the village of Awenne and takes its name from the clogs (sobots) that were once commonly made in the area. The hotel key rings are even wooden shoes – adorable, but hard to fit in your pocket.
The 17th century building was once a coach house and retains a cozy old-world charm in the public areas, with exposed beams, a roaring fireplace, and an eclectic gallery of portraits.
The rooms however, have all the modern comforts, including beautiful bathrooms with either rain-showers or bathtubs.
As is typical for me, my favourite part was the restaurant, 7 Fontaines. Chef and owner, Luc Dewalque, presents elegant and refined dishes featuring the flavours of Wallonia. Our group had the pleasure of two delicious dinners at 7 Fontaines, and I am more than ready to go back for more!
While the Auberge du Sabotier is the perfect escape, if you want nothing more than peace and quiet and a gorgeous meal or two, there is also plenty for the active traveller to enjoy. The hotel offers a variety of packages that take advantage of the beautiful Ardennes surroundings.
Ardennes Nature Walk
The Auberge du Sabotier works with expert nature guide, Richard Mignolet, who led our group into the forest for a nature walk. As we wandered along the Promenade du Vieux Moulin de Mirwart (the old mill of Mirwart walk), Richard told us about the history of the area and pointed out some of nature’s bounty.
We were also joined by Thomas Davreux, of PEFC Belgium, an NGO that certifies sustainable forests. He discussed his organisation and the importance of regulating and protecting Belgium’s forest areas.
Traditional Skidding with Draft Horses
After our walk in the woods, we were able to experience sustainable forestry first hand, in a Belgian tradition that has all but disappeared.
Skidding (débardage in French) is the term used for hauling logs from the forest. These days, the vast majority of logging is done by heavy machinery, which is not only expensive and noisy, but also tears up the ground and everything in its path.
Traditionally, draft horses did this job; a quieter, sustainable, but much more time-consuming process. We were fortunate to see one of the last draft horse teams working with their handler.
He demonstrated how well trained and precise these enormous creatures can be. He guides them in the forest with only a small piece of rope. How many times he nudges it (notice I didn’t say ‘pulls’ because it is the tiniest of movements) determines what the horse does next. Different signals can result in the horse moving its front or rear, right or left, leg, forward or backward, one or two steps. In fact, it takes years to train a horse to this level of precision and a good draft horse can recognise dozens of commands.
It was fascinating to see such a large animal hauling huge logs, creating minimal damage to the surrounding forest. The symbiotic relationship of horse and handler, reminded me of the Horse Fishermen of Oostduinkerke.
The Braying of the Stags
On our drive back to the hotel for our evening meal, Richard asked if we would be interested in listening to the braying of the stags. During rutting season, the male deer call out at night to attract females. It’s a big deal in the area, and the Auberge du Sabotier even offers a weekend ‘Braying Stag’ package.
Game for anything, we agreed to the expedition. After dinner, we piled into several cars and set off into the forest. We pulled into a lay-by where two caravans had parked up for the night. Urged by Richard to be quiet, we carefully got out of our cars and stood silently in the dark. I can only imagine what the caravaners were thinking, looking out their windows at these strange people standing around in the dark.
While Richard claimed he could hear the stags in the distance, the rest of us were beginning to think this was a ploy to trick unsuspecting tourists.
We piled back into our cars and convoyed a little deeper into the woods. As we stood shivering and straining our ears at the second lay-by I heard it – a deep, eerie lowing sound, followed by some chuffing noises, coming from our left. Seconds later a responding call came from our right.
Within minutes, an otherworldly sound surrounded us, unlike anything I’ve heard before. The music of nature was well worth the late night.
I sent a midnight text to Andrew mentioning ‘deer sex’, that was duly read out to the crowd at the wine bar. It may not have been a Belgian experience I had dreamed of having, but it is certainly one I will never forget.
L’Auberge du Sabotier Hôtel – Restaurant Gastronomique
21, Grand Rue – B-6870 Awenne (Saint-Hubert)
Restaurant : + 32 (0)84 366 504
Hotel : + 32 (0)84 366 523
Room rates start at € 55 per person based on two people sharing. Half board available starting at € 97pp. The ‘Braying Stags’ weekend is € 275 and includes breakfast, lunch and two gastronomic diners.
Looking for more of our favourite hotels in Belgium and beyond? Visit our Hotel Reviews page to find out where we’ve been sleeping. For more great restaurants in Belgium and beyond, check out our Restaurant Review page.
I’d like to thank Brussels-Wallonia tourism for inviting me on this truly unique experience and for allowing me, as always, to express my own opinions on the places we visited.