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GR 121, Stage 1: Wavre to La Roche

Bois de Rêves Recreational Domain

Stage 1 of the GR 121 starts at Wavre railway station and ends at La Roche railway station, with a very pleasant and diverse 22 kilometres in between.

The GR 121 starts in the Belgian town of Wavre and ends up 263 kilometres away on the French coast at Boulogne-sur-Mer. I have no intention of doing the whole trail, but thought it would be fun to walk some of the Belgian stages. I’m not even sure if I’ll cover the whole Belgian stretch, which ends at Bon Secours near Peruwelz, because when walking linear routes by yourself you are at the mercy of a good public transport system. (If you’re in a group you can organise the cars so there’s one at the end destination to bring you back to the start). But I will see how I get on. I got my inspiration to do this from my hiking-blogging friend Guido; you can read his account here (in Dutch).

Starting point in Wavre

So, make your way to Wavre railway station. There are good connections from Brussels, Leuven and elsewhere. Turn left outside the station and then right along the aptly named Rue du Chemin de Fer. Just before the roundabout, outside Café Le Scoubidou and opposite the Town Hall, you will see this sign, which marks the starting point.


The route is very well signed with the traditional red and white GR flags. Below is the map of the route which you can download as a PDF. GPX track is available from my RouteYou page.

The two sides of Wavre

For the first fifteen minutes or so, you will be walking through the centre of Wavre. Afterwards you will be walking through the suburbs in what the Flemish call the “villawijk”. It’s a much better name than the French term “quartier résidentiel” because villawijk says what you will find there: huge villas in acres of ground. It’s interesting to compare the two areas.

In the town centre, the streets are narrow, the houses cramped together and many of them rather dilapidated. In the villlawijk the roads and the villas are all new and well maintained.

In the town, a group of locals was standing on a street corner chatting. Their three dogs were sniffing each other out and gambolling merrily in the street. Six or seven teenagers were laughing together; each with a cigarette in one hand, a mobile phone in the other.

The villawijk was deserted. The gates leading up to the villas were locked tight, the security fences hid many of the houses from view, and CCTV cameras eyed me up as I passed. Some of the houses had guard dogs, penned up in cages. They seemed delighted to finally see someone to bark at, if only to break the boredom. The only people I saw were three contractors unloading their garden maintenance equipment from a white van.

Into the woods

After leaving Wavre behind, the path entered the open countryside and … a huge pile of earth blocked my path! I rather ungracefully clambered over it. Thankfully the recent weather had been dry, otherwise I can imagine it would have been a mud bath.


But then I was out into the glorious open countryside. The Arboretum de Lauzelle was on one side; the Louvain-La-Neuve golf course on the other. The arboretum had a lovely bee hotel (or was it a bee villa?).

GR121-arboretum_golf (5)

It was really buzzin’!

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GR121-arboretum_golf (7)

The golf course was also busy. (Ah, so that’s where all the folk from the villawijk were!). Even the birds here have their own villas! Here’s one inhabited by a nuthatch.

GR121_nestboxes (3)

Bois de Lauzelle

Walking through this wood was a delight, especially at this time of the year (April) with the lesser celandines, wood anemones and wild violets in full flower, the newly arrived (from Africa) chiffchaffs singing in the treetops, and the drumming of the woodpeckers claiming their territories. The warm weather had also brought out the spring butterflies: brimstones, peacocks, orange tips, and this gorgeous comma:


the history of the university of leuven

A feature of this stage of the GR 121 is that it takes you through the campus of the Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL). This is not to be confused with the Dutch-language Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KUL) which is located elsewhere; in Leuven, not surprisingly.

There’s an interesting bit of history to discover about Belgium here. Originally there was just The University of Leuven, founded in 1425, making it the first university in the Low Countries. Essentially it was a French-language institution. However, Leuven is Dutch-speaking. Anyone with any inkling of recent Belgian history will immediately know where this story is heading …

In 1968, arguments broke out between the French and the Flemish. Basically, the Dutch speakers were unhappy at privileges given to French-speaking academic staff, who were also accused of being rather disdainful of their Dutch-speaking neighbours.

Flemish politicians and students began demonstrating under the slogan “Leuven Vlaams — Walen Buiten”, which means “Leuven is Flemish — Walloons out” (Walloons being the French-speakers). Flemish nationalists demanded a division of the university. Tensions rose. Demonstrations took place. Violence broke out. Here’s an atmospheric video which captures the flavour of Leuven in 1968:

So serious was the issue that in February 1968 the government of Belgium fell. In June 1968 it was decided to build a new, French-language university in Wallonia, and leave the Flemish students behind in Leuven. Hence the Université Catholique de Louvain, in a completely new site, called, without an ounce of creativity, Louvain-la-Neuve (New Leuven). Happily, tempers have long subsided and there is now a great deal of mutual cooperation between the two universities.

Today, the sunshine had brought the hard-working Francophone students out for some well-earned rest and relaxation on the banks of the Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve:


The Lac de Louvain-la-Neuve is a pleasant place to walk around and enjoy a picnic there, even if you’re not a student:

It was now time for me to leave academia behind and head on to …

Bois de Rêves 

Yes, the Forest of Dreams! I could easily see why it got this name.

Bois de Reves_1

I really enjoyed walking through this forest:

The path then leads you into the Bois de Rêves Recreational Domain. If you live in this area and have children, this has to be a place to visit this spring or summer. It seems to have everything: picnic spots, barbecue areas, children’s playground, swimming pools, footpaths, cycle routes, fishing … and a large café.

Bois de Reves domain (1)
Bois de Reves domain (3)
Bois de Reves domain (4)
Bois de Reves domain (5)

The rest of the hike was gorgeous, consisting of country lanes through villages, farm tracks and woodland paths.

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Here are some of the lovely Spring wild flowers and trees bursting into leaf and bloom along the way:

A couple of final sights are worth mentioning.

Moulin de Beaurieux, Court-Saint-Etienne

This was a very nicely renovated watermill on the River Orne. There has been a watermill on this site since 1312.

La Pierre Qui Tourne

There’s a rather hazy old story about this 4-ton stone spinning when the church in nearby Court-Saint Etienne strikes the 12th stroke of midnight on a full moon. I wasn’t going to hang about and see if it’s true, but the way the stone is embedded in the ground makes me suspect it stopped spinning a long time ago. Still, it provided a welcome pause on a hot afternoon.


Finally I arrived at my destination; the railway station at La Roche. Here I caught the (hourly) train to Ottignies, where I got the connection back to Leuven and home. From Ottignies you can also easily reach Brussels.

Altogether this is a highly recommended first stage of the GR 121, and I look forward to trying out Stage 2.

GR121_end (1)

And for you Pinteresters, here’s a pin:







38 thoughts on “GR 121, Stage 1: Wavre to La Roche”

  1. I so loved everything about your walk.. The Bee Hotel was really buzzing.. Was the earth blocking the road put there to level it out in a dip to help stop puddles?..
    So enjoyed my Hike with you Denzil.. and I am off into Derbyshire tomorrow.. we are combining the trip to visit relatives but hope to do some walking too..
    Have a great weekend

    1. Thanks Sue; glad you enjoyed coming along for the walk! I think the work was to make a new road, or at least flatten it out.
      Enjoy your day in Derbyshire. I hear it’s going to be a scorcher in the UK. Don’t forget your sun cream!

  2. Your reference to stage 2 is a good sign 😉 Means you enjoyed this stage – as is clear from the gorgeous pictures and your account. Were the yellow wagtails still busy over the river Orne? (underneath the bypass) Have a lovely Sunday with the family 🙂 And perhaps, see you soon on stage 2 😉

    1. I specifically looked for the yellow wagtails on the river Guido as I remember you mentioning them, but didn’t see a single one. Maybe they have already moved on to Stage 2! 🙂 Enjoy the sunshine and warmth today: 22C forecast today; 12C tomorrow!

  3. How nice to see signs of spring, with all the pretty blossoms and beautiful blue skies. I love the bee hotel. Does anyone collect the honey? I see you’ve been having nice weather, although I did chuckle at the reference to scorching temperatures in your conversation with Sue. Since the cyclone passed by and dumped all that rain, our temperatures have plummeted and we’re complaining about the cool weather – it was only 23C today. Any lower and we’ll be getting our cold weather gear out! 🙂

  4. Very pleasant walk, start to finish, and enjoyed the excellent photos. We’re envious, nothing has budded out yet in our area (New York). I was interested to see them partially filling in the holloway, I like walking in these sunken ways on a hot day, but we have trails like that, going through old railroad cuts, that are always extremely boggy this time of year, basically impassable. Is the flowering blackthorn the same shrub that’s used to make walking sticks?

    1. You’re absolutely right Robert; blackthorn is used for walking sticks. In addition, the flowers die off to leave berries called sloes, which is used to make quite a potent drink called sloe gin! Cheers!

  5. Another amazing walk. Thanks, Denzil. I like your comparison between the city and the villawijk! I actually never realized that there are rich people in Belgium, living (and golfing) like the ones in the States. It truly feels like my life in Belgium was very restricted to the area where I lived and worked, the coast and some of the Ardennen for day trips…

  6. You have totally transported me! What beautiful springtime pictures. Here the days are cooling and our colors are going into hibernation where there, by the look of it, everything is blossoming. How lovely. Enjoy.

  7. Dear Denzil, all your posts are a delight. Your photos are beautiful. Through you we learned about the newly opened arboretum in Wespelaar and enjoyed a wonderful sunny Sunday there. Thank you so much for all your stunning articles and interesting suggestions of places to visit.

    1. Thank you for your kind and positive message Susan which I greatly appreciate. It’s a joy to receive such affirmation. Part of my objective in writing Discovering Belgium is to share these places with others, so when this happens it greatly encourages me. Have a delightful Easter. Denzil

  8. That opening shot looks so inviting, Denzil, and I do like the new, clean look to your blog. GR121 sounds a lovely undertaking. Wish I were free to walk a little of it with you. I’ll have to make do with a virtual walk. 🙂 🙂 Thank you very much!

  9. Pingback: Jo’s Monday walk : Around Salir | restlessjo

  10. The bee hotel made me grin – kinda gives new meaning to Airbnb. You covered a lot in your hike – ground, history, sites, and politics. Interesting that the nasty and divisive university struggle gave way to two campuses that now cooperate – gives hope for the rest of the world – maybe. I seem to find politics in everything these days. Sigh…I’m gad that the watermill photos were some of the last – a hopeful ending.

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