There is nothing like walking in a forest in autumn. The leaves turn all shades of brown, yellow and red, the sunlight takes on that warm glow, and all you want to do is shuffle your feet through the fallen leaves like a child.
While Flanders is not exactly famous for its forests, there are some nice options close to Ghent where you can enjoy a pleasant long walk in nature. Here are three options to escape the hard cobblestones of our old town and give your feet a rest on softer grounds.
While it is not impossible to reach Kluisbos and Drongengoedbos by public transport (mostly by using the dial-a-bus, belbus in Dutch), it is much easier to go by car. The majority of Flemish forests come well equipped: there are speelbossen (areas of the forest especially dedicated to the activities of youth groups and where children can in general roam around free) and you are bound to stumble upon a café where you can enjoy a nice glass of Belgian beer after your walk.
Since most of the forests are protected areas in Flanders, picking mushrooms, wild herbs or forest fruit is strictly speaking illegal. You are also expected not to stray off the beaten paths
Funnily enough, the Flemish Ardennes are geographically nowhere near the real Belgian Ardennes. They actually got their nickname at the end of the 19th century from writer Omar Wattez who waxed lyrical about the rolling hills close to Oudenaarde. The region itself straddles the border between Flanders and Wallonia and is known as Pays des Collines on the Francophone side.
While not impressive in height – the highest hill Kluisberg (Mont de l’Enclus in French) is only about 140m above the sea level – the Flemish Ardennes are a relaxing change from the flatness of the rest of Flanders and provide some broad views over both Belgian regions.
Kluisbos, partially a nature reserve, stretches out over 300ha and is bordered by the villages of Kluisbos and Mont-de-l’Enclus. A good starting point for a walk is the sports centre at the Poletsestraat in Kluisbergen, about 44 km from Ghent. You can choose from several mapped out routes or just stroll around exploring different trails. The forest also has routes for cycling and horseback riding
Road cycling enthusiasts will no doubt be aware of Kluisberg’s fame as a location of some classic Flemish kuitenbijters (‘calf burners’): two steep hill climbs, each of about 1km in length and with a gradient of 11 – 12 %.
Meetjesland is probably one of the nicest areas close to Ghent where you can find lots of nature, tranquil Flemish farming landscape and quirky ideas for interesting daytrips. If a trip on a steam train is not your thing, you can explore the vast Drongengoed forest, between Ursel and Knesselare: this largest wooded area in Flanders covers a total of 750 ha.
One of the reasons why such a large piece of nature was left untouched in this overpopulated part of the country is the military airfield at Ursel. In the past, large parts of this area were off limits to the public. The result is a lovely old forest with an occasional airplane swishing over your head. The military airfield, while still in use, is less busy these days, but local flight clubs are now the main source of airborne noise.
There are several marked trails throughout the forest, but do not expect completely unspoiled nature – at some point you are bound to pass a village if you take one of the longer routes. For the little ones there is the kabouterpad, where you follow the adventures of a gnome, while in summer you can spot a flock of about 200 sheep and their shepherdess.
A good starting point for the walks is the Drongengoedhoeve, a former farm and abbey, approximately 25km from Ghent.
Another favourite destination in Meetjesland is the area around Lembeke. They are called bossen, in plural, as in fact it is a joined-up area of several privately- and publicly-owned forests. Lembekse bossen are smaller than Drongengoed, but you can still find very nice walks there. The unique combination of pine trees on sandy soil, farming landscape and old oak trees in a quiet setting make this the most romantic destination of the three.
This forest is a good spot for a wide variety of outdoor activities, as it contains running, hiking, cycling and horseback riding trails. The main starting point is the car parking at Heihoek (Tragelstraat), 19km from Ghent.