A trio of regal golf courses in the lowlands, where historic battlefields offer a diversion from the drama on the greens -
Whenever golf clubs are involved, everybody loves a road trip. If you’ve done France’s Cote d’Opale Le Touquet, Hardelot, Belle Dune, Belgium is the next logical stop. Within an hour of leaving the ferry at Calais, the world turns Wallonian, with half-timbered houses and signs for moules frites. Belgians love mayonnaise and beer, usually with monastic associations. Less famously, they love golf. Their two handsome Ryder Cups stars, Thomas Pieters and Nicolas Colsaerts, carry the flag round the world, while their compatriots pick from varied tempting choices back home.
Wallonia is the southern French-speaking half of Belgium. The road to Spa, the city in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium which is our destination, is straightforward. On our arrival a terrace lunch at Brasserie Le Franc’off in Spa’s Place du Monument scores highly. Opened in March 2019, it played a major role in the 25th anniversary celebrations for the Francofolies du Spa song festival last July. Franc’off is music-led at night throughout the year, but all was calm on a September afternoon.
As the name Spa suggests, the self-anointed “Pearl of the Ardennes” is watery, its unappealingly commercial hot spring complex at the Radisson Blu reached by a short funicular from the main street. On the outskirts, the Spa-Francorchamps F1 circuit, on the inside, peaceful boulevards, strolling parks, a joyful absence of pressure. At the unpretentious Hotel la Reine, you can sit out over a bottle of red after midnight. Very congenial, very relaxed.
Down the road is the Royal Golf Club des Fagnes. There are no reports of great enthusiasm for golf among Belgian Royals, but courses are automatically regalised when they hit 50, so there are plenty around. If their majesties were to take up the game, they’d be at home at Fagnes, a hideaway members’ club where strangers are welcomed without pomp let alone pomposity.
There’s been golf in these woods since 1893, but the heyday began circa 1930 when British architect Tom Simpson moulded the undulating landscape to his design. He worked with his customary skill, creating wide variety within two halves. The front nine demand accuracy on narrow fairways, while the back are luxuriously spacious. Chancers can up the voltage here.
With nature off the leash for decades, the undergrowth has closed in to a point where de-cluttering is a priority. Hardelot has invested in an ambitious restoration for its Simpson layout, thinning selectively so that groups of trees shown in period photos are dramatically silhouetted against wider horizons. Landscaping woods and heathland so they frame fairways and greens as they did a century ago would justify Fagnes’s claim to be “Belgium’s Sunningdale”; meanwhile what could possibly go wrong with millionaire’s golf, no waiting, no hassle, on a lovely sunlit afternoon.
Moving on to Mons was a bit of a shape shifter. Martins’ Dream Hotel is kitsch, with purple bedrooms, stained glass windows left over from a former existence as a church and corridors with graffiti woven into carpeted walls. You stroll up to the Grand’Place, a spacious oval laid out when Hainault’s Count Baldwin IV fortified the city in the 12th century. The walls were removed after Belgium became independent in 1830. Today, the plaza is dominated by the aggressively decorative facade of the 15th century Town Hall. Touch the crouching monkey beside it with your left hand for luck – a wise precaution before playing golf.
As in England and Ethiopia, St George and the Dragon feature prominently in Mons culture: the hero and his many willing assistants brawl with the green scaly monster in the Grand’Place every Trinity Sunday as part of the week long Doudou festivities. Then and at all other times, watch out for the gratings: fountains spring to life unannounced on the whim of an anonymous button pusher. Easy to imagine him in stitches as citizens leap to save their trousers from a soaking.
Mons witnessed the final shots of the First World War when it was relieved by Canadian troops in 1918. Most visitors head for the older battlefields of Waterloo 43km north-east towards Brussels. The first challenge is Lion Mound, 40m high and accessed by 226 steps. Share the apex and expansive views over the battlefields with a cast iron beast 4.5m high by 4.5m long. Leo (the heraldic symbol of the Dutch royal family) marks the spot where William, Prince of Orange, was knocked off his horse by a bullet during the conflict. In the rotunda alongside, the battle unfolds in the round, with Marshal Ney charging the Duke of Wellington’s forces. As it was painted by Frenchman Louis Dumoulin, Napoleon, an arresting figure on his white horse, hogs centre stage. At neighbouring Hougoumont Farm, a small British force defied waves of French attackers to hold the right wing of the battlefield, a heroic defence assessed by Wellington as a turning point towards victory. The peaceful farm is only partially restored, but the film depicting the struggle is well worth seeing.
Back to business and the Royal Waterloo Golf Club is the familiar miracle of pristine grassland, enough of it for 54 holes overlooked by a clubhouse sprawling over a hill top. Again the influencers are Brits, in this case the Hawtree dynasty. Father Fred established four nine-hole loops in 1960. A and B formed Le Marache, the prestigious championship course, with C and D for backup. Twenty years later, son Martin turned C into the nine-hole Le Bois-Héros, and added E to D to form Le Lion. Since 2003, he’s made all the courses fit for 21st century purpose, starting with greens and bunkers on Le Marache.
The latter is the course to play. The opening holes are deceptively benign, but the personality builds towards a peak on the back nine. On the stretch between holes 9 and 15, changes in elevation and narrow valley defiles through the forest can wreck a scorecard before the land opens up for big blasts towards the clubhouse. Stylish a decade ago, the décor is showing signs of strain, but the food is varied and tasty. In Belgium, that means a lot.
But not back in Mons. The Grand’Place is lined with brasseries and restaurants, cheerful with students rather than tourists, but we followed a recommendation for Vilaines Filles, Mauvais Garcons. Did Serge Gainsbourg enjoy private dining? If so, he’d have loved this bleak, modern restaurant named for his 1962 song. Given that the wine is expensive and the food mediocre, it’s not surprising we had it to ourselves.
Our third golf course was Royal Hainaut five miles out of town. Like Fagnes, it’s a bit of a charmer and not just because it’s part of Tom Simpson’s bulky Belgian portfolio. The fringes of the ancient Bois de Ghlin forest are rich in pine trees and swathes of heather in the Surrey heathlands manner. A home from home for Simpson, he duly delivered Les Bruyères and Les Quesnoy in 1933. Martin Hawtree added Les Étangs, as watery as the name (the Ponds) suggests, some 60 years later.
As I tackled his fairways, I wondered if I’d used the wrong hand to rub that iron monkey back in the Grand’Place. The results suggest I did. Maybe I’ll get it right next time.
Royal Fagnes: 5,928m, par 72, +32 (0) 87 793030, golfdespa.be
Royal Waterloo: 6,233m, par 73, +32 (0) 26 331850, rwgc.be
Royal Hainaut: 5,975m, par 72, +32 (0) 65 220200, golfhainaut.be
Hotel la Reine: +32 (0) 87 775210, lareine.be
Restaurant l’Auberge: +32 (0) 87 774833, aubergedespa.be
Martin’s Dream Hotel: +32 (0) 65 329720, martinsotels.com
P&O Ferries: Dover-Calais-Dover, 23 sailings a day, from £49 each way. +44 (0) 1304 448888, poferries.com
Your Golf Travel: Royal Waterloo, two nights B&B, two rounds golf and Eurotunnel, from £285pp. +44 (0) 800 1936623, yourgolftravel.com
Wallonia Belgium Tourism: +44 (0) 207 7531 0390, walloniabelgiumtourism.co.ik