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Unusual winter mini-break destinations
Greater Region:

Unusual winter mini-break destinations

by Sarita Rao 9 min. 21.11.2021
Forget Paris or Bruges, try Ghent, Dinant, Durbuy, the Black Forest and Saar regions. Here's what to see and where to stay in these places
Picturesque Ghent will be far less crowded than Bruges and just as charming. Photo: Shutterstock
Picturesque Ghent will be far less crowded than Bruges and just as charming. Photo: Shutterstock

Fancy a winter mini-break to somewhere in the greater region that won’t be full of other tourists. Here’s a few spots that hit the mark.

Ghent

Forget Bruges, which will be overrun with tourists, and head instead to Ghent, just 3 hours' drive from Luxembourg City. This pretty medieval city, university town and cultural hub lies at the confluence of the Rivers Leie and Scheldt.

The 12th century Gravensteen Castle, known as the Castle of the Counts, is one of the only remaining medieval castles with a moat and intact defence system in Flanders. The gatehouse, ramparts, keep and the count’s residence are open to visitors and you can take an audio or a Visio (with tablet) guided tour. It’s open over the festive holidays every day from 10.00 to 18.00 except 24, 25, 31 December and 1 January.

In the city, you can also take in the Gothic St Bavo’s Cathedral with its majestic tower, converted from a church in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Bishops of Ghent. Inside you’ll find a Rubens, gothic chandeliers, a Rococo pulpit, and Van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. It’s open every day from 8.30 (13.00 on Sundays) to 17.30 except 1 January.

Get good views of the city and its architecture from St Michael’s Bridge and stroll around the Grass Quay (Graslei) and the Corn Quay (Korenlei) to view the old guildhalls in all their glory.

Where to stay

Boutique Hotel de Flandre is located in the heart of the medieval centre in a listed building dating back to the 18th century with an original Napoleonic staircase. It has 63 rooms, and the higher up you are, the better view you’ll get. Alternatively you can stay in a monastery dating back to 1278 complete with stained glass windows, or the “Boatel”, a floating hotel set on canal boats. For something more family-oriented the Hotel Orion has quadruple and family rooms (up to five people) with access to a heated pool.

Dinant and Durbuy

Head to Belgium and the gorgeous towns of Dinant and Durbuy, about 1.5 to 2 hours drive away (depending on weather conditions).

Home of the saxophone, Dinant's striking Citadel and Notre Dame church. Photo: Shutterstock
Home of the saxophone, Dinant's striking Citadel and Notre Dame church. Photo: Shutterstock

Perched on the banks of the River Meuse, with an amazing rock promontory and the Citadel towering over it, Dinant is a great place to spend the day. Climb the 408 steps to the top of the Citadel or take the gondola for spectacular winter views and a self-guided tour explaining it’s history (pamphlet provided in English). Built in the 11th century and then rebuilt by Vauban in the late 17th century, it was more recently the scene of conflict during both World Wars. It’s open daily (except Fridays) from November to March from 10.00 to 16.30 (and at weekends/school holidays in January). 

The other imposing building, the church of Notre Dame, a 13th century Gothic affair with an onion dome, is open daily 9.00 to 17.00. Nearby you can visit the tiny museum dedicated to Adolphe Sax, the creator of the saxophone, open daily and free from 9.00 to 18.00.

Also nearby, you can visit the wonderful caves “La Merveilleuse” discovered in 1904 and filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Tours last 1 hour and are in English, French and Dutch. In winter months they are open at weekends only or daily during the holidays from 11.00 to 15.00.

Just 45 minutes’ drive away, you’ll find Durbuy, another fascinating medieval Belgian town. It’s modern and art and history museum is housed in a listed 14th century building and features the work of Belgian artists including Marcel Lucas. You can reserve an historical audio guide to the city or a visit to the art exhibitions here, and the museum is open 7 days a week 12.00 to 17.00 weekdays and 12.00 to 18.00 at weekends. 

Durbuy’s narrow streets are also home to some fantastic local cuisine from trout with nettles, to a quiche made with blue Adele cheese, Ardennes ham and walnuts, and Marckloff beer brewed at the Ferme du Chêne, where you can take a guided tour and tasting.

Durbuy's narrow cobbled streets Photo: Shutterstock
Durbuy's narrow cobbled streets Photo: Shutterstock

A family friendly 10.5km walk takes you around the region, with panoramic views of the Barvaux. Starting in Juliénas park in Barvaux-sur-Ourthe, and taking about 3.5 hours, you’ll wander by the banks of the Ourthe past the Devil’s Tower that overlooks the river.

Where to stay

Stay at La Merveilleuse spa hotel located in an old convent with unique views of the river and the town of Dinant. Rooms vary from standard to luxury and there is an apartment for six people.

Located in the heart of town, Le Vieux Durbuy is set in a listed building with 12 rooms. Sister hotel The Victoria has 13 rooms, and The Guest House has 2 suites. You can find information on all three here. Families might like Adventure Valley Durbuy which has chalets, and numerous activities from climbing and zipwires to laser games and escape rooms (open throughout the winter months).

The Black Forest

A popular destination, there's a lot you can do that’s off the beaten track.

For starters you can visit the Alternative Wolf and Bear Park in Schapbach (open in the winter months from 10.00 to 16.00). Most of the bears have been rehabilitated from captivity and the keepers provide insight into their recovery and their life at the park. You can also visit the Mundenhof animal and nature park for free (donations welcome). Near Freiburg its open year-round, with plenty of cycle paths nearby.

Freiburg itself has a great cathedral with a Gothic tower, a history museum, picturesque squares and the Augustinermuseum which houses a renowned art collection of works ranging from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period.

You can also take a trip to a Grimm fairy-tale castle Berg Hohenzollern, closed 8-24 November but then open from 25 November to 9 January from 15.00 to 21.00 (except 24 and 31 December) for Royal Winter Magic - when it will be illuminated and decorated festively, with fun activities, Christmas delicacies, and huts for hire in the castle garden (up to six people per hut). 

You can also ride Germany's longest cable car from 9.00 to 17.00 (stroller and wheelchair accessible), although note it is closed for maintenance from 15 November to 3 December). 

Where to stay

For a bit of luxury and a spa centre close to Freiburg you can stay at the Hotel Dorint which has rooms but also suites. A little further out of town the guesthouse/farm Walter has two and four person apartments, whilst the Schwatzwaelder-Hof has double rooms and a family suite.

The Saar region

So close it's easy to make a day trip, but why not relax and take longer?

The town of Saarburg provides a lovely setting for a relaxed lunch. Stroll past the waterfall or take a cable-car trip to the nearby hilltop and an all-weather toboggan ride. The castle was built by Count Siegfried of Luxembourg in 946 and you can still walk around its ruins on a hill overlooking the town.

The Saar loop near Mettlach in winter Photo: Shutterstock
The Saar loop near Mettlach in winter Photo: Shutterstock

In nearby Merzig, the free Wolfpark Werner Freund is home to several species of wolves from Europe and the Americas. It offers numerous hiking paths through the forests. Close by, Mettlach is where you’ll find the Villeroy and Boch museum. The Treetop Walk Saarschleife is open during some of the festive holiday period and much of winter from 9.30 to 16.00 daily (last entry 15.00). Running 23 metres above the forest floor the platform meanders some 1,250m through beeches, oaks and Douglas firs to the observation tower, with activity stations along the way.

Völklinger Hütte’s old blast furnaces are now a UNESCO heritage site in Völklingen, and feature an art gallery and science centre focusing on the four elements of earth, water, fire and air. It’s open daily in winter (except 24, 25 and 31 December) from 10.00 to 18.00.

Despite the cold weather you can see lemurs and meerkats at the Saarbrucken Zoo which is open during the winter months from 9.00 to 17.00 (Mondays and 24/31 December from 9.00 to 12.00).

Where to stay

Families should consider the Landal Warsberg chalets that overlook the town of Saarburg and link to it with a cable car. The Hotel Haus Schons is a charming small hotel by the River Saar located on a cycle and walking path near the famous Saar loop and close to Mettlach. It also has a separate five-bedroom, two bathroom holiday home available for rent. 


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