Let’s go underground
Nothing is better than walking around or sitting down with your face in the sun. And luckily we offer many moments when you can enjoy this eternal source of light and warmth during our trips. Whether that is on a beach, high up in the mountains, while kayaking on a Belgian river, or while enjoying a lunch on a terrace. Such moments are excellent opportunities to have good conversations and meet new friends. So yes, Expat Club loves being in the open air and turn its face towards the sun.
But sometimes our destinations lead us away from daylight.. to places that are pitch dark if it were not for artificial lighting. Indeed, on some of our trips we purposefully search for places under the surface. Not that we love behaving like subterranean creatures, but because these are the places that hide something that cannot be above the ground, or because the subterrestrial conditions enable something special. So let’s discover our underground
Let’s start with possibly our most popular trip. In terms of attendees only topped by the Keukenhof, which is more a single must-see destination than a regular day trip, the Champagne trip is beloved since our first one in April 2014. Virtually always filled to the brim, our comfortable buses lead always first to Épernay, the Champagne Capital (i.e. the drink), followed by the number one Champagne village Hautvillers, the place where Dom Perignon “invented” the Champagne (not exactly), and finishing with the administrative Capital of the Champagne-Ardenne Reims. All amazing places to visit, but clearly our underground visits to the Champagne cellars are key on this trip. The Mercier house in Épernay alone has 18km of carved out cellars!! During our 15+ past trips we visited many houses, including Mercier, De Castellane, Moët et Chandon, Martel, Pommery, Mumm and Taitinger. This is just an awesome trip that you truly must have joined.
On our way to and from the Champagne region we many times by a city situated on a hill in the distance. The four identical high towers of the centuries-old Cathedral are always well visible. This beautiful sight made us so curious about the city that we explored the possibility to organise a trip there in 2018. We combined it with a visit to the Glade of the Armistice, the place where WWI came to an end, and the impressive castle of Pierrefonds. In Laon itself we don’t only visit the Cathedral, but also the underground passageways that were dug out over centuries. They served as prisons in the Middle Ages and later as a network for defense purposes. During WWI it was also used as military quarters and a hospital for German troops.
We stay in France and travel to one of our most popular destinations, Mont Saint-Michel on the border of Normandy and Bretagne. This five-star tourist attraction draws millions of visitors every year. Although a visit to the island itself is already a true delight, it is the abbey on top that everyone eagerly wants to see. Due to the popularity reserving well in advance is advisable, which Expat Club of course does. But just getting into the abbey is not our only reason to do so, we namely also want to ensure we are joined by an official abbey guide (not just an official Normandy tourist guide). She or he is namely allowed to bring a large and old key chain that opens door that stay closed for 99% or more of the visitors. Indeed, although much of the regular tour already takes place underground, Expat Club often visits the places that go even deeper into the abbeys dungeons, such as the horrible little prison that measures just a few cubic meters. Not a place you would like to spend too long, but really cool nonetheless to be there for a minute or two.
At just 2h15 minutes Southeast from Brussels we arrive for a great day trip in the lovely tiny Capital of Luxembourg. Home to only 100.000 inhabitants, this is one of the world’s richest places. With several European institutions, countless banks and several headquarters, Luxembourg is an economic powerhouse. Also in the distant past it was an important place that required a good defense system. During our day trip we visit the world-famous Bock Kazemates with a local expert guide. Another system is called the Petrus Kazemates, which are very long and lead to the lower “valley part” of the city. The entire system has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This small city on the Meuse river at just 1,5 hours from Brussels offers not one but two amazing underground destinations. Upon arrival we first walk uphill to visit the relatively small but stunning La Merveilleuse cave. With its beautiful formations of stalagmites and stalactites, it is a must-see underground place. Second we first walk down the hill, cross the “bridge with the saxophones” (Adolphe Sax was born in Dinant) and take the cable car up to the 100-meter high citadel that overlooks the river valley. With a history of several centuries, it has a few underground rooms that are worth visiting. One of these rooms was hit by a mortar during one of the many wars that was fought here. Walking through it gives a rather surreal experience since the entire place is tilted significantly.
Han-sur-Lesse & Hotton
Admitting that it is not fair to mention these two cave systems in one breadth, we can assure you that a visit to either one of them will leave an everlasting impression. The Caves of Han are awarded three stars in the Michelin guide, and justifiably so. This massive and superlong cave system is extraordinary in many ways. Expat Club visited it several times in the past. The caves of Hotton are smaller, but equally splendid. In particular the very high rooms makes a trip to these Ardennes caves totally worth it.
The White Cliffs of Dover
Expat Club travels a few times per year to the other side of the pond. Taking a ferry from Calais to Dover, already upon boarding you can see the iconic white high cliffs that signal England is waiting for you. For our White Cliffs of Dover tour (and not the Canterbury Christmas Tales trip), participants have the choice between walking to the final destination Deal, a small seaside resort town with a famous Pier, or taking the bus with stops at some magnificent castles. The first castle is situated on top of the cliffs right next to the port of Dover. The medieval Castle itself is not only great to visit, but also the underground tunnels that were dug out through the centuries. Two of them served an important purpose during the Second World War, one as a hospital and the other one as a command center.
Arras & Vimy Ridge
Strangely enough we only visited these great destinations once in 2014. Many war sites throughout Europe contain some underground element. At Vimy Ridge, currently a Canadian war memorial and cemetery, one can still see the deep craters of the countless bombs that fell here over 100 years ago. If requested on time, which we at Expat Club of course always do, an official Canadian military attendant will take visitors through a corridor where soldiers were waiting until they were sent up. A similar sight can be found on the outskirts of the beautiful city of Arras. The Carrière Wellington was for many soldiers the last place where they ate and slept. This large underground network of man-made caves, comparable to champagne cellars, housed over 20.000 British soldiers during the war. For one week they were waiting there until also they were sent up on one of the several staircases, walking towards an almost certain deaths by German bullets and bombs. During a guided tour we learn about the lives of these soldiers during their last week.
Another underground WWI destination can be found in Verdun, a small town in Northern France that carries the notorious title of Capital of the First World War. The Battle of Verdun was fought over 10 months in 2016. It was the longest one of the war with the German forces trying to capture the Meuse Heights, which was an excellent defense position. The Fort Douamont was one of the main places to seize. With its many underground rooms and corridors and its very thick it would be strategic stronghold. Close the fort one can find the solemn Douamont Memorial and Ossuary, which holds the bones of over 100.000 soldiers who died on the Verdun battlefields. Expat Club travelled twice to Verdun in 2014 and 2015… time to go back there soon to discover this historic area.
The oldest Dutch city in the Deep South may very well be the nicest city in the country. Its center is great for an afternoon visit, particularly because of its very nice shopping center. With several museums and the Meuse river offering a great opportunity for a river cruise, the underground experience in Maastricht is slightly up the hill. Looking at it from a distance you would not expect that throughout time over 200km of man-made caves were dug out to harvest limestone. A small part is open to the public and will take you along some beautiful rooms full of art, both paintings on the wall and countless statues and shapes. We visited it several times already and hope to return soon to experience this fascinating underground place.
Not far from Maastricht lies the small town of Valkenburg. One of the Netherlands’ most famous tourist destinations, it attracted visitors for many years already. Boasting a lovely city center with many shops, restaurants and bars, the real attraction can be found inside the nearby hill. Like in many other places, long corridors were carved out to obtain the valuable limestone with which many cities were built. The most special part of these caves are that you can even cycle through them, and that in December many stalls are built inside for an incredibly scenic Christmas market. We hope to return there in 2021!
Wieliczka Salt Mines
After 1,5 days of visiting Krakow and Auschwitz, undoubtedly the most moving trip experience on our entire calendar, on our third day of our long weekend we visit an incredible underground UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Wieliczka Salt Mines. It may sound boring to you, like it sounded boring to several who were thinking about joining this trip and in the end did join, but we can guarantee this is a fantastic place to visit. Many kilometers of corridors and big halls were carved it out in the salty rock. Indeed, the rock is salty… or actually it is just salt. If you would lick the walls it does taste salty. Along the way during a 3-hours guided tour you will learn about the salt mining business, the live of the miners and see the incredible works of art, which includes a fully carved out church! A must-see tourist sight and far underground.
Coming back to Belgium, the mining industry used to be very big in the South of the country. Not salt this time, but black coal. One of those mines, also part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site of mining places in Belgium, is situated just Northeast of Liège. Learning about the lives of the miners and getting the coal out of the ground is just fascinating. You will be surprised to learn about the incredible comradery among those who worked there. During a full afternoon we discover not only the museum and watch a movie, but we also descend in full gear down the mining shaft towards a depth of almost 100 meters underground. Such a great experience and only 1,5 hours driving from where we live.
For the last trip a STIB/MIVB card would suffice to get you there, e.g. on tram 8 / 92 / 93 or bus 71 towards Place Royale around the corner of the Royal Palace. “Once upon a time, the Coudenberg Palace towered over the city of Brussels. Charles V and many other of the most powerful rulers ever to reign in Europe made this princely residence their home between the 12th and 18th centuries, until it was consumed by a terrible fire. Every trace of this prestigious palace simply disappeared underground for many years. Today, however, these ruins constitute a fascinating archeological site incorporating a network of underground passages and chambers.” So to get an awesome underground experience you will not have to travel far. Just hop on a tram and see what is beneath our own city!