From the time I saw Pangaea’s (the international meeting centre of KULeuven) announcement for a trip to Ardennes (the range of mountains in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium) covering the caves of Han-Sur-Lesse (with a beautiful picture of stalactites and stalagmites) also, I really wanted to visit this place. After having missed that due to a planned hike on that day (which finally was postponed to another date), I decided that I should definitely visit it this year and that finally happened last Sunday. From a topic discussed on TripAdvisor, I found out how to reach this place by public transport. The nearest railway station to Han-Sur-Lesse is Jemelle. All train schedules within Belgium can be accessed and tickets can be booked on: http://www.b-rail.be/main/E/
I left at 8 AM from my home and cycled to Leuven Station. I took the 8:28 train to Ottignies (9:08), from where I took a train (09:15) to Jemelle (10:20). Then, I boarded the TEC bus no. 29 at 10:34. The schedule is available on TEC website, where you can search for number 29, direction Grupont. The ticket, which is 2.40 EUR one way, can be bought on the bus. The bus driver asked me to get down at ‘Han-Sur-Lesse Eglise’ bus stop. I reached there at 10:48. The trip to the caves starts from the visitor centre, which is located at about 100 m from the bus stop. It is right across the church, at one side of which the bus stop is located.
The first visit for the day was only at 11:30. I went inside the visitor centre to enquire about the trip. I had bought a combination ticket online for 20 EUR, which is valid for visiting the caves, Safari in the wildlife reserve, museum and a 3D game. The same ticket is priced at 22.50 EUR at the ticket counter there. I was asked to take the Safari first, which would last 1 hour 15 min. There were 4 options starting at 11:30, 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00 (this varies depending on the season and the latest schedule can be accessed in the website). Taking the Safari first, I would also be back in time for the visit to the caves starting at 13:00 (the same 4 options were available for the caves also). The visit to the caves takes slightly longer – 1 hour 30 min to 1 hour 45 min.
Han-Sur-Lesse is a small village, which has become famous thanks to the caves, which are probably the oldest and biggest such caves in Europe. I walked along the main road and found only restaurants and a couple of small shops. The visitor centre also had a shop selling gifts – some typical Belgian style dolls, postcards, pieces of minerals, diaries and T-shirts.
At 11:25, I boarded the vehicle, which was open on the sides to have a good view during the Safari, along with 10 others. The Safari was good on the whole, but a bit long. It was also quite cold that day. We saw wild cats, European bisons, reindeers, lynxes, an owl, two brown bears and other animals from the horse family and cattle. The bear looked much bigger than I thought it would be. The animals live in a 15-acre reserve specially created for them, sometime in the 1970s. There were a few stops in between. One of them was to get a panoramic view of the valley and another one, to see the river Lesse flowing into the hills.
At 12:45, we were back at the visitor centre. After a sandwich lunch, I started the visit to the caves at 13:00. We were taken to the entrance of the cave by a short ride on a tram. After asking for everybody’s language preference, the guide decided to give explanations in both Dutch and English. He began by telling us about the history of how the caves were discovered. The caves have been in existence for about hundred thousand years. The caves are inside a hill, on top of which we can only see a forest. There are evidences of people from the Neolithic Age having lived here. But they only lived in the regions close to the outside world and hence, much of the caves remained undiscovered till the 18th century. In the 1770s, the first explorations started. About 14 kilometres of caves full of natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites have been discovered till date, over several years. Only 2 kilometres of this are open to the public. The rest is only available for research purposes. The caves were opened to the public for the first time in 1820s. At that time, since there was no electricity, lamps or torches were used to guide the visitors through the caves, and therefore, some of the stalactites and stalagmites have acquired a shade of black. Now, the caves are well lit with lights at suitable positions to enhance the beauty of the structures. The lights are switched on only during visits, in order to protect the structures. Photographing is allowed without flash. But many people were still taking pictures with the flash on.
Millions of years ago, when the sea level was much higher, this region was part of the sea bed. There are some stretches in which fossils of corals and shells can be clearly seen on the walls. These corals and shells are rich in calcites.
Once the sea level had gone down and this part became a hill, rain water and water from the melting of snow started seeping into the hills. Also, the river Lesse flowed through the hill. The river water, which was acidic, easily dissolved the basic calcites in the corals and shells. The water seeping through the ceiling and the water dripping on to the ground of the caves, started the formation of stalactites (the ones that grow from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones that grow from the floor), by depositing limestone. A 4-centimetre-long piece of stalactite/stalagmite takes 100 years to form. All the stalactites and stalagmites continue to grow and we can see water still seeping through. The caves are pretty damp. The formation of these structures would only stop during an Ice Age, when water can no more seep into the hill.
The oldest stalagmite is 6 m high and 21 m wide. It is more than a 100000 years old. This one (especially because of the shining white colour) and many others reminded me of huge tall cakes with different levels with icecream flowing down from them. Another prominent stalagmite is 12000 years old.
Another very beautiful structure of the stalactites are the draperies/curtains. These can be found where the roof of the cave is slanting. When the water flows along such a region, the stalactites start forming like sheets of draperies. They are also found in different colours, depending on the presence of other elements like iron (red) and lead or manganese (grey). Some of these draperies were translucent and they looked like perfect, beautiful marble sculptures. Yes, they were sculptures too, though not by a human hand.
There are 3 levels in the caves. River Lesse used to flow through the topmost level years ago. It doesn’t flow through this level anymore. During the dry periods of the year, it only flows through the lowest level. But when there are heavy rains or after the snow, the second level is also fully submerged under water. This happens 5-6 times during the year. The caves are closed during winter for this reason. Last Sunday was in fact, the last day of this year when the caves were open to the public. We could get a glimpse of the river from the second level itself. The only other place in Europe where a river can be seen flowing through the stalactite/stalagmite caves is located in Slovenia.
In one of the two biggest caves, there was a short 5-minute light-sound show. From there, we could also see the river. The lighting effect was spectacular, making you notice innumerable details in the structures. The music went well with the whole show. I was reminded of Chandralekha song from Thiruda Thiruda and thought that that would go well with that show too. These biggest caves were possibly formed as a result of huge earthquakes. Boulders chipped off can still be seen lying around the cave.
We walked along the Lesse during the last stretch. It was in this region near the exit where the people in Neolithic Age lived. Many artefacts found by archaelogists are kept for display in a museum close to the visitor centre, but it was closed that day. During war times, people used to take refuge in these regions. Till the second world war, visitors were taken inside the caves by boat through this region, which was actually the exit for us. A cannon used to be fired before the visit began to keep away evil spirits. This tradition is being kept up even now, except that it was done at the end of the visit. We were also asked to tip the guide at the end, since a major part of his salary comes from tips. He has been a guide in the caves for 47 years now and seemed quite knowledgeable. The exit of the caves was 300 m away from the visitor centre.
I reached the visitor centre by 14:50. I skipped the 3D game also, which was on the way, since I was not sure if it was open and also, nobody else seemed to be going inside that place. After buying 2 small dolls, which were on sale with 50% discount at the visitor centre, I took the same bus no. 29 at 15:17 (direction – Jemelle) to the Jemelle station (15:31). Taking the same route by train, from Jemelle (15:39) to Ottignies (16:44) and Ottignies (16:52) to Leuven (17:32), with the second train delayed by 7 minutes, I reached Leuven and then home by 6 PM.
I highly recommend this place for a one-day trip within Belgium if you are interested in seeing beautiful natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The full set of pictures can be accessed here.