31st March, 2011 18:00 ~ 18:20
Altitude: 694m ~ 700m
Irony value: 3/5
Overall verdict: We know so little of the Belgians.
Although as a general rule I prefer to stay on the course that has been set for me and try to find what’s on offer along the way, Signal de Botrange did involve a detour. I had a meeting in Liege, Belgium that finished at 5pm, and my hotel was booked for Arnhem in The Netherlands about 120 miles north.
It would have been nice to get there in time for dinner and to write up my reports for the Liege meeting, and the one I’d had in the morning in Heerlen, Netherlands.
However, after Vaalserberg the previous day, I was on some kind of altitude binge and allowed myself to drive the 30 miles south east to visit Belgium’s highest point.
At 694m, Signal de Botrange is the highest of the notional “3 peaks of Benelux”, and would even be considered “pretty high” in England, with only Cumbria, Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire and Herefordshire(!) having anything higher.
It is part of the High Fens (Fr: Hautes Fagnes, Du: Hoge Venen) and gets quite a bit of snow in the winter – enough for there to be pistes for cross-country skiing.
It’s a plateau with a cafe and a car park, and until recently was the site for a meteorological station. The highest point is marked by the Baltia Tower, a six metre high staircase to nowhere added by enterprising Belgians between hosting world wars (in 1923) purely to round it up to 700m.
The tower is named after Baron Herman Baltia, a Belgian military officer and politician, who is known for (among other things) organising art exhibitions on the Yser front in 1916.
How many times have we played the “name five famous Belgians” game at dinner parties? Dozens, I bet. But if displaying his watercolours to mangled World War One troops in the trenches and building six-metre staircase monuments to round-numbered metric altitudes was a measure of this man’s priorities, then I think I will install Baron Baltia as my favourite Belgian, and wait patiently until this popular parlour game comes up again, so I can rattle off his resume with aplomb.
At the top of this staircase, there is a modest plinth honouring Albert, then King of Belgium, and the platform you stand on is engraved with the “ALTITUDE 700.00”
The majesty of the six metre Baltia Tower is somewhat overshadowed by a second tower built in the thirties, which rises to 718m above sea level.
The car park was deserted when I got there at around 6pm, but during my brief stay, an older couple arrived with their dog, and gave me, a middle-aged man in a suit, standing in the drizzle, taking photos of staircases, an amused frown.