Bree – and not a Ringwraith in sight

Today I was in the province of Limburg. I visited my good friend and master wood-carver Patrick Damiaens, to interview him for an article for a newspaper on his latest project: doing some exquisite wood-carving for an abbey in England (more of that later). After an interesting and fun chat with him (and some lekker appeltaart, bedankt Patrick), I made the most of my time in Limburg by visiting the Natuurpunt nature reserve called Sint-Maartensheide in Bree.

How little did I realise when I first read The Lord of the Rings in 1978 that 35 years later I would be following in the footsteps of Frodo Baggins by passing through the village of Bree!

BreeWell, of course not. Tolkein’s Bree wasn’t even inspired by this Flemish town, but by a village in Buckinghamshire, England called Brill. I do think however that Bree has missed a marketing opportunity. But I guess when you are the birthplace of tennis-star Kim Clijsters and Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois then you don’t need any more fame.

Well, the nature reserve is really an excellent place for a good walk in the nature. You can start in the Mariahof which is open on Sunday afternoons 2-5 pm, and there are a number of walks around the place in varying distances. All the paths are very well tended so it’s an excellent place to bring young children.

Walks are colour coded and well signposted.

Walks are colour coded and well signposted.

There are three bird hides open to the public; children might like the opportunity to see birds from close up

There are three bird hides open to the public; children might like the opportunity to see birds from close up

You can follow the Abeek around the perimeter of the reserve

You can follow the Abeek around the perimeter of the reserve

You can actually throw a stone over the Abeek and it will land in the Netherlands!

You can actually throw a stone over the Abeek and it will land in the Netherlands!

In the spring the area is renowned for its vast numbers of dragonflies of multiple species, as well as the green tree frog, the red-backed shrike and the purple emperor butterly (what a colourful place!).

I was fortunate enough to see a gorgeous kingfisher flash by, and there were hundreds of wild geese grazing in the meadows, which I think I identified as greylag and white-fronted geese, but I’m not a goose expert.

Clever use of half a tree.

Clever use of half a tree.

The other half they used to build giant birdboxes

The other half they used to build giant birdboxes and benches

This is how you know when you've stepped over the border into the Netherlands

This is how you know when you’ve stepped over the border into the Netherlands

P1040739So all in all, a highly recommended area to walk around. Here’s a map of the area with all the footpaths marked on: Sint Maartensheide map

50 Shades of Grey

After a couple of gorgeously sunshiny days, unfortunately this morning dawned dull and cloudy, and the weather forecast was not much more optimistic. Still, Saturday morning is Saturday morning; for me the best day to get out and about. I fancied a bike ride today, so I planned a 30 km route, got the bike out and set off. Still no hint of sunshine, so I thought I’d set the camera to black-and-white, if only to give me an excuse to use the blog title!

First stop, the canal ...

First stop, the canal …

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Discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary

Today I set myself a challenge. I decided to go on an ordinary Saturday morning walk in my very ordinary neighbourhood, in search of the extraordinary. So I worked out a 13 km route, took the bus to Wespelaar, and walked back home, in search of the unusual.

Did I succeed? Judge for yourself…

P1040581

Well, my quest got off to a good start; a traffic policeman certainly makes an unusual sight in a garden. The gnome doesn’t look too happy to have been ousted from his usual prominent position.

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New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015 (Part 2)

Kevin Mayne, Director of Development of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) continues his guest blog on cycling in Belgium. Here he presents “Watching cycling with the Belgians – beer, frites and the most passionate fans in the world”

The Six Days of Ghent

In cold November take a daytime cycling tour of Ghent on your Blue Bike. Then for the evening book tickets for the Six Days of Ghent, the indoor spectacle of cycling that takes place at ‘t Kuipke, the indoor banked velodrome in the Citadelpark.

t' Kuipke Veldrome in Ghent

t’ Kuipke Veldrome in Ghent

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New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015 (Part 1)

Here’s something of a treat for Discovering Belgium readers: a guest blog by Kevin Mayne, Director of Development of the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF). An ardent blogger himself (check out his fascinating personal blog, Kevin presents some of his cycling ideas on his “must-do” list for 2015. Actually he had so many great ideas that I’ve been able to make two posts out of it.

Firstly, why does Kevin think that Belgium is one of the world’s great cycling countries? “It combines some of the highest levels of daily cycling in Europe, a wide range of recreational riding and spectacular bike racing,” he says. “This means there is something for everyone, from short daily rides in the cities of Flanders to watching the world’s greatest riders tackling the climbs of the Ardennes. While we cannot ride all ride at that level the cycle races are also a great excuse to find some the less discovered areas of Belgium and to take in some of this unique sporting culture.”

With that in mind, here is Part 1 of Kevin’s cycling ideas for 2015.

Go Blue

1. Blue bike convoy in Brussels

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The rise and fall of the Belgian draft horse

These days, the tiny village of Vollezele, which lies equidistant between Halle and Gerardsbergen, is so small it’s hardly noticeable. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that from the 1880s until the 1930s Vollezele was not only bustling with activity but was indispensable to the nation’s economic success.

The origins of this remarkable story can be traced back to the 1850s, and one man’s vision. Realising that the industrialisation of Europe would require stronger horses to pull increasingly heavier machinery, horse-breeder Remi Vander Schueren started to interbreed the three types of draft horse existing in Belgium. The result was a single breed, which he named the Belgian draft horse.

draft horse 7His work soon paid dividends with the arrival of the magnificent stallion named Brillant. Between 1878 and 1884, Brillant was crowned champion at major draft horse competitions in Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris and Hanover.

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Mollekensberg: Sunken lanes, talking gobbledygook, and a useful tattoo

The official translation of a ‘holle weg’ is a sunken lane, and Gemeente Herent has produced an attractive little leaflet called ‘Holle wegen wandeling’ which takes you on a 7-km walk along the sunken lanes of Herent and Wilsele.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant morning – cloudy, windy, and cold – but I was in need of some fresh air after a hard working week, so decided to go sunken lane walking. I’d done half of the walk in the summer, hence some of the photos give a rather different impression to current reality. If you are planning to do this walk soon, wear rubber boots: it’s very muddy in parts!

It’s a circular walk so you can start anywhere, but I chose the Molenweg bus stop on Rijweg (choose your bus below) …

1…where I parked my bike…2…and set off:

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Finding a traditional Christmas Carol Service in Belgium

The traditional Christmas Carol Service of Nine Lessons and Carols is one of England’s most distinctive and successful religious exports. The service from King’s College Cambridge is listened to by millions of people all over the world.

It was first introduced in 1918 by the Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, in 1918. His experience as an army chaplain during the war had convinced him that the Church of England needed to introduce more imaginative worship. The Nine Lessons and Carols format is now one of the best loved services in the whole year and enjoyed by people of many different nationalities.

So if you are living in Belgium, where can you find a traditional Christmas Carol Service?

Here’s a short list of carol services taking place in December. Click on the name of the church to go to their website for their address.

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Nieuwrode. Combo pastry, and potatoes in the night

Starting point for this walk – as with so many others – is a church. This time it’s the church in Nieuwrode, a small Flemish village a few kms south of Aarschot. And like virtually all Flemish churches, it’s ridiculously large for the size of village, although presumably in the olden days it used to be packed full of villagers for the traditional Saturday evening Catholic service.

P1040368Then it’s time to head east with some glorious views from the Kriesberg over the surrounding fields. Thanks also to another sunny November Saturday!

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Patrick Damiaens – Master Wood Carver

A visit to Patrick Damiaens’ workshop in his home in Maaseik is a reassuring reminder that even in these days of mass-manufactured furniture, there is still a demand for the traditional skills of a master craftsman. Patrick is the only full-time ornamental wood carver and sculptor in Flanders, a unique position of which he is immensely proud. There are apparently a few part-timers and hobbyists, but no-one earns his living doing what Patrick does.

Patrick Damiaens wood carver studioWhat he does is certainly impressive. His specialty is carving the decorations on Liège-style furniture. This is a style that arose in the 17th century. It’s characterised by delicately carved intricate decoration and drew Europe’s top carvers and cabinet makers to the Belgian city.

Patrick Damiaens chairPatrick himself was educated at the Don Bosco Institute in Liège, where he studied ornamental wood carving for three years. That followed six years studying furniture making at the Sint-Jansberg College in Maaseik, Limburg province, which included a one-year wood carving course.

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