A Belgian village that’s not in Belgium? Or is it? Visit the remarkable Baarle-Hertog and you might end up with more questions than answers. The Belgian village of Baarle-Hertog is extremely difficult to describe. When you first hear people talking about it you think it’s merely a village cut in half by the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. Oh if it were only that simple. But it’s not. For a start, Baarle-Hertog is not actually on the Belgium-Netherlands border at all. It lies a few kilometres inside the border. In the Netherlands. Yet the village is very much part of Belgium.
The 86-kilometre long River Dijle rises near Nivelles in Wallonia but soon crosses the language border a few kilometers south of Sint-Agatha-Rode. Here the river drunkenly zigzags through the fertile Flemish fields before sobering up and straightening up as if in reverence to its next ports of call: the cathedral towns of Leuven and Mechelen.
If you like exploring pretty villages, then Oud-Rekem, near Lanaken in Limburg, is one you may enjoy visiting. It actually won the 2009 “Prettiest Village in Flanders” accolade. A good starting point for your visit is the church of St. Pieter’s. It dates from 1722, and also serves as village museum, concert hall and tourist office. It sells a very useful guide book which describes a 2.5 kilometre walk through the village.
I love the name “Erps-Kwerps.” It’s just a great name for a village. I used to live in the Netherlands near a village called “Ohé en Laak”, which was also memorable. But nothing beats Erps-Kwerps for sheer absurdity. As you can probably imagine, Erps-Kwerps was formed through a unification of two villages, Erps and Kwerps, although each still has its own church, village center, bakers and cafés. And knowing Flanders, each probably has its own dialect too. And it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that people from Erps don’t talk to the folk from Kwerps!
Wanting to take full advantage of the promise of a hot Saturday – a rare occurrence in Belgium this year, and even more exceptional in October – today I decided to explore the countryside around the pretty little village of Spontin, which is located in the Condroz area of Belgium, 15 km south of Namur and easily accessible from junction 19 of the E411.
Guest blogger: Pierre, a 29-year old Frenchman who has been living in Brussels for three years. He’s interested in history, literature and nature.
It seems unbelievable, but it is true! You look once, twice, three times at Pieter Brueghel’s painting The Blind Leading the Blind, and then at the present-day church of Sint-Anna-Pede, a village in Itterbeek, and you realise the surprising similarity. But that is not so astonishing when you realise that Brueghel lived part of his life in the Brussels area ‘Les Marolles’ and is buried in the neighbourhood church of Notre Dame de la Chapelle. According to legend, he enjoyed going to the countryside close to this western part of Brussels and naturally he got inspired for several landscapes of his paintings. Continue reading
If you are interested in horses, and particularly huge draft horses, then a visit to the Belgian Draft Horse Museum in Vollezele may interest you. Vollezele is only a tiny village in between Halle and Geraardsbergen. Yet from the 1880s until the 1930s Vollezele was bustling with activity and was indispensable to the nation’s economic success. In the 1850s, 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. Continue reading
From the outside, Beauvoorde Castleappears to be a perfect example of a 17th century castle. But don’t be deceived. It was actually created in the late 19th century through the romantic vision of one man. In 1875, wealthy nobleman Arthur Merghelynck fell in love with a ruined castle in the tiny village of Wulveringem, West Flanders. He was attracted by its picturesque setting, but also by its potential to fulfil his grand scheme.
Merghelynck was an incurable romantic who resented the increasing industrialisation of Flanders. He wanted to cherish the atmosphere, style and romance of the past, and in particular the 17th century. In the remains of Beauvoorde Castle he saw the possibility to realise his dream. Continue reading
Arriving at the church in Bierbeek, which is a rural Flemish village south of Leuven, I was half expecting red noses on the gargoyles, jokes on the notice board, and whoopee cushions on the pews. After all, this is the church of St. Hilarius. But despite his name, St. Hilarius is not the patron saint of humour. He was actually a native of Sardinia and Pope of Rome from 461 to 468. And as his papacy was characterised by disputes, hilarity was definitely far from his thoughts. Continue reading
The 9 km Ijsewandeling starts from the centre of Huldenberg, behind the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe church. You can park on the village square. By public transport, the 344 bus travels conveniently from Schumann to Huldenberg. After your walk you can quench your thirst at the Rochus Taverne on the Gemeenteplein. Continue reading
The sleepy village of Erezée is an ideal starting point for a day’s walking in the Ardennes. It also has a large number of rural cottages of various sizes available for weekend use, so is also perfect for a longer stay.
You will be lost without a decent map of the area. One is available from the tourist offices in Erezée or Hotton. It costs 7 EUR and displays no fewer than 28 excellently signposted walks between four and 13 kilometres in length.
My wife and I chose the 8.5-kilometre “Estinale” walk, which starts in the centre of the village and heads north to Fanzel. Here, invigorated by a cup of coffee in the village café, we extended our route by following the 6.5-kilometre “Al Pire” walk which climbs to the Col du Rideux. Here we sat on a bench, got our breath back and enjoyed marvellous views over the valley of the River Aisne. The complete circular walk kept us occupied for the whole day and took us through a variety of landscapes from open hills, river valleys, thick coniferous forests and rolling farmland. It was a great escape from the daily routine.
It’s hard to believe that in the 15th and 16th centuries, Erezée was the centre of a thriving metal-working industry. As many as 35 working forges were established along the River Aisne to supply Liège with iron. Lumberjacks, miners, smiths and foundry workers found employment here, and the forge owners were often sued for destroying the forest.
For the nature-lover there is plenty to observe: grey wagtails and dippers along the river valleys; roe deer and black woodpeckers in the woods; red deer and buzzards in the hills.
Other than walking, the region offers much to see and visit. The chocolate-maker Defroidmont in Briscol gives guided tours around his premises every afternoon except Sunday and Monday. Another possibility is the Fantome brewery in Soy. For a rainy afternoon, Hotton’s caves are ideal. And if you are in the area for a longer time, I would recommend a day in Durbuy, the smallest town in the world (population 400).
Erezée is 90 minutes drive from Brussels via the E411, N4 and N807. By train, take the Brussels-Arlon-Luxemburg train, get off at Marloie and take the local train to Hotton and then bus no.11 to Erezee.
Especially for the kids – In the oak woods around Erezée, collect some acorns. At home, put them in a bucket of water and discard the ones that float. Plant the rest in normal potting compost in yogurt pots, making sure there are drainage holes in the bottom. Leave them outside and don’t let them dry out. Next spring you should see tiny oak seedlings. Keep them watered and the following year you should be able to plant them in your garden or give to friends. Oak trees are excellent for wildlife, so planting acorns is a great way to help the environment.
(First published in The Bulletin, December 2007)
The delightful 6.5 km Sint-Veronawandeling starts behind the Sint-Lambertus church in the village of Leefdaal. You can park opposite the church in the car park. By public transport from Brussels you can take the 44 tram to Tervuren and then the 315 bus to Leefdaal. Alternatively you can take the 315 bus directly from Kraainem metro station.
One of the first sights along the route is Leefdaal Castle. The original castle was probably built in the 11th or 12th century by the Lords of Leefdaal to provide some degree of protection to commercial travellers passing along this section of the important Bruges-Rhineland trade route. The only remnant of that castle is a Roman cellar under what is now the garden. The castle was restored in the 17th and 19th centuries, and belongs to the De Liedekerke family, who live there today.
Opposite the castle is a small lake, with excellent views of great crested grebes and herons. Another waterbird – the little grebe or dabchick – is more difficult to spot as it is fairly secretive, but you may hear its loud and strange whinnying trill from the depths of the reed beds. The path then follows the River Voer. Check out the riverbanks and meadows for a wide range of wild flowers with splendid names like St. John’s Wort, butterbur and yellow toadflax.
The walk is named after Verona, the daughter of the German emperor Lodewijk. According to legend, while looking for the grave of her twin brother Veroon, Verona took a rest at a roadside chapel in Leefdaal. In the peace of the chapel, the voice of God apparently revealed two secrets to Verona: she could find her brother’s grave in Lembeek; and she would be buried underneath this chapel. She went on her way and found her brother’s grave – in Lembeek – before returning to her native Rhineland, where she established a number of convents before dieing in the year 870. Her body was then brought by oxen to Leefdaal, where she was buried in the chapel that now bears her name. The walk takes you right past the Sint-Verona chapel.
The path then leads you up into the rich farmland that stretches towards Leuven, and gives you marvellous scenic views. It then circles back to where it started. Hopefully you will have time to look around Leefdaal and sample the local Teusserbier or munch a Veronneketaart (yes, Sint-Verona has a cake named after her!).
For the kids - The Sint-Verona walk takes you through a number of wooded glades that on a sunny summer’s afternoon are full of butterflies. Buy or borrow a butterfly identification book or check out the Butterfly Conservation website, and see how many you can identify. One summer’s day I identified no less than 9 types of butterfly in a 50-meter stretch of this route. How many species can you identify?
(First published in The Bulletin, August 2005)
The Condroz is the plateau in the lower Ardennes that is located between the valleys of the Meuse and the Ourthe. Describing it merely as a plateau fails to do it justice however. It’s a succession of beautiful, verdant valleys and wooded hills. What’s more, its villages are remarkable for the opulence of their houses, farms, castles and churches. It’s also a wonderful place to go hiking.
You can start from Ciney, the capital of the Condroz, or the neighbouring towns of Hamois, Havelange or Somme-Leuze. Each has well-stocked tourist offices with plenty of walking guidebooks and maps. I was particularly impressed by the full-colour booklet entitled Balades et vous, which briefly describes 12 walks in the central Condroz region known as the Vallées des Saveurs – the Valley of Tastes – so called due to its rich variety of delicious regional products.
Although the book stretches to 36 pages, you don’t have to take the complete publication with you. Each walk is on a single-page map which can be easily removed. The maps are so good and the routes so well signposted that once you have decided on which one to follow, it’s just a case of finding the start and off you go.
I chose the 8.3 km Le berceau du Bocq, which starts from the village of Scy and follows a circular path to Mohiville and back. It’s a lovely walk, and even has an excellently located picnic table exactly halfway along the route, next to the Maya fountain in Mohiville. The route also takes you alongside the imposing Chateau de Ry, which dates back to 1598 and harks back to the former agricultural riches of the region. These days it hosts weddings and receptions.
The 12 walks in Balades et vous will certainly keep you busy in the central part of the Condroz for quite a while, but don’t forget that the northern Condroz is equally interesting. Spending some time in and around Modave, for example, is definitely worth it. You could explore the village itself or stroll along the picturesque River Hoyoux, which flows into the Meuse in Hoy. You could take a tour of the 17th century Modave castle, which is perched on a rock 60 metres above the river. You could even make a weekend of it and explore the surrounding region, as there are many fascinating places to visit nearby, including an abbey, an early water filtration tower and two Roman ruins.
An excellent little walk of 7.5 km starts from Modave Castle. After skirting the grounds of the castle, the route takes you into the wide valley of the River Hoyoux, through the darkest of coniferous forests, up onto open farmland, and through the tiny hamlet of Survillers.
As a nature-lover I was greatly impressed by the flora and fauna of the Hoyoux river valley. Reed warblers and whitethroats were singing their hearts out; swallows and swifts were swooping over the meadows; and red kites and buzzards were soaring on the thermals. On the ground, lime-loving plants were abundant: crosswort, white campion, salad burnet, tower mustard, the strangely named Nottingham catchfly and the poisonous swallow-wort.
Further along the route, literally in the middle of nowhere, is a reminder of tragedy: a simple stone memorial bearing the names of five members of the RAF’s 77 Squadron, who were shot down here in the Second World War.
Back at your starting point at Modave Castle you can eat in the cellar restaurant, which should rejuvenate you for a tour of the castle itself and its 20 richly furnished rooms. You can also see a model of a hydraulic water wheel invented by a local carpenter in 1667. If you still have energy, you can stroll around the gardens, or walk into the village where you can enjoy an evening drink outside the Hôtel des Touristes.
(First published in The Bulletin, July 2006)