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.

Continue reading

St. Martha and Mary’s Church, Leuven

St. Martha and Mary’s is a small but vibrant Anglican church in the centre of Leuven. It doesn’t have its own building, but meets in the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Justus Lipsius College in Minderbroedersstraat 15, Leuven on Sunday evenings at 18:30.

The service is a mixture of ancient and new liturgy; the music incorporates old hymns and new songs led by a small choir; and there is a weekly, simple Holy Communion/Eucharist. The church is led by its chaplain, the warm and friendly Jack McDonald, and trainee chaplain Jane McBride. What I particularly enjoy about the service is the sense of peace as we come together in worship, the thoughtful and practical teaching, and the spirit of inclusion that the church offers.

Why I am blogging about St. Martha and Mary’s now is that this Sunday (Nov 23rd) I will be speaking in the service. I hesitate to say “preaching” because I am no theologian, so prefer to describe it as a “talk”. My subject will be one close to my heart: the Christian approach to environmental protection.

So if you are in the neighbourhood of Leuven on Sunday evening and want to join us, you would be very welcome. If you are coming by car, you are advised to park on St. Jacobsplein and walk the five minutes to the church.

Listen to the band!

Here’s a different kind of article. It’s nothing to do with country walks, but still falls within the objectives of “Discovering Belgium” as it deals with discovering an important aspect of Belgium: the community band!

5In cities, towns and villages the length and breadth of Belgium, the sounds of their rehearsals emanate from cafés, cultural centres and sports halls. Their concerts are frequently sold out well in advance, and they compete at – and frequently win – European and global competitions. They will strike up We are the Champions when their local football team wins the league, and Chopin’s Funeral March when one of their members enters his or her final resting place. They will hold up traffic as they march past, and cause little children to gaze with awe at their gleaming instruments and neatly pressed uniforms. They are the Belgian amateur community music bands.

7So popular are they that there is scarcely a municipality in Belgium that does not have at least one – and maybe even two or three. This is proved by the statistics. Take just Flanders, for example, which contains 308 municipalities in Flanders, yet the Flemish Association of Music Bands and Musicians (Vlamo) has a membership of 1180 community bands.

Continue reading

An Armistice Day thought

I am indebted to my fellow blogger The Bruges Vegan for this highly interesting and relevant post on an additional and often forgotten consequence of the First World War – the millions of animals who suffered and died during those tragic four years.

The statistics are horrendous. Over 8 million horses and donkeys, and over 1 million dogs, died on the front line. The article I refer to above also brings our attention to the animals used for experimental reasons during warfare, and the destruction of the local fauna on the Western Front.

Picture 3035Of course, animals have always been used in warfare, from the massed ranks of the war elephants in various Indian wars, the machine-gun carrying camels of Persia, to the pigeons fitted with cameras during the Second World War. There was nothing innovative about the use of horses and dogs to carry weapons, ammunition, men etc.

But it’s the fact that these animals were obviously not kept or worked in humane conditions (not that the humans involved were in humane conditions either!). Another aspect is the huge scale of the deaths that are mind-boggling. 8 million horses died. Let’s try and put that into context. Imagine collecting all the horses within the European Union today and transporting them to Belgium and northern France. You would still only have delivered 5 million animals. So you add all the horses in Russia, but that’s only another 1.3 million.

Actually, between 1914 and 1918, the US sent almost 1 million horses overseas. Only 200 returned to the US.

It’s just another sad page in the horrific story of World War One.


Nethen. Butterflies in November, and a virtual butcher

I got the idea of walking around Nethen from my fellow hiker/blogger Guido, who on his blog Guidowke’s Wandelblog, wrote recently of his walk through Nethen, “a village that time has forgot.” Intrigued, and realizing that this was a part of Brabant Wallon that I had not yet explored, I got the relevant map (Grez-Doiceau: Carte des promenades) and settled for the 6 km “Promenade des murs”.

Immediately after parking the car, my first sight was of five red admirals and a peacock butterfly sunning themselves on a wall!

P1040319Nothing remarkable about that, except that it’s the first of November! What is happening to our climate? Of course it’s lovely to walk in the warm sunshine instead of a cold, rainy, cloudy November day. And it’s great to see butterflies and dragonflies in November, but this exceptional heat is worrying at the same time, with all its implications of climate change. In Belgium it has been the warmest October for years, and later this evening I read that it was the warmest 1st November for over 100 years, with temperatures climbing to 21 degrees Centrigrade. Today’s launch of the latest report into climate change by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at least has some strongly worded recommendations about finally moving to renewable energy sources before it’s too late.

But back to the walk, which starts at the little church in Nethen.

Continue reading

St Peter’s Church Leuven. Reaching for the sky, and a crowing cockerel

A monumental presence on the Grote Markt (market square) of Leuven is St Peter’s Church.

St Peter's Church LeuvenThe first church on the site was made of wood and dated back to 986, but was burnt down in 1176. It was replaced by a Romanesque stone church, of which only the crypt remains. Construction of the present church began in 1425, and took over 50 years to complete, despite a fire in 1458 which delayed matter somewhat.

Amazingly, in 1505 plans were put in place to construct three colossal towers and a spire that would have made St Peter’s the world’s tallest structure! (How did they know that, I wonder?).

Continue reading

Averbode. Bread, cheese, beer, Mary and Joseph

Well I was wrong. In my last post (Rosdel) I suggested that October 4 was going to be the last warm day of the year. I was two weeks too early with my prediction. This weekend Belgium is enjoying an extremely unseasonable heatwave, with temperatures already up to 23C by noon. So there was no excuse but to head off somewhere for a Saturday morning hike, and I chose Averbode Bos & Heide (Woods and Heathland).

Averbode is mostly known for its Abbey, which dates back to 1134, and by the 17th century had grown to incorporate farms, fields, woodland, mills, heath, and local chapels.

P1040225The abbey housed a bakery, cheese dairy and brewery for many centuries, and these have been recently revived with the launch of the Averbode brands of bread, cheese and beer. I didn’t come across any stalls selling the stuff though, which is a pity because I could have taken an Averbode bread and cheese sandwich and bottle of beer for my elevenses.

P1040222The attractive inner court (above) won a prize recently, the Belgian Public Space Award, with the jury declaring the Abbey Square as “distinguished example of exquisite minimalism.” Which I guess means nice and simple.

Continue reading

Rosdel nature reserve. Old men’s beards and bounding deer

Rosdel is a nature reserve managed by the Flemish nature conservation organisation Natuurpunt. It’s an attractive area of undulating fields and farmland stretching to the east of Hoegaarden. It’s described in the blurb as an oasis of tranquility, and apart from the first and last kilometres, it’s exactly that.

There are three excellently signposted footpaths – 7.5, 9 and 12 km in length – which pass along wide footpaths, farm tracks or fairly recently laid concrete paths. Starting point is the car park in the centre of Hoegaarden, where there are plenty of cafes should you require sustenance prior to or after your walk.

Continue reading

Anlier Forest. Wild boar, wild cats, wild flowers

Deep into the Ardennes, between Martelange and Habay-la-Neuve in the province of Luxemburg, is the huge 7000-hectare Anlier Forest, one of the biggest forests in Belgium. Its northern slopes reach an altitude of 517 metres and are drained by the tributary streams of the River Sûre, which flows into Germany as the Sauer and eventually into the Moselle. The forest is so vast that parts of it are virtually unexplored. Living in its deeper recesses are deer, wild boar, badgers, foxes and wildcats. Visit the area in the summer and look for rare breeding birds such as great grey shrikes, red-backed shrikes, and the specialty of the region: black storks. I have enjoyed many hours walking along the banks of the rivers Sûre and Géronne hoping to catch a glimpse of an otter, which is making a comeback in this region. Unfortunately so far I have been unsuccessful. Beavers have also been re-introduced into these river systems.

The whole area has a good touristic network and can be explored by bike or on foot. A good starting point is the tourist office on the Grand Place in Neufchâteau. A particularly attractive walk starts from Volaiville and gives you close-up views of two watermills on the Géronne.

A great site to visit for amateur botanists is the Châtelet Meadow in Habay-la-Neuve. An extensive river meadow has been carefully managed to produce a luxurious display of wild flowers, which in turn attracts a wide range of insects – particularly butterflies. Choose a hot sunny day and take your wild flower guide and your butterfly identification guide with you: you’ll need them both! Or simply marvel at the diversity of plant and animal life in the area.

Other natural sites to visit in the area include the nature reserves of Molinfaing, Géronne and Louftémont-Vlessart: information is available at the tourist office in Neufchâteau.

For something completely different, try La Remise in Offaing. It’s a Museum of Rural Life. This very unusual, almost quaint museum is located in Offaing, a few kilometres beyond Neufchâteau when travelling in the direction of Arlon. It’s a personal collection of rural items created by Edgard Grévisse. It includes an almost random display of cast-iron stoves, agricultural equipment, tools, hunting boots, clothes and general oddments.  Monsieur Grévisse will be all too happy to regale you with stories of their origins and use.

The Molignée Valley. Snails, monks, and bikes on rails

A day in the Molignée Valley, south of Namur, could incorporate a country walk, a visit to the historic ruins of Montaigle Castle, a tour of the Abbey of Maredsous, a visit to a snail farm, and a trip on a rail-bike.

To reach the Molignée Valley, take the E411 until junction 19, and then the N937 through Purnode to Yvoir. Here you can stop at the tourist office and pick up the relevant maps and information.

There are numerous walks through the Molignée Valley. One of my favourites starts from the car park just past the Relais de Montaigle (ideal for an early snack) by the 7 km sign on the N971. The car park is marked Montaigle Castle. It takes you through forests, meadows, along the River Flavion and to the impressive ruins of Montaigle Castle, which you can visit for a small fee (4 EUR). Continue reading