A day – or longer – in Zoutleeuw

Stadhuis_ZoutleeuwFirst of all, let’s deal with its strange name. Zoutleeuw. Does it originate from the times when lions (leeuwen) with a taste for salt (zout) roamed the hills of Limburg? Not at all. Until the 16th century the village was simply called Leeuw. Disappointingly, it has nothing to do with lions at all. It’s believed to be a corruption of the old Germanic word ‘hlaiwa’, meaning a tumulus or barrow. The salty bit was added much later, probably referring to the salt tax that Leeuw charged neighbouring villages.

Today, Zoutleeuw is hidden away; found only by those seeking it out. The E40 flashes by to its south. Shoppers descend on the larger Tienen and Sint-Truiden. But things were different in the twelfth century. Then the town – still called Leeuw remember – was situated on the important Brugge-Keulen trade route. Even more important, it was the first/last border crossing between the Duchy of Brabant and the principality of Luik. In 1312 Leeuw was named one of the most important cities in Brabant.

Such a strategic location demanded strong town walls – dating back to 1130 and still evident today. In the fourteenth century four new town gates were added. Soon afterwards, a new garrison was built to house the soldiers sent to Zoutleeuw to keep law and order in such a bustling and economically important place.

Alas, by the sixteenth century Zoutleeuw was struggling to maintain its reputation. In 1525 the navigability of the Grote Gete River was extended to Tienen, which became the most important centre of trade in east Brabant. The Flemish cloth industry began to decline in the face of English competition, resulting in less trade with Germany. In retrospect, the construction of Zoutleeuw’s magnificent Town Hall in 1529 was more of a swan song than a demonstration of its wealth.

Worse was to come.

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How did World War 1 start?

This may seem a strange title for a post on Discovering Belgium, but it’s a highly relevant one. Today Belgium marks the 100th centenary of its invasion by Germany. Belgium was never the same from that day, and still carries the marks of its 4-year occupation which saw much of the country – particularly the Westhoek, or Flanders Fields – totally destroyed and around 100,000 Belgian soldiers and civilians killed. Elsewhere on this site I introduce readers to some of the battlefield sites in Belgium that are worth visiting.

Today I link to an article I was recently asked to write for the Flemish weekly newspaper Flanders Today. The editor wanted an overview of the First World War in Flanders, explaining how it started, and describing the key events and battles. I wrote it as it might have covered by the press in 1914-1918.

It was fascinating to research – particularly how the “war to end all wars” started. Such a jigsaw or pacts and treaties, that once started seemed impossible to stop. You can read the article here.

world war one


Bruegel in Peer

The town of Peer takes its association with Pieter Bruegel the Elder very seriously. The town’s tourism office dispels any doubt as to the painter’s birthplace – even though it’s not that cut and dried.

The only mention of Bruegel’s birthplace is in a book dating from 1603 entitled “The life of Pieter Bruegel, a famous painter from Brueghel” by Karel Van Mander. According to Van Mander, Bruegel “was born in Brabant in an obscure farmers’ village named Brueghel and located not far from Breda”.

There are two possible locations for this farmers’ village. One is Breugel near Eindhoven, the Netherlands, although this is 60 km from Breda. The other is Brogel near Peer, Belgium, in the region that was once called Brabant. Not surprisingly, the latter theory is very popular in Peer, self-styled Bruegelstad, or Bruegel town. Despite the fact that Peer is also not particularly close to Breda.

Anyway, proud of its association with Bruegel, the town of Peer has laid out an attractive 25-kilometer cycle route through the surrounding countryside. At convenient intervals, you can take a break and examine large-scale reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings that are believed to represent the countryside around Peer, including the following:

Children's games BruegelChildren’s Games

Haymaking - BruegelHaymaking

Peasant_Wedding_Dance_(1623)The Peasant Dance.

In addition, full-size reproductions of his paintings are displayed in the Bruegel Museum in Peer. This is well worth a visit at it enables you to take in the whole of his entire oeuvre in one go. You can get audio guide in Dutch, English, French and German and watch a short movie explaining Bruegel’s life story.

Relaxing in Tervuren Park

As you can see from the photos, Tervuren Park is a great place to relax. You can walk or jog;  trot your horse or ride your bike; fish or paddle; eat or drink; kick a football or throw a frisbee. And in all the most gorgeous surroundings. Enjoy these photos of a typical Sunday afternoon in Tervuren Park, near Brussels.

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Border Park De Zoom

Located a short car ride from Antwerp (or 20 minutes by train from Antwerp to Heide station), the Border Park De Zoom extends over six thousand hectares. Its combination of heaths, forests, dunes and pools makes it a great place to recharge your batteries. The park is neatly bisected by the Dutch-Belgian border (hence its name), although not on an east-west axis as you would imagine. (Nothing about borders in Belgium is quite that straightforward!). Buy a map from the De Vroente visitor centre and you will see that the border lies diagonally north-west to south-east, with Flanders holding the eastern side. This means you can walk to the northernmost tip of the park where you will be still be on Flemish soil, yet will be able to gaze south over the Netherlands!

What I particularly like about the Border Park is that once you leave the visitor centre and begin to stretch your legs, you get a glimpse of “wilderness” – a rare experience in heavily populated Flanders.

Heathland takes up most of the area, and is classified as either wet or dry heath. Heather is the dominant vegetation for dry heath; bell heather for wet heath. Heathland needs to be carefully managed so that the purple moor grass doesn’t take over completely. So during your walk you will encounter friendly herds of grazing cows and sheep; they limit the growth of grass, creating suitable conditions for heather to germinate.

Border Park De ZoomThanks to reforestation, large forests can be found throughout the park, mostly of Scots pine, oak and silver birch. Again, the forests are actively managed to encourage biodiversity. Competitive exotics such as the American cherry and the rhododendron are removed in favour of indigenous species. Trees are thinned out to open up the forest canopy, promoting the spontaneous generation of the shrub layer. Dead trees are left in place to provide food and shelter for a variety of organisms.

You won’t walk far in the park without coming face to face with one of the many large pools. A key aspect of the park’s management is focused on preserving them – by closing drainage canals and controlling the ground water levels. The quality of the pools is also controlled. Surrounding conifers are cut down to prevent the soil from becoming acidic and dry. Nitrates and phosphates from surrounding agricultural land are kept out of the pools as much as possible.

In some places in the park, you will think you are at the coast, as your shoes sink into deep sand. Balanced management of the sand dunes is essential. Open dunes are encouraged because they are important for insects such as butterflies, digger wasps and bees. But unless they are protected from erosion by wind and from tramping feet, they will soon disappear. So you will see that the tops of the dunes are frequently planted with grass, and visitors are encouraged to stick to the footpaths.

A day of exploration

You might not have a full day available, but this route can easily be shortened to match your time and energy. Your starting point is the De Vroente visitor centre. Here you can buy a map, tour the nature exhibition, visit the beekeeping museum, and enjoy a coffee or snack in the café.

All the paths are clearly signposted with icons. I recommend setting off on the sheep footpath. This will take you to one of the larger pools, the Putse Moer, where you can look out for hobbies; impressive small falcons that are swift and clever enough to catch swallows and dragonflies.

Remnants of the fire on Kalmthout HeathLeaving the Putse Moer I was surprised to see blackened earth and charred remains of tree trunks. They are the reminder of the fire which devastated six hundred hectares of the Border Park in May last year. At the northern limit of the sheep footpath you could return to the visitor centre, or strike out north on the interconnecting footpath. This will lead you to the lizard footpath, where you will be in the heart of the Border Park, as far from the madding crowd as possible. In the spring and summer, listen out for the beautiful songs of nesting curlew, tree pipits and woodlarks. Cuckoos were also very busy in this region, going about their dastardly business. They are brood parasites; the females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.

Don’t turn back yet! Keep going north-west and join the deer footpath. This will take you through the best of the park’s forests. I was delighted to spot four species of woodpecker here (lesser spotted, greater spotted, green and black) as well as crested tits in the pines and redstarts in the oaks. A word of warning: in the summer you may well be attacked by large and voracious mosquitoes in the damper forests. Protection or repellent is advised.

The combination of the three waymarked paths, plus the connecting footpaths, will give you a healthy 20 kilometre walk and enable you to experience the Border Park to the full.

Hertogenwald Forest, Eupen

Buy a map in Eupen and follow one of the many trails through the forest

I am particularly fond of this area as it was my first encounter with the Ardennes. It offers a splendid mixture of landscapes: impenetrable, silent, coniferous forests; deserted moorland stretching to the horizon; and picturesque babbling brooks. It can be reached by taking the N67 south-east from Eupen. Actually I recommend a stop-off in Eupen, an interesting and bustling little town. In the tourist office (Markplatz 7) you can pick up a map of the area.

Leaving Eupen and halfway to Monschau is the Ternell Nature Centre. This old forester’s house was built in 1770 and transformed two hundred years later into a museum and information centre. You can park in the car park and head off into the forests. My favourite route is the one heading north-east from the nature centre into the forest.

The babbling Getzbach

The first time I walked this route I had to cross the River Getzbach by taking off my boots and socks and wading across. When I returned a few years later, I was quite disappointed to find a bridge had been installed. But at least it kept my feet dry!

Next to the nature centre is a tavern serving snacks. When I first discovered this place about 20 years ago it was a great café where you could pick up basic food items like cold drinks and sandwiches for your walk. Or after your walk you could refresh yourself with simple snacks and hot soup. Now it’s been “upgraded” to a bistro-type eatery with a fancier – and more expensive menu. However, don’t let that put you off; try it and let me know what you think. Oh by the way, when ordering, don’t forget that you are in German-speaking Belgium!

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

The maze of narrow, cobblestoned streets and tiny houses making up the Leuven Groot Begijnhof is open to the public, and is a lovely, peaceful place to wander through and sit in for an hour.

Leuven Groot BegijnhofIn the 12th century, groups of women formed communities throughout Europe on the outskirts of major towns. They lived piously – but were not nuns – and had to work hard to provide for themselves. They were called beguines. In the 13th century the beguine movement was officially recognized. However, in 1311, it was decided that the whole movement should be abolished. Fortunately, the Pope made an exception for Flanders.

Leuven Groot BegijnhofOne of the oldest beguinages in Flanders is the Leuven Groot Begijnhof. It was founded around 1232 and covered an area of four hectares and the St. John the Baptist Church. At its peak – around 1700 – about 300 beguines lived in the Groot Begijnhof, after which the number dropped steadily. The last beguine passed away in 1988.

Leuven Groot BegijnhofIn 1962 the whole site, except for the church, was sold to the University of Leuven, which committed to a full restoration programme. This happened over the next decade, and the main part of the Groot Begijnhof was turned into accommodation for students and professors. In 2000 the Groot Begijnhof was recognised as UNESCO World Heritage.

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

Leuven Groot Begijnhof

Bruegel in Dilbeek

Here’s part 2 of “In Bruegel’s Footsteps”.

From 1559 to 1569, Bruegel lived in the Hoogstraat in the Marollen district of Brussels. He visited the villages to the south-west of Brussels in search of themes; the Pede Valley that flows through Dilbeek and Itterbeek was the source of much of his inspiration. In The Blind Leading the Blind, the village church of St. Anna Pede can be recognised just as it looks today:

The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

St. Pieter’s church in Itterbeek can be spotted in The Harvesters:

The Harvesters (1565)

The Harvesters (1565)

In The Magpie on the Gallows, the watermill at Pede is included in the background:

The Magpie on the Gallows (1568)

The Magpie on the Gallows (1568)

The winding river, apple trees and fields in The Peasant and the Nest Robber are typical of the Pajottenland landscape in the area surrounding Dilbeek:

The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568)

The Peasant and the Nest Robber (1568)

The Bruegel Open Air Museum in Dilbeek was opened in 2004 to trace the links between Bruegel’s paintings and the landscapes that inspired them. Accessible by foot or bicycle, it offers a unique opportunity to admire 19 large-scale waterproof reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings in the very spots where they were painted. On the eight-kilometre Bruegel path along the Pede Valley, walkers come across 11 paintings, while seven others can be found on the 20-kilometre Bruegel cycle route. Many of the reproductions were selected because they contain recognisable elements of Dilbeek.

Both routes start from the church of St. Anna Pede, which can be reached from Brussels South Station by De Lijn bus number 118. Leaflets describing the Bruegel walk (free) and the cycle route (€1.75), as well as a more comprehensive booklet (€3) describing the paintings in the Open Air Museum, can be picked up at Dilbeek Cultural Centre, Gemeenteplein, Groot-Bijgaarden.

One of the Bruegel reproductions in Dilbeek, with Bruegel expert Professor Yoko Mori, whom I was fortunate enough to interview for a newspaper article on Bruegel

One of the Bruegel reproductions in Dilbeek, with Bruegel expert Professor Yoko Mori, whom I was fortunate enough to interview for a newspaper article on Bruegel


In Bruegel’s Footsteps

Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted some of his greatest works in the countryside outside Brussels, including the Massacre of the Innocents. In this and two future blogs, I follow in Bruegel’s footsteps to the Pajottenland village of Dilbeek, to the west of Brussels, and to Peer in Limburg.

The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565

The Massacre of the Innocents, 1565

Confusion surrounds the early life of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. No-one knows for sure when he was born or where he came from; some time in the early to mid-1520s is as close as its gets to a date of birth. He added to the confusion by spelling his name in two ways: Brueghel until 1559, Bruegel afterwards, although his sons retained the “h” in the spelling of their names. The only mention of the painter’s birthplace is in The life of Pieter Bruegel, a famous painter from Brueghel by Karel Van Mander, who wrote in 1603 that Bruegel “was born in Brabant in an obscure farmers’ village named Brueghel and located not far from Breda”.

There are two possible locations for this farmers’ village. One is Breugel near Eindhoven, the Netherlands, although this is 60 km from Breda. The other is Brogel near Peer, Belgium, in the region that was once called Brabant. Not surprisingly, the latter theory is very popular in Peer, self-styled Bruegelstad, or Bruegel town.
What we do know is that in 1551 Bruegel was accepted into the Antwerp painters’ guild and apprenticed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a leading Antwerp artist, sculptor, architect and designer of tapestry and stained glass. The following year he travelled to Italy, where he completed a number of landscapes. He returned to Antwerp in 1553, but 10 years later moved permanently to Brussels, where he married van Aelst’s daughter, Mayken, in 1563. Their children, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder, both became painters. Bruegel the Elder is sometimes called “peasant Bruegel”, from his scenes of peasant life. Yet he covered a wide range of other subjects: Biblical scenes, parables of Christ, mythologies and social satires. He found his greatest inspiration in nature, and his mountain landscapes in particular are widely praised. Popular in his own day, his works have been consistently admired since his death in Brussels in 1569. In line with his origins, the exact date remains a mystery; it was some time between September 5 and 9.


Peasant Wedding, 1567

In two blog posts coming soon, I will introduce you to a Bruegel walk in Dilbeek, and a Bruegel cycle route in Peer

The Fall of Icarus, 1555

The Fall of Icarus, 1555










Wespelaar Arboretum

Wespelaar Arboretum is a gem. It’s a private collection of over 2,000 trees and shrubs that only fairly recently opened its doors to the public. At this time of year it’s gorgeous, with many of its 192 species of Magnolia in full bloom. It also has a large collection of Acer (maples), Stewartia (camelias), and some lovely Rhododendrons of colours I never knew existed. The whole is beautifully laid out in spacious grounds. There are no footpaths; you just walk over the short grass. There are numerous benches in the shade or in the full sun, and a map is available from reception. It’s open on Wednesdays and Sundays from 10:00 to 17:00. Admission costs 5 EUR per adult, or you can take a family subscription for the whole year for 30 EUR. There adequate car and bike parking places, and the 284 bus (Leuven-Mechelen) stops directly outside. Altogether a lovely oasis of peace and beauty.


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