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.

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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?).

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

Tervuren Park. On foot, bike, tandem, mountainbike, horse…

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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