Flemish Brabant

How to spend a day in Diest

A visit to Diest can include the museum, a town walk, and the UNESCO Heritage Site of the Beguinage

diest night

© Diest Tourism

Diest is one of those small towns along the E314 that you pass by on the way to somewhere else.

But don’t pass it by! Stop off and enjoy some quality time in this lovely market town, as it has so much to offer. It has an interesting museum, and one of the largest and best conserved Beguinages in Europe, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also has a cosy market square, a super outdoor swimming pool and children’s park (the Halve Maan: frequently visited by our family when the kids were small), and a pleasant walk through the town and along the Demer River.

So there’s plenty to do for a whole day in Diest, or you could pick and choose and enjoy a pleasant Sunday afternoon there. But first …

Start off with a coffee …

If you’re travelling by train, the centre is just a short walk from the station. If you’re in a car, park in one of the three free car parks on the town’s perimeter. These are at the Halve Maan in  Omer Vanaudenhovelaan (10 min walk to city centre); Kluisberg, Boudewijnvest (5 min walk to city centre); and the Citadel, Leuvensestraat (3 min walk to city centre). Yes, I chose the one with the shortest walk to the centre!

Even after my short walk, I was ready for a cup of coffee. If you are too, then you need to make your way to Stuckens in Zoutstraat 5.

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It’s a biscuiterie, but they make much more than biscuits. Cakes, pastries, chocolate, ice-cream, sweeties … everything is home-made and I am sure as delicious as they look.

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You can watch them make their biscuits while you eat them!

In addition, the place has such a warm and relaxing ambience with comfy seats and classical music that I was tempted to stay here all day, and just make my way through their goodies. Thankfully for you, and for my waistline, I didn’t.

Museum De Hofstadt

This intimate, tranquil and well laid-out museum is housed in the medieval cellars beneath the Town Hall.

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First find the Town Hall on the Grote Markt

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The museum is on the right-hand side of the main steps

Completely renovated in 2009, I must say the renovators did a fine job as the cellars have been beautifully refurbished.

Its seven rooms present the rich history of the “Orange City” (named after Diest’s links with the House of Orange-Nassau). Here are some of my personal favourites.

The Aldermen’s Room is where business was conducted in 16th century Diest; probably around a blazing fire in this fireplace

A rather stunning house altar from about 1700 covered in tortoiseshell and ebony

Baroque statue (ca. 1700) of St. George killing the dragon. George was the patron saint of Diest’s shooting association

I particularly loved the Treasure Room, with its ornamental liturgical silverwork (above) and its exquisite “enclosed gardens” of assemblage art (below). These are from the 16th century and are made from various materials: textile, wood, alabaster, glass, gypsum. They frequently contain relics.

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I lost my notes on this, but thought it interesting enough to include

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This is an Index, used to mark texts in the Bible and liturgical texts during a Mass

The Annunciation by Hendrik ter Brugghen (below), dating back to 1629, is one of the museum’s finest pieces. It portrays the archangel Gabriel holding a white lily, the symbol of purity, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, surrounded by angels.

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And what would a museum be without a suit of armour? This one belongs to the guy on the right: Philip William, Lord of Diest from 1602 to 1618.

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The Beguinage

In 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.

Beguines are known to have lived in Diest since 1245. The Beguinage has a chequerboard pattern, with the streets running parallel to one another.

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Beguines who didn’t have enough money to build or own their own house lived together in larger houses called convents; at its peak in the 17th century there were five convents in Diest, three of which are still visible today.

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Every house in the Beguinage had its own patron saint. A statuette of the patron saint in wood or stone would stand in a niche above the door. Each house was therefore named after the saint; this was particularly helpful as the houses were not numbered. The original statuettes can be seen in the Beguines’ Room in the Museum De Hofstadt:

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The maximum population was reached in 1674 when about one hundred houses held 395 beguines, 15 servants and 165 children. The last two beguines left the Beguinage in 1928.

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One of the most striking buildings is the renovated Infirmary or Hospital, which is now a Cultural Center

So enjoy walking along the cobbled stones and viewing the beautifully renovated tiny houses in the Beguinage. But remember that people now live here: it’s fully occupied and under the jurisdiction of Diest’s Social Services.

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Signposted Town Walk

From the Tourist Office on the Grote Markt (opening hours here) for one euro you can buy a leaflet that explains all there is to see on the 2.5 km walk around the town.

Town walk Diest

Here are a few of the sights you can see on the walk, which also takes in the Beguinage:

Don’t Diet in Diest!

There are plenty of places to eat in Diest, but one that I will definitely return to should I get the opportunity, is Wannes Raps in Schaffensestraat 17. Named after a novel by Flemish author Ernest Claes, it’s actually the #1 restaurant in Diest on Trip Advisor, and it’s well worth its high rating. The staff are friendly, the chef serves the main meal himself, and the food is fresh, tasty and surprisingly good value. It’s a small place, only open on weekdays, so you’re advised to reserve a table in advance.

Of course, as it’s only open on weekdays, if you’re visiting Diest at the weekend, this isn’t an option. Although I can’t recommend them personally, I have heard good things about Albero d’Oro and ImmiGrand. Let me know how you get on there, or if you have found a good place to eat in Diest yourself.

A half-day alternative

As you’ve probably gathered, Diest is a fairly small town, so it could be that a morning or afternoon will be sufficient to visit the museum and go on the town walk, including the Beguinage. If that’s the case, you might also be interested in this walk that I did from Diest railway station into the local and very scenic countryside. If you start your day early enough, you should be able to mix and match your activities to the time available.

Either way, do let me know how you get on. And if you’ve visited Diest before, let me know any sights I should add to the list.

Categories: Flemish Brabant, Towns & Villages

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32 replies »

  1. Welcome back. We missed you. Hope all has been well. Never heard of beguines. I’m curious to learn more. You make this town sound wonderful. PIctures are great. Who knew there was so much to see in Belgium?

  2. Welcome back indeed. I enjoy your pictures and your enthusiastic way of describing this little gem Diest. Personally I ate well once at Gasthof 1618, which is in the beguinage. By the way, we didn’t make it to the Ardennes (nursing an overstretched knee); cycling is the wiser option right now.

  3. Denzil, it’s so good to see you back here in Blogland, and knowing you’re hiking around Belgium. You always make me want to hop on a plane. This post is rich with description, history, wonderful photos, and tempting food options. The info about the Beguines is fascinating – that women would band together to live, work, and sustain themselves in a respectful endeavor. We know what most unmarried women were forced to do. What a great model for today. I took lots of art history classes at university but never saw a photo of that exquisite painting by Hendrik ter Brugghen. There’s so much history in Europe, even in the tiniest of towns. Oh, lucky lottery ticket, where are you?

    • Thanks for your kind words Sharon. Yes the beguines were an exceptional group of women. The Church naturally had difficulty with them as they didn’t fit into the system. They weren’t nuns but wanted to serve God. They were not married; some had children. Most were financially independent. Would you believe that in 1311 the Pope at that time condemned the beguine movement and many beguines were burnt at the stake! Horrendous. I’ll stop there before I start ranting …

      Anyway, thanks for your comment; it’s always good to hear from you and get your input Sharon.

    • Thanks Judy. My summer off was a busy one, taking in a trip to Sweden to see my eldest daughter and family, a hiking holiday in the Pyrenees (where I had quite a scary experience) and unfortunately two family funerals in the UK within a few weeks of one another. It’s good to be back though.

    • Nice to hear from you Brigid. I am sure you would enjoy the peace of the beguinage. At its peak it would have been a peaceful place too. The main gate was locked at 8 pm and opened at 8 am. No visitors were allowed in or out during those times. That must have been reassuring for the occupants.

    • Hi Rosaliene and thanks for your welcome! I didn’t have space to mention that these Refuge Houses were for monks fleeing from troops or even religious maniacs plundering their monasteries, for example during the iconoclasm. They they would then return when the coast was clear.

  4. I missed you! 🙂 🙂 But here you are again with a new, smart look, and a walk I can incorporate on Monday. I’ve never heard of either Diest or beguines so I’ll be very happy to share the knowledge. And the food! 🙂

    • You are a star for including this in your Monday walks Jo. And thanks for the compliments on the new look. I wanted a more magazine style with easy access to posts. Interesting fact: at some beguinages, not only men were forbidden to enter, but male animals too!

  5. Hi Denzil, I love your new look! I agree with you, small towns are often very interesting. We could easily spend a day here, although I would need to make sure I didn’t settle down in that café for too long. 🙂

  6. Denzil! Glad you’re back, and in style. A wonderful profile, and a town I’d never heard about before. And I too, had never heard of the Beguines. Typical of me, I’d heard Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine” a million times, and thought it was a nonsense word. But I just looked it up, and it’s actually related to the meaning you explained, in a very roundabout sort of way.
    Well, enjoyed reading your post, and again, very glad you’re back on the trail. RPT

    • Hi Robert, thanks for your kind welcome; it’s nice to know I’ve been missed. Actually I thought I’d go missing for longer at one stage of the summer. I was hiking in the Pyrenees and seriously under-estimated the time that ascending and descending mountains takes. I was stranded far from civilization by the evening and had to seek shelter overnight in a mountain refuge.

      Thanks too for linking to the Cole Porter song. As you say, very distantly related in meaning. I’m going to have that tune on my brain all day now. Best wishes to you Robert.

    • Dat is een van de mooie dingen over België: zo veel leuke kleine marktsteden die het verkennen waard zijn voor een paar uur.

  7. I’ve actually never been to Diest, but you have certainly piqued my interest. For the longest time, I was wondering what the word “Begijnhof” was in English. Now I know: Beguinages. Thanks for that. I really like walking around in them. So quiet and peaceful. The one in Diest looks extremely well-kept or restored. Since I’m from the area of Dendermonde (where I was born), I walked around the one there plenty of times. And, Ghent has an interesting Beguinage as well. Question: where do you think all the children in the Beguinage of Diest come from (since only women used to live there)?

    • Good question Liesbet. It seems that although some of the children belonged to the beguines from past lives, the majority were children outplaced by their parents in the beguinage for their education. Boys were allowed there until they were ready for the training of a trade; the girls usually stayed in the beguinage and often became beguines themselves.

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