Last Saturday the sun came out in Belgium! After weeks of more than 50 shades of grey, blue sky was most welcome. So I was not slow to plan a walk and shoot off for the day.
I chose to walk around Westerlo in the province of Antwerp. Having parked outside the Tourist Office in Sint-Lambertusstraat, I headed off on my pre-planned 12 km walk.
I had selected this particular walk because it combined walking along the banks of the Grote Nete River, investigating the marvellously named Rothoek-Kwarekken nature reserve, passing by not just one but two castles, and spending some time in the grounds of a Norbertine Abbey. What more could I ask for?
Westerlo – the “pearl of the Kempen” – is a municipality that comprises the seven towns of Westerlo itself, Oevel, Tongerlo, Heultje, Voortkapel, Oosterwijk and Zoerle-Parwijs. Together they have a population of about 25,000.
Grote Nete River
After passing through the town I headed down to the Grote Nete (Big Nete) River. This river is about 85 km long and has its source near Hechtel in the province of Limburg. It flows west and passes the towns of Geel, Westerlo and Heist-op-den-Berg before joining the Kleine Nete in Lier.
I was most impressed by this river, and especially the wide, well-maintained footpaths on either side of it.
It also has a few benches which might give you the opportunity to quietly listen to the birds in the trees above or the waterfowl on the river, or practice whatever spiritual practices you find helpful and enjoyable.
Castle of the Prince of Merode
I soon came across the first of the two castles on this route.
Also simply called Westerlo Castle, it was built by the Prince of Merode, who belonged to one of the most powerful families (the de Merodes) of 15th and 16th century Brabant. It’s a fine example of early Flemish Renaissance style. Built on the ruins of an old Roman watchtower, its strategic position on the banks of the Grote Nete River gave it a dominant position in the neighbourhood.
The present castle was constructed in the mid-16th century, although the stone dungeon – with walls 2.5 metres thick and a 10-metre high ceiling – dates back to the 14th century.
The castle is only open on selected weekends – usually around Christmas and in July to coincide with the local summer fair. During these weekends you can explore most of the rooms and admire a large collection of portraits, tapestries, porcelains, and original furnishings from the 16th centuries.
The castle is still owned by the de Merode family, and is currently the home of Prince Simon de Merode.
Rothoek-Kwarekken nature reserve
Next stop was this nature reserve, which is an interesting mix of grasslands, mixed woodlands and ponds.
I have to say that approaching this abbey from a distance is quite an impressive sight.
The origin of this Abbey dates back to 1133 when a religious community was formed in Tongerlo by a group of monks from the Norbertine Abbey of St. Michael of Antwerp, who had been invited by the wealthy landowner Giselbert Castelre to settle on his Tongerlo estate.
The Abbey gained prestige through the 13th century when the Pope placed Tongerlo at the centre of a number of parish churches in the region. The Abbey gradually grew in size, population and power. At one time the abbey was providing priests for forty parishes in the area. It was an important centre of learning and housed a large library.
The rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands led to conflict and the martyring of three of the Abbey’s monks between 1557 and 1572. All Catholic worship was banned and many monks were exiled away from their parishes. Even worse, in 1796 the French Revolution swept into Tongerlo and the Abbey came under private ownership.
However, soon after the Belgian state came into being in 1830, a religious community was once more established at the Abbey. Unfortunately a huge fire swept through and destroyed many of the buildings in 1929. The grounds are openly accessible.
The Castle of Countess Jeanne de Merode
I wasn’t finished yet! There was still one castle to investigate. In 1910, Countess Jeanne de Merode decided to build a new and smaller castle on some ground not too far away from the one built by her distant relative. She lived there until her death in 1944. It’s built in the 16th century Gothic Brabant style.
During the Second World War it became the headquarters of the Germany Army, and then after the war it was a rest home for retired priests. In 1972 the town of Westerlo purchased the castle and converted it into the town hall and a cultural centre. The pond with fountain and accompanying artwork by Rik Poot in front of the town hall dates from 1995. The castle is accessible during normal opening hours.
And that was the final stop on this delightful and interesting 12 km walk around Westerlo. All that remains is to mention that you can download the route directly from my page on RouteYou, and below is a map of the route with key sights (I walked clockwise):