Belgian historic towns/castles
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Did You Know…?
- Godfrey, the best-known leader of the First Crusade (1096), was born at the Castle of Bouillon.
- Tongeren claims to be Belgium’s oldest town, predating the Roman era when it was a provincial capital.
- The World War I poem, “In Flanders Fields,” inspired the use of poppies as a remembrance of war’s ravages.
- The same noble family, the de Lignes, has lived at the Chateau of Beloeil since the 14th century.
- Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, was born in Dinant (1814).
Of beguinages and wars
Belgium, a land not much larger than Maryland, is dotted with villages and towns that date at least to the Middle Ages, and some hark back to the Roman era. Their histories include prosperous times, particularly as trading centers, which accounts for some of the fine houses, churches, town halls and other public buildings on view.
Along with Holland, northern Belgium (Flemish-speaking Flanders) was home to beguinages, religious communities created in the Middle Ages for women who were not nuns.
Flanders also saw the birth of world-renowned Flemish art (think of the multiple Brueghels and Rubens, who were contemporaneous with Rembrandt and Vermeer in Holland). For art in another medium, Belgium is famed for its tapestries, too.
Unfortunately, some town identities are inextricably linked to war. European powers have often fought their battles in Belgium. Those events included Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
Ypres in Flanders and Bastogne (in Belgium’s southern French-speaking Wallonia) are irrevocably linked to World War I and World War II, respectively. Three grueling battles at Ypres flattened the town, which was reconstructed. Bastogne was at the heart of the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. Cemeteries, memorials, museums and trenches abound in the areas around these towns.
With these facts in mind, it is a wonder Belgium has so many surviving castles, defined loosely here as including everything from strong defensive citadels to very large showcase chateaus. Belgium claims more castles per square mile than any other country, and several hundred are open to the public as conference or community centers, hotels, museums or private residences offering visiting hours.
It can be a challenge to make selections for a satisfying itinerary. The following lists are not exhaustive.
Some small cities, towns and villages to consider, depending on interests, are Bastogne, Binche, Bouillon, Bruges, Dinant, Eupen, Kortrijk, Leuven, Mechelen, Modave, Mons, Namur, Tongeren, Tournai, Spa, Waterloo and Ypres. Consider their neighborhoods, too.
Some castles or chateaus to consider include Alden Biesen, Attre, Beersel, Beloeil, Bouillon, Freyr, Gaasbeek, Modave, Seneffe and Veves. Dinant and Namur are known for their citadels.
Things to do for Venturers
- Descend the Ourthe River by kayak, passing through Durbuy, traditionally called the smallest town in the world (because it was a small settlement to be given town status in the Middle Ages), en route to Barvaux-sur-Ourthe. Durbuy is noted as a foodie’s town, too.
- Hike or cycle along the River Meuse in the Namur area. Or, bicycle along the canal from Bruges to the medieval village of Damme.
- Take the steps. At Dinant, that would be 420 steps to the clifftop citadel that sits just behind the riverside town. For other ideas, climb the 373 steps to the citadel on Bueren Hill at Liege, or climb the 366 belfry steps for stunning views of Bruges.
- Choose your jazz festival. Sites include Antwerp (August), Bruges (September), Dinant (July), Ghent (July), Liege (May) and Namur (February).
- Or if you prefer rock, consider the June Verdur Rock Festival at the citadel of Namur or Rock Werchter (Werchter is a village not far from Brussels and Leuven). Or, make that Pukkelpop, held in August in the village of Kiewit. Camping is available at the latter two.
- See Belgium’s towns, rural scenery and a few castles from a hot-air balloon. Some choice over-fly zones are the Ardennes and the Meuse River, or Bruges and Ypres in western Flanders.
Things to do for Centrics
- Put Binche on the itinerary for its noted Carnival, when hundreds of revelers move through the streets wearing white, feathered headdresses as tall as 4 feet. There are other Carnivals, including those in Aalst and Stavelot. An alternative, the springtime Venetian Carnival Festival at Annevoie Castle Gardens is a costume and mask show.
- Overnight in a castle or chateau that has been converted into a hotel. Or, have dinner in one that now houses a restaurant.
- For the quirky, attend the summertime Bathtub Regatta in Dinant. Competitors race down the Meuse River on homemade rafts, floating waterslides and a range of other oddities that do indeed include bathtubs.
- Time your travels for a beer festival. There are several, including those in Bruges, Leuven, Lustin and Mons. There are breweries, found in towns and cities around the country, to be visited, too.
- Pay homage to the fallen of the Battle of the Bulge (1944-1945) at Bastogne, located in Belgium’s Ardennes region. There are museums and memorials in town and across the area.
- Attend Les Musicales, Belgium’s biggest classical music event, held in August at the Chateau of Beloeil. Or, Alden Biesen hosts an annual International Storytelling Festival for a week in the spring. Medieval fests are another option for events in castle settings.
Things to do for Authentics
- Have a massage or other services in Spa, the town that gave us the word spa. Also, place your bets at the local casino.
- Outside Brussels, see where Napoleon met his Waterloo, near but not in Waterloo, in 1815. At the visitor center, watch an audiovisual presentation that gives some idea of what the battle must have been like. Headquarters for the victorious Duke of Wellington are a museum in town.
- Make begiunages a trip theme. Thirteen surviving beguinages (medieval communities for women who wanted a religious living arrangement without withdrawing totally or permanently from the secular world) are UNESCO sites: Bruges, Dendermonde, Diest, Ghent, Hoogstraten, Kortrijk, Lier, Leuven, Mechelen, Sint-Amandsberg, Sint-Truiden, Tongeren and Turnhout. Antwerp has one too.
- Look for beauty, and learn some history the easy way, at Alden Biesen Castle and Gardens in the Limburg region; the Chateau de Beloeil in the Hainaut region, the Castle of Bouillon in the Ardennes Forest; the Castle of Veves in the Namur region; or others. Or, see the Flower Carpet of 200,000 begonias at the Chateau of Seneffe in August.
- Hear the buglers sound the Last Post (the end-of-day signal) each evening in Ypres, site of three horrific World War I battles. In town, see the Flanders Fields Museum. Take a guided tour of a selection of area cemeteries and memorials.
- See one of the world’s finest private tapestry collections during a Saturday guided tour of the Royal Manufacturers De Wit, tapestry restorers located in a 15th century house of the Abbey of Tongerlo in Mechelen. The tour also covers aspects of the tapestry restoration and conservation methods.
For more information, consult the Belgian Tourist Office at www.visitbelgium.com (for French-speaking Belgium) and the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels at www.visitflanders.us (for Flemish-speaking Belgium).