Although the idea behind this blog is to show that Belgium has a lot more to offer than Brussels and Bruges, of course that doesn’t mean that these cities do not have any hidden pearls that deserve to be pointed out. And today I would like to put one of them in the spotlight: The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken.
But first of all, I would like to apologize for the timing of this post! The greenhouses are only open to the public for three weeks a year, and this year the final day is coming Sunday, May 6. So if you’re still looking for something to do this weekend, I would highly recommend a trip to Laeken to go see this magnificent site.
Of course the houses contain a huge and wonderful collection of plants and flowers from all over the world, but let’s face it; you’ll find those in every greenhouse or botanical garden. This one is more interesting for its architecture, especially if you like Art Nouveau. They were built by Alphonse Balat who taught Victor Horta everything he knew.
A visit will also allow you to have a few exclusive looks over Brussels and the nearby Japanese tower, views that are usually reserved to the royal family and their guests.
There is one downside though: you will not be alone! So come early – very early and be prepared to queue. We arrived at 9.45 and had to wait for about half an hour. When we walked out about 2 hours later, the queues had grown considerably and I reckon there was a waiting time of about 2 hours.
The greenhouses are open from 9.30 till 16.00 and from 20.00 till 22.00 until Sunday May 6. Tickets are 2.50 euros, free if you’re under 18.
Now that spring has arrived, so has the moment to put on your hiking shoes and head for Haspengouw. Haspengouw is a region which spreads over five provinces (Limburg, Namur, Liege and Flemish and Wallonian Brabant) and is known as the fruit orchard of Belgium. The area is sprinkled with apple, pear and cherry orchards which should be in full bloom this time of year, so what better time to visit Haspengouw than right now.
Since the fruit industry is so important to the region, there are lots of activities going on these days. In April for instance, every Wednessday, you can participate in a guided nocturnal walk through the orchards. Also, fruit farmers invite you to visit their farm and offer a view behind the scenes of what they do and how they do it. There are exhibitions, markets, concerts… you’ll be hard pressed not to find something of interest to you. For a complete list of everything going on (Dutch only), you can click here.
The highlight of the festivities is the so called Blossom Ordination which, this year, takes place on April 22nd for the 62nd year! There will be a concert and service in the church of Guvelingen (Sint Truiden), and it is an excellent start for a perfectly nice day in the country side. Just don’t expect to be the only one there though! For more info on the ordination, you can visit the website of Sint Truiden The site also offers walking, cycling and driving routes through the area (at 2 euros each).
Apart from the orchards, Haspengouw has a lot more to offer and is in fact worth visiting the whole year round. Since it’s located at the foot of the Ardennes, it’s not as flat as the rest of Flanders, but not as hilly (or should I say mountainous) as the Ardennes. It makes for pleasant walking or cycling and enjoying stunning views wherever you go.
Furthermore, the area is also dotted with castles, churches and abbeys, so if blossoming trees are not your thing, you will still find lots of interesting sites. Most castles are private property and not open to the public, but some do allow you to walk around on the grounds. And since this is Belgium, some are turned into restaurants or café’s.
When planning a trip to Antwerp I would strongly suggest you schedule an hour or two to stroll around in the Cogels Osylei, often described as the most beautiful street in Antwerp – or indeed Belgium. About 300 metres away from Berchem train station, it is easily accesible and once you’re done ooh-ing and aah-ing you can hop on a bus or tram and continue your journey into Antwerp, for maybe a visit to the zoo.
Until the 16th century the south-eastern area of Antwerp had little appeal. It often got flooded and the soil was very sour, which does explain the name of the area: Zurenborg. Then Michiel Van der Heyden, a major real estate investor, bought the area, decided to drain it and built himself a large farm on it: Suerenborger Hoeve. Modesty was not wasted on Michiel and it wasn’t very long before he changed the name from Suerenborger Hoeve to Suerenborger Hof (court) and gave himself the title of Lord of Suerenborg.
Over time the domain changed hands quite regularly and was eventually owned by Baron Osy-Knijff, CEO of the Société Général. Through inheritance, Lady du Bois de Vroylande, sister of Baron Eduard Osy, became the rightful owner, and she was married to Senator John Cogels.
There was no shortage of money or influence in this family so they decided to start their own construction business, the Compagnie de l’Est d’Anvers (The Company of East Antwerp) The idea was to turn the area into a flourishing economic centre, with factories, offices and shops. Their plans however, were met with little enthusiasm and soon the company merged with another construction company. The idea now was to build houses for the upper class, so the company was appropriately called Société Anonyme pour la Construction de Maisons Bourgeoises.
Louis Luyckx was made director of the company and he considered supervising the building sites as his main job. According to him, the houses had to impress. Sure, the quality had to be of the highest standards, but more importantly the way they looked had to be unique.
The architects he hired, though without a doubt very skillful, never quite managed to make a name for themselves nationally. Therefore they knew it was important to please Mr Luyckx if they wanted to keep getting contracts. And although they were given complete artistic freedom, they soon realized that the more ornate details they added, the more praise they got.
So the results were – to use an understatement – eclectic. Initially more renowned architects were horrified when they saw what monstrosities were being built in Antwerp. But of course these houses were not meant to be objects of arts. Their sole purpose was to be rented out and bring in money. And they did.
By the 1950′s however views and situations had changed completely. The well-to-do had left and their place was taken by artists and hippies. The houses got neglected and decayed. In the 60′s there were plans to tear them all down and put up a modern housing estate. Luckily some leading architects had come to understand that what their colleagues of the past used to call monstrosities were actually unique buildings that had to be preserved for the future.
Of course everybody always refers to the Cogels-Osylei but that doesn’t mean the neighboring streets don’t deserve any attention. True, the majority of the houses in the Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat and others may not be as flamboyant but they are no less wonderful. So next time you’re coming to Antwerp, make sure to add Cogels-Osylei to your itinerary. You won’t be disappointed.
For more of my pictures of the Zurenborg area, click here
If World Heritage is something you’re interested in, Dendermonde is the place to go as the city has no less than 4 (two architectural sites and 2 folklore related) - not bad for a city of not even 45,000 people! We’ll get to those in a minute but first we should take a look at the Grote Markt (Grand Place). It may not be as large and impressive as the Markt from Brussels, Antwerp or Bruges but it is well worth visiting. An extra bonus being that this one is virtually traffic and tourist free!
Apart from the obligatory cafés and restaurants, you can also find the Meat House museum (Vleeshuismuseum) here. Contrary to what the name might suggest, it does not exhibit any steaks or sausages but instead informs you about the city’s history.
The most important building on the Grote Markt is of course City Hall. The building, built in 1350, was initially built to house the weavers guild. Prior to that they used to share the newly built Meat House (1294) with the butchers guild. Soon though, they complained about the lack of space and were eventually given permission to build their own guild house, the Lakenhalle.
In 1377 it was decided that a belfry should be added to the building, which brings us to Dendermonde’s first World Heritage site. Of course Dendermonde is not the only city with a recognized belfry as in 1999 a total of 29 Belgian belfries were added to the list.
In fact, the city’s second WH-site isn’t that unique either. No less than 13 of Flanders Beguinages were recognized by UNESCO in 1998, including the one in Dendermonde.
Like the Grand Place, the beguinage of Dendermonde is by no means as well kept and pretty as its most famous counterpart in Bruges, but efforts are being made to restore its full splendor. So this one may not (yet!) be as quaint and cute as the one in Bruges, but how often can you have that one to yourself on a Saturday afternoon?
So the Belfry and the Beguinage are the two architectural WH-sites but as I said in the beginning, the city also has two folklore related happenings that have been recognized by UNESCO. Again, the first one is not unique to Dendermonde as cities all over the world have giants. Dendermonde has three: Goliath, Mars and Indiaan. As all city giants worldwide, these ones are born, not built, and have a birth certificate. They are therefore official citizens of their city. Unlike other city giants though, Goliath, Mars and Indiaan get to travel around. City giants are usually not allowed to leave their city, but the Dendermonde Three are and can sometimes be seen outside the city. If you want to see them in their hometown, they have their parade once a year on the last Thursday of August.
Dendermonde’s true claim to fame though is Ros Beiaard (WH n°4). The story of Ros Beiaard is fairly complex, but basically it’s about four brothers and their giant horse and their battle against Charles the Great. Every ten(!) years the city holds a major parade to commemorate the legend. Last time was in 2010, so you’ll have to wait another eight years to go and see it, but even then it’s not certain it will happen. As the legend says, the main characters are four brothers and apparently already in 2010 it was a struggle to find a suitable family.
Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of either parades, but to give you a taste of them, I found this rather nice video on YouTube. It also features the giants Indiaan, Goliath en Mars.
If you feel like visiting Dendermonde, take some time to plan your trip. As it is not as touristy as other, bigger cities most museums etc are not open all year round. For Dendermonde’s website (only in Dutch), click here.
Ghent has always been regarded as Belgium’s best kept secret. Though less than 50km from Bruges, it attracts far less visitors. That may all change in the very near future though, as Lonely Planet has now named it Europe’s best kept secret and put it in their list of Top 10 places to visit in 2011. It very well deserves a more in-depth post in the near future, but today I want to focus on the Light Festival, which was held last weekend.
Recently Ghent decided to take the Illuminated Road to attract more visitors. On any normal night, it already is one of the most beautifully lit cities in Belgium, not only focusing on its historic buildings and other landmarks, but on the city as a whole. As if that wasn’t enough, in 2011 it organized its first Light Festival. It was such a huge success last year, they decided to add an extra, fourth day. And with about 500,000 visitors this year, it may well be worth extending it to a whole week.
This year there were 29 exhibits throughout the city, built by professionals and students alike. Some were static, some interactive. Some told a story, some painted a picture… and some simply didn’t work. But such is life, I guess. Overall it was a great evening out, despite the crush of the crowd and the freezing cold. If you have no problem with those, start counting down to next year’s event!
Here are some of the pictures I took this year. If you want more information about the works of art, just click on the picture (I hope the website to which it links will stay up)
Located at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Sambre, Namur has always held a strategic position throughout Europe’s history – even from centuries before it got its current name, in the 10th century. Traces of human settlements date back as far as 6,000 BC. Already in the 1st century a little village was thriving here as it could easily maintain trading relations with the rest of the Roman Empire thanks to its own port. But it wasn’t until the 5th century that the port became increasingly important and a need developed for some fortifications. The first steps to what was later to become the Citadel were taken.
In the 10th century the county Namur was established, with the city of Namur, of course, as its capital. Until 1429 it was to be ruled by 23 Counts and while some of them were quite happy to be just the Count of Namur, others moved on to bigger things. Count Baldwin II, for example, went on to become the Emperor of Constantinople. In 1429, Count Jean III, ruined and without a legitimate heir, decided to sell the County to Phillip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.
The Burgundians, and later the Habsburgers, took great effort to fortify the city, yet all these efforts couldn’t stop the city from continuously changing hands. From the 15th to the 19th century, Namur was captured and recaptured by the Spanish, the Austrians, the French, the Dutch and eventually Belgian revolutionaries.
After Belgian’s independence in 1830, the armed forces were stationed in the Citadel and it wasn’t until 1891 that King Leopold II decided to (partly) demilitarize the site. Eventually, in 1975, the Citadel was given to the City of Namur and the last military forces left the site in 1977.
Today, the Citadel is a great place for walks on the grounds surrounding the fort but it’s also a fun place to go to with kids. Guided tours to visit the buildings are offered and there’s also the possibility to take a train ride. We went on a sunny Autumn day and were amazed at the beautiful, albeit a bit eery, effect the sunlight through the autumn leaves had on the walls inside.
If military stuff is not your thing, you can still have a wonderful time exploring the grounds and park. There are a few art and antique shops as well, an open air theatre and a restaurant/B&B. Excellent views over the city can be seen from the Citadel. Beware though that, even though there is a car park at the information centre at the top of the citadel, you will have to take into account some rather steep climbs when you venture into the park.
For more info about the Citadel, visit the website here
For more of my pictures of the Citadel and the around it, click here
The Arboretum in Kalmthout, near Antwerp, was not exactly what I had expected. I must admit, I hadn’t been to too many arboretums before and the ones I had visited were not much more than a bunch of trees. Not unpleasant to walk around it, but not much different from an ordinary forest. This one, however, was more than just a collection of trees. It’s a beautifully landscaped park, divided into themed gardens i.e. the rose garden, the bluegarden, white garden… Even when visiting late October, as I did, you could clearly tell when you were in which part.
October, or any Autumn month I guess, is a great time to visit the Arboretum. Plenty of vibrant reds and yellows contrast beautifully with the evergreens. Of course if you prefer oceans of blooming flowers and blossoming trees Spring would be your first choice.
When walking into the Kalmthout Arboretum, you also take a step into history. It got its start in the 1850′s. Europe was exploring the rest of the world extensively and unseen flowers and trees came flooding in, allowing gardeners all over Europe to create their own Garden of Eden.
Charles Van Geert, a tree cultivator from Antwerp, was one of them. Running a shop in the centre of Antwerp, he soon realized he’d need a better place. In Kalmthout he found all the space he needed and over time he brought together one of the richest collections of trees and plants in Europe. After his death in 1897 the Société Anonyme Horticole de Calmthout took over and continued the work of Van Geert. Both world wars though, caused extensive damage. All commercial activities, which provided the money to maintain the park were ceased and slowly the area deteriorated.
Early 1950′s parts of the grounds were sold. Antoine Kort, chairman of the Société Anonyme, managed to prevent the most valuable part getting sold though and in 1952 two retired diamond dealers and keen botanics from Antwerp obtained over 20 acres of the grounds and called in the help of a Slovenian agricultural engineer to help restore the derelict garden back into its former glory. They also invested in giving the Arboretum a more scientific and educational aspect and founded the International Dendrology Society .
In the 1980′s the Arboretum once again headed towards difficult times. Realizing its importance and uniqueness, the province of Antwerp decided to buy the domain, making the park more accessible to a wider audience.
For more information, please visit the Arboretum’s website
To see some more of my photos, click here