Beginning south of Hasselt, the Haspengouw is an expanse of gently undulating land that fills out the southern part of the province of Limburg, its fertile soils especially suited to fruit growing. The area is at its prettiest during cherry-blossom time, but otherwise the scenery is really rather routine, a description that applies in equal measure to many of the Haspengouw’s towns and villages. The main exceptions are Tongeren, whose small-town charms and enjoyable range of historic monuments make it well worth a detour, and pocket-sized Zoutleeuw, whose splendid, pre-Reformation St-Leonarduskerk somehow managed to avoid the attentions of both the Protestants and the Napoleonic army.
TONGEREN, about 20km southeast of Hasselt, is a small and amiable market town on the border of Belgium’s language divide. It’s also – and this is its main claim to fame – the oldest town in Belgium, built on the site of a Roman camp that guarded the road to Cologne. Its early history was plagued by misfortune – it was destroyed by the Franks and razed by the Vikings – but it did prosper during the Middle Ages in a modest sort of way as a dependency of the bishops of Liège. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine a more relaxing town, quiet for most of the week except on Sunday mornings (from 7am), when the area around Leopoldwal and the Veemarkt is taken over by the stalls of a vast flea and antiques market, one of the country’s largest.
Shadowing the Grote Markt, the mostly Gothic Onze Lieve Vrouwebasiliek (Basilica of Our Lady) towers over the town with an impressive, symmetrical elegance, its assorted gargoyles, elaborate pinnacles and intricate tracery belying its piecemeal construction: it’s the eleventh- to sixteenth-century outcome of an original fourth-century foundation, which was the first church north of the Alps to be dedicated to the Virgin. Still very much in use, the yawning interior, with its high, vaulted nave, has preserved an element of Catholic mystery, its holiest object a bedecked, medieval, walnut statue of Our Lady of Tongeren – “Mariabeeld” – which stands in the transept surrounded by candles and overhung by a gaudy canopy.
At the back of the church is the Schatkamer (Treasury), one of the region’s most interesting, crowded with reliquaries, monstrances and reliquary shrines from as early as the tenth century. Three artefacts stand out – a beautiful sixth-century Merovingian buckle; a pious, haunting eleventh-century Head of Christ; and an intricate, bejewelled, thirteenth-century Reliquary Shrine of the Martyrs of Trier, celebrating a large group of German Christians killed at the hands of the Romans in the third century AD.
In a sleepy corner of Brabant, the hamlet of ZOUTLEEUW, some 30km west of Tongeren – and 7km west of Sint Truiden train station – was a busy and prosperous cloth town from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Thereafter, its economy slipped into a long, slow decline whose final act came three hundred years later when it was bypassed by the main Brussels–Liège road. The village has one claim to fame, the rambling, irregularly towered and turreted St-Leonarduskerk, whose magnificently intact Gothic interior is crammed with the accumulated treasures of several hundred years, being the only major church in the country to have escaped the attentions of both the Calvinists and the revolutionary French. The church is devoted to the French hermit St Leonard, whose medieval popularity was based upon the enthusiasm of returning Crusaders, who regarded him as the patron saint of prisoners.
The church’s tall and slender, light and airy nave is dominated by a wrought-iron, sixteenth-century double-sided image of the Virgin, suspended from the ceiling, and by the huge fifteenth-century wooden cross hanging in the choir arch behind it. The side chapels are packed with works of religious art, including an intricate altar and retable of St Anna to the right of the entrance in the second chapel of the south side aisle, and a fearsome St George and the Dragon in the Chapel of Our Lady on the opposite side of the nave. The north transept is dominated by a huge stone sacramental tower, nine tiers of elaborate stonework stuffed with some two hundred statues and carved by Cornelis Floris, architect of Antwerp’s town hall, between 1550 and 1552. The ambulatory, much darker and more intimate than the nave, is lined with an engaging series of medieval wooden sculptures, most notably a captive St Leonard with his hands chained. There’s also a figure of St Florentius, the patron saint of tailors, holding an enormous pair of scissors; and a thirteenth-century statue of St Catherine of Alexandria, shown merrily stomping on the Roman Emperor Maxentius, who had her put to death.