The provinces of Antwerp and Limburg, together with a chunk of Brabant, constitute the Flemish-speaking northeast rim of Belgium, stretching as far as the border with the Netherlands. The countryside is largely dull and flat, its most distinctive feature being the rivers and canals that cut across it, with the River Scheldt leading the way. Easily the main attraction hereabouts is Antwerp, a sprawling, intriguing city with many reminders of its sixteenth-century golden age before it was upstaged by Amsterdam as the prime commercial centre of the Low Countries. Antwerp boasts a battery of splendid medieval churches and as fine a set of museums as you’ll find anywhere in Belgium, featuring in particular the stirring legacy of Rubens, who spent most of his career in the city and produced many of his finest works here. On a more contemporary note, Antwerp is the international centre of the diamond trade and one of Europe’s biggest ports, though these roles by no means define its character – for one thing its centre has a range of bars and restaurants to rival any city in Northern Europe.
That part of Antwerp province lying to the south of the city isn’t of much immediate appeal – it’s too industrial for that – but there’s compensation in a string of old Flemish towns that make ideal day-trips. The obvious targets are small-town Lier, whose centre is particularly quaint and diverting, and Mechelen, the ecclesiastical capital of Belgium, which weighs in with its handsome Gothic churches, most memorably a magnificent cathedral. Southeast from here, just beyond the reaches of Brussels’ sprawling suburbs, the lively university town of Leuvenis the principal attraction of this corner of Vlams-Brabant (Flemish Brabant), boasting its own clutch of fine medieval buildings.
Further to the east, the province of Limburg is, unlike Antwerp, seldom visited by tourists, its low-key mixture of small towns and rolling farmland having limited appeal. Nevertheless, Hasselt, the workaday capital, does have an amenable, laidback air, and pint-sized Tongeren, which claims to be the oldest town in Belgium, makes a good hand of its Roman history. Tongeren is also a relaxing spot to overnight or to rent a bike and cycle off into the surrounding countryside, where the village of Zoutleeuw is distinguished by its spectacular fourteenth-century church – the only one in Belgium that managed to avoid the depredations of Protestants, iconoclasts and invading armies.
Top image © RossHelen/Shutterstock
HASSELT, the capital of the province of Limburg, is a busy, modern town that acts as the administrative centre for the surrounding industrial region. A pleasant but unremarkable place, the roughly circular city centre fans out from a series of small interlocking squares, with surprisingly few old buildings as evidence of its medieval foundation. To compensate for this lack of obvious appeal, the local authority has spent millions of euros on lavish and imaginative prestige projects, from an excellent range of indoor and outdoor sports facilities to a cultural complex that aims to attract some of the world’s finest performers. The best time to visit is in late August, when Hasselt hosts one of Belgium’s biggest rock festivals, the three-day Pukkelpop (wwww.pukkelpop.be), which has something to suit just about everyone, from house and heavy metal to R&B.
There’s nothing special to look at in Hasselt itself, though the Gerechtshof (Court of Justice) on Havermarkt, in between the train station and the Grote Markt, is housed in the town’s one surprise – a handsome Art Deco building, whose elegant exterior is topped off by a delightful elliptical tower-cum-turret. In addition, Hasselt possesses no fewer than six museums, though ordinary mortals should settle – at most – for the best two. The most interesting is the Nationaal Jenevermuseum, at Witte Nonnenstraat 19 (wwww.jenevermuseum.be). Sited in a restored nineteenth-century distillery, it shows how jenever – a type of gin – is made and details the history of local production, with a free drink thrown in. To get here, head north from the Grote Markt down Hoogstraat/Demerstraat and watch for the turning on the right just before you reach the inner ring road. A left turn off Demerstraat opposite Witte Nonnenstraat brings you instead to the Stedelijk Modemuseum, Gasthuisstraat 11 (wwww.modemuseumhasselt.be), with displays on the history of fashion from 1830 to the present.
Filling out the northeast corner of Belgium, just beyond Antwerp, are the flat, sandy moorlands of the Kempen. Once a barren wasteland dotted with the poorest of agricultural communities – and punctuated by tracts of acid heath, bog and deciduous woodland – the Kempen’s more hospitable parts were first cultivated and planted with pine by pioneering Cistercian monks in the twelfth century. The monks helped develop and sustain a strong regional identity and dialect, which survives in good order today, though the area’s towns and villages are in themselves uniformly drab. The Kempen was also the subject of endless territorial bickering during the creation of an independent Belgium in the 1830s, a particular point of dispute being the little town of Baarle-Hertog, about 35km northeast of Antwerp. The final compromise verged on the ridiculous: Baarle-Hertog was designated as being part of Belgium, but it was surrounded by Dutch territory and the international border between it and the adjoining (Dutch) town of Baarle-Nassau actually cut through houses, never mind dividing streets. If you’re eager to have one leg in the Netherlands, another in Belgium, then here’s the spot.
Less than half an hour by train from both Mechelen and Brussels, LEUVEN offers an easy and enjoyable day-trip from either. The town is the seat of Belgium’s oldest university, whose students give the place a lively, informal air – and sustain lots of inexpensive bars and cafés. There are also a couple of notable medieval buildings, the splendid Stadhuis and the imposing St-Pieterskerk, which is home to three wonderful early Flemish paintings, and in the Oude Markt Leuven possesses one of the region’s most personable squares. Otherwise, the centre is not much more than an undistinguished tangle of streets with a lot of the new and few remnants of the old. Then again, it’s something of a miracle that any of Leuven’s ancient buildings have survived at all, since the town suffered badly in both world wars: in 1914 much of Leuven was razed during the first German offensive and thirty years later the town was heavily bombed. If you stay a while, you may also pick up on the division between town and gown; some of the students see themselves as champions of the Flemish cause, but the locals seem largely unconvinced.
The history of the university isn’t a particularly happy one, though everything began rosily enough. Founded in 1425, it soon became one of Europe’s most prestigious educational establishments: the cartographer Mercator was a student here and it was here that the religious reformer Erasmus (1466–1536) founded the Collegium Trilingue for the study of Hebrew, Latin and Greek, as the basis of a liberal (rather than Catholic) education. However, in response to the rise of Lutheranism, the authorities changed tack, insisting on strict Catholic orthodoxy and driving the university into educational retreat. In 1797 the French suppressed the university, and then, after the defeat of Napoleon, when Belgium fell under Dutch rule, William I replaced it with a Philosophical College – one of many blatantly anti-Catholic measures which fuelled the Belgian revolution. Re-established after independence as a bilingual Catholic institution, the university became a hotbed of Flemish Catholicism, and for much of this century French and Flemish speakers were locked in a bitter nationalist dispute. In 1970 a separate, French-speaking university was founded at Louvain-la-Neuve, just south of Brussels – a decision that propelled Leuven into its present role as a bastion of Flemish thinking, wielding considerable influence over the region’s political and economic elite.
The centre of Leuven is marked by two adjacent squares, the more easterly of which is the Fochplein, basically a road junction whose one noteworthy feature is the modern Fons Sapientiae, a wittily cynical fountain of a student literally being brainwashed by the book he is reading. Next door, the wedge-shaped Grote Markt is Leuven’s architectural high spot, dominated by two notable late Gothic buildings – St-Pieterskerk and the Stadhuis. The Stadhuis is the more flamboyant of the two, an extraordinarily light and lacy confection, crowned by soaring pinnacles and a dainty, high-pitched roof studded with dormer windows. It’s a beautiful building, though it is slightly spoiled by the clumsiness of its nineteenth-century statues, representing everything from important citizens to virtues and vices. In contrast, the niche bases supporting the statues are exuberantly medieval, depicting biblical subjects in a free, colloquial style and adorned by a panoply of grotesques.
Likeable LIER, just 17km southeast of Antwerp, has an amenable, small-town air, its pocket-sized centre boasting a particularly pretty Grote Markt and a clutch of handsome medieval buildings, especially St-Gummaruskerk. The town was founded in the eighth century, but despite its ancient provenance Lier has never managed to dodge the shadow of its much larger neighbour, Antwerp – even when Felix Timmermans, one of Belgium’s best-known writers, lived here for almost all of his long life (1886–1947). All the same, Timmermans did add a certain local sparkle – and it may have been needed: other Belgians once referred to Lier’s citizens as “sheepheads” (schapenkoppen), a reference to their reputation for stubbornness and stupidity.
Central Lier spreads out from the large, rectangular Grote Markt, its old streets and alleys encircled and bisected by the waterways that mark the course of its old harbours and moat. At the centre of the Grote Markt is the turreted fourteenth-century Belfort, an attractively spikey affair incongruously attached to the classically elegant Stadhuis, which was built to replace the medieval cloth hall in 1740. Otherwise, the square is an attractive medley of neos-, with neo-Gothic, Neoclassical and even neo-Romanesque buildings, mostly dating from the 1920s, jostling for space and attention.
Lier is an ideal day-trip from Antwerp, just a twenty-minute train ride away.
Midway between Antwerp and Brussels, MECHELEN is the home of the Primate of Belgium and the country’s ecclesiastical capital. It flourished during medieval times, but subsequently hit the buffers, with the Baedeker of 1900 witheringly describing the town as a “dull place totally destitute of the brisk traffic which enlivens most of the principal Belgian towns”. Things finally picked up in the 1980s with a well-conceived municipal plan to attract new investment and gee up Mechelen’s several tourist attractions. The result is the pleasant and appealing town of today, but nonetheless, considering its proximity to Antwerp and Brussels, Mechelen has a surprisingly provincial atmosphere – no bad thing. The key sights – primarily a cache of medieval churches, including a splendid cathedral, and a pair of superb Rubens paintings – are easily seen on a day-trip from either of its neighbours, but overnight and you’ll have the time to give the place the attention it deserves. One blot on Mechelen’s history was its use by the Germans as a transit camp for Jews in World War II: there’s a Deportation Museum in town and a short train ride or drive away is Fort Breendonk, a one-time Gestapo interrogation centre.
The centre of town is, as ever, the Grote Markt, an especially handsome and expansive affair offering a superb view of the cathedral. It’s flanked on its eastern side by the Stadhuis, whose bizarre and incoherent appearance was partly the responsibility of Margaret of Austria. In 1526, she had the left-hand side of the original building demolished and replaced by what you see today, an ornate arcaded loggia fronting a fluted, angular edifice, to a design by Rombout Keldermans. The plan was to demolish and rebuild the rest of the building in stages, but after her death in 1530 the work was abandoned, leaving Keldermans’ extravagance firmly glued to the plain stonework and the simple gables of the fourteenth-century section on the right.
Mechelen’s Christian heritage dates back to St Rombout, an Irish evangelist who converted the locals in the seventh century. Little is known about Rombout, but legend asserts he was the son of a powerful chieftain, who gave up his worldly possessions to preach to the heathen – not that it did him much good: after publicly criticizing a stonemason for adultery, the ungrateful wretch chopped him up with his axe and chucked the body into the river. In the way of such things, Rombout’s remains were retrieved and showed no signs of decay, easily enough justification for the construction of a shrine in his honour. Rombout proved a popular saint and pilgrims flocked here, ensuring Mechelen a steady revenue. By the thirteenth century, Mechelen had become one of the more powerful cities of medieval Flanders and entered a brief golden age when, in 1473, the Burgundian prince, Charles the Bold, decided to base his administration here. Impetuous and intemperate, Charles used the wealth of the Flemish towns to fund a series of campaigns that ended with his death on the battlefield in 1477. His widow, Margaret of York, and his son’s regent, the redoubtable Margaret of Austria, stayed in Mechelen and formed one of the most famous courts of the day. Artists and scholars were drawn here from all over Flanders, attracted by the Renaissance pomp and ceremony, with enormous feasts in fancy clothes in fancy buildings. For the men, two particular peccadilloes were pointed shoes (whose length – up to about 60cm – reflected social status) and bright, two-colour hoses. This glamorous facade camouflaged serious political intent. Surrounded by wealthy, independent merchants and powerful, well-organized guilds, the dukes and duchesses of Burgundy realized they had to impress and overawe as a condition of their survival.
Margaret of Austria died in 1530, the capital moved to Brussels and Mechelen was never quite the same, though many of its older buildings did survive the industrial boom of the nineteenth century to emerge intact today.
It was during the fourteenth century that bells were first used in Flemish cities as a means of regulating the working day, reflecting the development of a wage economy – employers were keen to keep tabs on their employees. Bells also served as a sort of public-address system: pealing bells, for example, announced good news, tolling summoned the citizens to the main square, and a rapid sequence of bells warned of danger. By the early fifteenth century, a short peal marked the hour, and from this developed the carillon (beiaard), in which the ringing of a set of bells is triggered by the rotation of a large drum with metal pegs; the pegs pull wires attached to the clappers in the bells, just like a giant music box. Later, the mechanics were developed so that the carillon could be played by means of a keyboard, giving the player (beiaardier) the chance to improvise.
Carillon playing almost died out in the nineteenth century, when it was dismissed as being too folksy for words, but now it’s on the rebound, and several Flemish cities – including Bruges and Mechelen – have their own municipal carillon player. Belgium’s finest carillon, a fifteenth-century affair of 49 bells, is housed in Mechelen’s cathedral tower and resounds over the town on high days and holidays. There are also regular performances at the weekends and during the week in the summer.
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.
Buses from Sint Truiden train station (Mon–Sat every 1–2hr; 20min) drop passengers in the centre of Zoutleeuw, metres from both St-Leonarduskerk and the sixteenth-century Stadhuis, which is home to the tourist office (April–Sept Tues–Fri 10am–noon & 1–4pm, Sat & Sun till 5pm; Oct–March Tues–Fri 10am–noon & 2–4pm; t 011 78 12 88, w www.zoutleeuw.be). For something to eat, the Restaurant Pannenhuis, near the church at Grote Markt 25 (t 011 78 50 02, w www.pannenhuiszoutleeuw.be; Thurs–Sat 6–9.30pm, Sun noon–2pm & 6–9pm), is a smart little place decorated in traditional style that does a good line in Flemish cuisine; mains start at €18.