Belgium is big on festivals and special events – everything from religious processions through to cinema, fairs and contemporary music binges. These are spread right throughout the year, though as you might expect, most tourist-oriented events and festivals take place in the summer. Information on upcoming festivals and events is easily obtained from local tourist offices and on the internet.
Belgium’s annual carnivals (carnavals), held in February and early March, are original, colourful and boisterous in equal measure. One of the most renowned is held in February at Binche, in Hainaut, when there’s a procession involving some 1500 extravagantly dressed dancers called Gilles. There are also carnivals in Ostend and Aalst, and in Eupen, where the action lasts over the weekend before Shrove Tuesday and culminates with Rosenmontag on the Monday – a pageant of costumed groups and floats parading through the town centre. And, most uniquely, there is Stavelot’s carnival, where the streets are overtaken by so-called Blancs Moussis, townsfolk clothed in white hooded costumes and equipped with long red noses.
Nominally commemorating the arrival by boat of a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary from Antwerp in the fourteenth century, the Brussels Ommegang is the best known of the festivals with a religious inspiration; a largely secular event these days, it’s held on the first Tuesday and Thursday of July. If you want to see anything on the Grand-Place, however, where most of the action is, you have to reserve seats months in advance. Among the other religious events perhaps the most notable is the Heilig-Bloedprocessie (Procession of the Holy Blood) held in Bruges on Ascension Day, when the shrine encasing the medieval phial, which supposedly contains a few drops of the blood of Christ, is carried solemnly through the streets.
Among any number of folkloric events and fairs, one of the biggest is the Gentse Feesten, a big nine-day knees-up held in Ghent in late July, with all sorts of events from music and theatre through to fireworks and fairs.
Eupen: Carnival Shrove Tuesday and the preceding four or five days; wwww.opt.be. Eupen Carnaval kicks off with the appearance of His Madness the Prince and climaxes with the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) procession.
Malmédy: Carnival Shrove Tuesday and the preceding four or five days; wwww.opt.be. In Malmédy carnival is called Cwarme, and on the Sunday groups of Haguètes, masked figures in red robes and plumed hats, wander around seizing passers-by with wooden pincers.
Aalst: Carnival Shrove Tuesday and the preceding two days; wwww.opt.be. Aalst Carnaval begins on the Sunday with a parade of the giants – locals on stilts hidden by elaborate costumes – and floats, often with a contemporary/satirical theme.
Binche: Carnival Shrove Tuesday and the preceding two days; wwww.opt.be. Binche Carnaval builds up to the parade of the Gilles, locals dressed in fancy gear complete with ostrich-feather hats.
Brussels: Ars Musica All month; t 02 219 26 60, wwww.arsmusica.be. This contemporary classical music festival has an impressive international reputation and regularly features world-renowned composers. Performances are held in numerous venues around the city – and there are concerts in Bruges, Antwerp, Mons and Liège too.
Brussels: Anima, the International Animation Film Festival Ten days in early March; wwww.animatv.be. First-rate animation festival, which screens over 100 new and old cartoons from around the world at the Flagey Centre in Ixelles.
Ostend: Bal Rat Mort (Dead Rat Ball) First Saturday of March; wwww.ratmort.be. Held in the kursaal, this is a lavish, fancy-dress carnival ball with a different theme each year. The casino holds two and a half thousand revellers, but you still need to book early.
Stavelot: Carnival Refreshment Sun (fourth Sun in Lent); w www.opt.be. Stavelot Carnaval features the famous parade of the Blancs Moussis, all hoods and long red noses.
Brussels: International Fantastic Film Festival Two weeks in the middle of April; wbrff.be. This well-established festival is a favourite with cult-film lovers, and has become the place to see all those entertainingly dreadful B-movies, as well as more modern sci-fi classics, thrillers and fantasy epics. Held at the Tour & Taxis exhibition centre.
Sint-Truiden: Bloesemfeesten (Blossom festival) Late April; wwww.bloesemfeesten-haspengouw.be. Blessing of the blossoms and other such rural fruitery in Sint-Truiden, at the heart of the Haspengouw fruit-growing region.
Brussels: Concours Musical International Reine Elisabeth de Belgique Early to late May; t02 213 40 50, wwww.cmireb.be. A world-famous classical music competition. Founded over fifty years ago by Belgium’s violin-playing Queen Elisabeth. The categories change annually, rotating piano, voice and violin, and the winners perform live in the Grand-Place in July. Tickets can be difficult to get hold of and can cost as much as €50, but the venues do include the splendid Palais des Beaux Arts and the Conservatoire Royal de Musique.
Mechelen: Hanswijkprocessie (Procession of our Lady of Hanswijck) Sun before Ascension Day; wwww.hanswijkprocessie.org. Large and ancient procession held in the centre of Mechelen. Traditionally focused on the veneration of the Virgin Mary, but more a historical pageant today.
Bruges: Heilig Bloedprocessie (Procession of the Holy Blood) Ascension Day, forty days after Easter; http://www.holyblood.com/. One of medieval Christendom’s holiest relics, the phial of the Holy Blood, is carried through the centre of Bruges once every year. Nowadays, the procession is as much a tourist attraction as a religious ceremony, but it remains a prominent event for many Bruggelingen (citizens of Bruges).
Brussels: Jazz Marathon Three days in May; wwww.brusselsjazzmarathon.be. Hip jazz cats can listen to nonstop groove around the city for three whole days (which change each year – check the website), and although most of the seventy-plus bands are perhaps less familiar names, the quality of the music is usually very high. Entrance fees vary depending on the venue, but you can buy a three-day pass from the tourist office and there are a number of free jazz concerts too.
Tournai: Les journées des quatre cortèges (Days of the Four Processions) Second Sat & Sun; wwww.opt.be. Lively carnival mixing modern and traditional themes, from fifteen folkloric giants representing historic figures with local connections, such as Louis XIV and the Merovingian king Childeric, to flower-decked floats, fireworks and military bands.
Brussels: Brussels Festival of European Film Eight days in late June; wbrff.be. Something of a moveable feast – it’s previously been held in April and June – this festival promotes the work of young film directors from the 47 countries of the Council of Europe. It’s not one of Europe’s better-known film festivals, but the organizers have worked hard to establish a solid reputation and it’s a great opportunity to catch up on some of the latest European (and Belgian) films. The festival takes place in the capital’s Flagey arts centre, in Ixelles.
Knokke-Heist: Internationaal Cartoonfestival Early July to mid-Sept; wwww.cartoonfestival.be. Established in the 1960s, this summer-season festival in the seaside resort of Knokke-Heist showcases several hundred world-class cartoons drawn from every corner of the globe.
Brussels: Ommegang First Tues & Thurs of July; wwww.ommegang.be. This grand procession, cutting a colourful course from place du Grand Sablon to the Grand-Place, began in the fourteenth century as a religious event, celebrating the arrival of a miracle-working statue of the Virgin from Antwerp; nowadays it’s almost entirely secular with a whole gaggle of locals dressed up in period costume. It all finishes up with a traditional dance on the Grand-Place and has proved so popular that it’s now held twice a year, when originally it was just once. To secure a seat on the Grand-Place for the finale, you’ll need to reserve at the Brussels tourist office at least six months ahead.
Werchter, near Leuven: Rock Werchter Festival Four days in early July; wwww.rockwerchter.be. Belgium’s premier rock and pop festival and one of the largest open-air music events in Europe. In recent years the all-star line-up has included Arcade Fire, Pink, Delphic, Sweet Coffee, Crookers and Midlake. There are special festival buses from Leuven train station to the festival site.
Bruges: Cactusfestival Three days over the second weekend of July; wwww.cactusmusic.be. Going strong for over twenty years, the Cactusfestival is something of a classic. Known for its amiable atmosphere, it proudly pushes against the musical mainstream with rock, reggae, rap, roots and R&B all rolling along together, from both domestic and foreign artists. It’s held in Bruges’ city centre, in the park beside the Minnewater.
Ghent: Gentse Feesten (Ghent Festival) Mid- to late July, but always including July 21; wwww.gentsefeesten.be. For ten days every July, Ghent gets stuck into partying, pretty much round the clock. Local bands perform free open-air gigs throughout the city and street performers turn up all over the place – fire-eaters, buskers, comedians, actors, puppeteers and so forth. There’s also an outdoor market selling everything from jenever (gin) to handmade crafts.
Bruges: Klinkers Two weeks, usually from the last weekend of July; wwww.klinkers-brugge.be. Bruges’ biggest musical knees-up devoted to just about every type of music you can think of. There are big-time concerts on the Markt and the Burg, the city’s two main squares, plus more intimate performances in various bars and cafés. It’s Bruges at its best – and most of the events are free.
Veurne: Boetprocessie (Penitents’ Procession) Last Sun in July; wwww.boetprocessie.be. Although this event is now a good deal cheerier, with lots of townsfolk dressed up in fancy historical gear, it’s still got a gloomy heart with a couple of hundred participants dressed in the brown cowls of the Capuchins, some dragging heavy crosses behind them.
Boechout, Antwerp: Sfinks Last weekend in July; wwww.sfinks.be. Sfinks is Belgium’s best world-music festival, held outdoors in the suburb of Boechout, about 10km southeast of downtown Antwerp.
Bruges: Musica Antiqua Ten days in early Aug; wwww.mafestival.be. Part of the Festival van Vlaanderen, this well-established and well-regarded festival of medieval music offers an extensive programme of live performances at a variety of historic venues in Bruges. Tickets go on sale in February and are snapped up fast.
Zeebrugge and the coast: Sand sculpture Aug to late Sept. All sorts of sand sculpture competitions are popular along the Belgian coast throughout the summer – and Zeebrugge features some of the best. Amazing creations – everything from the bizarre to the surreal and beyond – but there again participants are allowed to use heavy-plant diggers and bulldozers.
Kiewit, just outside Hasselt: Pukkelpop Three days in the middle of Aug; wwww.pukkelpop.be. Large-scale progressive music festival running the gamut from indie through R&B to house.
Ath: La Ducasse Four days at the end of Aug; wwww.ath.be. Dating back to the thirteenth century, this festival has all sorts of parades and parties, but the star turn is the giant figures – or goliaths – that make their ungainly way round town, representing historical and folkloric characters.
Nivelles: Le Tour Sainte-Gertrude de Nivelles Last Sun in Sept or first Sun in Oct; wwww.toursaintegertrude.be. Beginning in the centre of Nivelles, this is a religious procession in which the reliquary of St Gertrude is escorted on a circular, 15km route out into the countryside surrounding the town. The jollity gets going when locals dressed in historical gear and several goliaths join the last leg of the procession.
Tournai: La Grande Procession de Tournai Second Sun in Sept. Part secular shindig in historical costume, part religious ceremony involving the carrying of the reliquary of St Eleuthère through the city’s streets, this procession dates back to the eleventh century.
Ghent: Ghent Film Festival Twelve days in Oct; wwww.filmfestival.be. The Ghent Film Festival is one of Europe’s foremost cinematic events. Every year, the city’s cinemas combine to present a total of around two hundred feature films and a hundred shorts from all over the world, screening Belgian films and the best of world cinema well before they hit the international circuit. There’s also a special focus on music in film.
Nationwide: The Arrival of St Nicholas (aka Santa Klaus) Dec 6. The arrival of St Nicholas from his long sojourn abroad is celebrated by processions and the giving of sweets to children right across Belgium and Luxembourg. In Luxembourg, he’s traditionally accompanied by “Père Fouettard” (the bogey-man), dressed in black and carrying a whip to punish naughty children.