Rural Flanders at its prettiest, VEURNE is a charming market town just 7km inland by road and rail from De Panne. Founded in the ninth century, Veurne was originally one of a chain of fortresses built to defend the region from the raids of the Vikings, but without much success. The town failed to flourish and two centuries later it was small, poor and insignificant. All that changed when Robert II of Flanders returned from the Crusades in 1099 with a piece of the True Cross. His ship was caught in a gale, and in desperation he vowed to offer the relic to the first church he saw if he survived. He did, and the lucky church was Veurne’s St-Walburgakerk, which became an important centre of medieval pilgrimage for some two hundred years, a real fillip to the local economy. These days Veurne is one of the more popular day-trip destinations in West Flanders, a neat and very amenable backwater whose one real attraction is its Grote Markt, one of the best-preserved town squares in Belgium.
All of Veurne’s leading sights are on or around the Grote Markt, beginning in the northwest corner with the Stadhuis, an engaging mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles built between 1596 and 1612 and equipped with a fine blue-and-gold decorated stone loggia projecting from the original brick facade. The interior displays items of unexceptional interest, the best of which is a set of leather wall coverings made in Córdoba. The Stadhuis connects with the more austere classicism of the Gerechtshof (Law Courts), whose symmetrical pillars and long, rectangular windows now hold the tourist office, but once sheltered the Inquisition as it set about the Flemish peasantry with gusto. The attached tiered and balconied Belfort (belfry; no public access) was completed in 1628, its Gothic lines culminating in a dainty Baroque tower, from where carillon concerts ring out over the town throughout the summer.
Behind the Belfort is St-Walburgakerk, a replacement for the original church that Robert II of Flanders caught sight of, but which was burnt to a cinder in 1353. The new church was begun in style with a mighty, heavily buttressed choir, but the money ran out when the builders reached the transepts and the nave – a truncated affair if ever there was one – was only finished off in 1904. The interior has three virtues: the ornately carved Flemish Renaissance choir stalls; a handsome set of stained-glass windows, some Gothic, some neo-Gothic; and the superb stonework of the tubular, composite columns at the central crossing.