Completed in 1752, the elegant, Neoclassical Château d’Attre (t068 45 44 60), just to the northeast of Beloeil, was built on the site of a distinctly less comfortable medieval fortress on the orders of the count of Gomegnies, chamberlain to emperor Joseph II. It soon became a favourite haunt of the ruling Habsburg elite – especially the archduchess Marie-Christine of Austria, the governor of the Southern Netherlands. The original, carefully selected furnishings and decoration have survived pretty much intact, providing an insight into the tastes of the time – from the sphinxes framing the doorway and the silk wrappings of the Chinese room through to the extravagant parquet floors, the ornate moulded plasterwork and the archducal room hung with the first hand-painted wallpaper ever to be imported into the country, in about 1760. There are also first-rate silver, ivory and porcelain pieces, as well as paintings by Frans Snyders, a friend of Rubens, and the Frenchman Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose romantic, idealized canvases epitomized early eighteenth-century aristocratic predilections. Neither is the castle simply a display case: it’s well cared for and has a lived-in, human feel, in part created by the arrangements of freshly picked flowers chosen to enhance the character of each room. The surrounding park straddles the River Dendre and holds several curiosities, notably a 24m-high artificial rock with subterranean corridors and a chalet-cum-hunting lodge on top – all to tickle the fancy of the archduchess. The ruins of a tenth-century tower, also in the park, must have pleased her risqué sensibilities too; it was reputed to have been the hideaway of a local villain, a certain Vignon who, disguised as a monk, robbed and ravished passing travellers.

 

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