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Cast-iron classics: Delve into Belgium’s rich industrial past

C Mine
00:48 01/05/2021
Belgium has played a leading role in all manner of industries, from textiles to coal mining, and remnants of these trades are proudly preserved around the country

One of Flanders’ most successful repurposing projects is C-Mine (pictured above), the former Genk coal mine transformed into an event centre and hub for the creative industries. It’s a protected historical site with much of the industrial infrastructure intact. The C-Mine Expedition takes visitors through underground tunnels and stories from mining history. There are also exhibitions as well as theatre and concerts.

Tour & Taxis, a transformed industrial site on the eastern border of Molenbeek, features century-old warehouses, a large park, a collective gardening project, a cafe and more. Starting this summer, a new pedestrian bridge will further connect the popular hangout and event location with the city centre.

Tobacco has been cultivated in the Semois valley since at least the 16th century, and you can explore the tobacco fields thanks to a dedicated route divided into two signposted circuits of 60km and 70km. Both start in the village of Alle, with a guidebook available for €2. Learn how tobacco was at the centre of a major cross-border contraband business with neighbouring France.

Plantin Moretus Museum

The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp is in the 16th-century home and bookbinding and printing press belonging to Christophe Plantin and his son-in-law Jan Moretus. Aside from providing a fascinating history of one of Europe’s oldest printers, the architectural heritage is hard to beat.

La Fonderie, once home to a foundry that manufactured the gates of New York Zoo, now hosts a museum dedicated to the history of labour. It’s situated in the heart of “Little Manchester”, Brussels’ former industrial powerhouse, and offers guided tours in the surrounding areas, linking its history with the current urban reality.

Wallonia played a pioneering role in the industrial revolution that shaped 19th- and 20th-century Europe; its former heartland stretches from Mons to Liège, with many sites in the black country around Charleroi. They include former coal mine Bois du Cazier, a testament to the region’s coal trade and a memorial to the 262 miners who died in a disaster here in 1956.

Grand Hornu (c) WBT/Ricardo De La Riva

With its neoclassic architecture, the former colliery Grand-Hornu, near Mons, was one of the finest 19th-century miners’ villages. Now the Unesco site harbours two renowned contemporary art and design museums, MACS and CID, plus an upmarket restaurant, numerous industrial relics and summer terrace.

Walk in the footsteps of miners when you descend the shaft of Blégny-Mine, near Liège, on a two-hour visit of the colliery (children must be at least 1m tall to join in). One of four authentic coal mines accessible to visitors, the Unesco-recognised site offers a fascinating insight into the dangerous and difficult working conditions experienced by miners.

Particularly in Flemish cities, look out for cloth halls – medieval commercial markets that are remnants of Belgium’s once world-renowned textile trade. Many have undergone major restoration and transformation, such as the one in Ypres, now housing the In Flanders Fields Museum, or the flamboyantly gothic structure in Ghent. In Tournai, the cloth hall in the Grand Place has been successively restored since its original 13th-century wooden structure.

Industry museum, Ghent (c) Geertivp/Wikimedia

Ghent’s museum dedicated to industries gone by is, appropriately, housed in a cotton mill built in 1905. Along with the permanent collection are temporary exhibitions, with the photo exhibition Alexander Dumarey: Cathedrals of Industry on view this summer. There are also activities for kids, nocturnes, a cafe and a shop.

The Permeke is the hub of Antwerp’s library system, and it happens to be housed in a 1920s Art Deco Ford garage. The building is protected, and the library has a cafe and an auditorium that hosts events. Even if you don’t need to borrow anything, it’s a great place to nose about and spend some quiet time reading, thinking or daydreaming.

The Unesco world heritage site Bois du Luc is a preserved “model village”: a self-contained community for miners and their families, now transformed into an eco-museum. Walk around the exceptional site close to La Louvière and learn about working and living conditions.

Also on the Unesco heritage list are the unique hydraulic boat lifts of the Canal du Centre, which soar above the surrounding Hainaut countryside. The site welcomes tourists, offering museums, boat trips and other activities.

More from The Bulletin's summer travel guide

  1. Walk this way: Discover Belgium on foot
  2. Get your green fix at our favourite parks, woodlands and gardens
  3. Top spots for spectacular scenery
  4. The best culture this summer is outside
  5. Monuments and memorials to remember the fallen
  6. Delve into Belgium’s rich industrial past
  7. Local food at its finest
  8. Come on in, the water’s lovely
  9. The finest spots for a summer apero
  10. Big days out for all the family
  11. Seven cycling experiences to discover
  12. Top heritage sites for a fine day out
  13. Don't miss out this summer thanks to our agenda of events in Belgium
Written by The Bulletin