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Find the best of countryside life on Flemish Brabant’s Bucket List

15:00 15/07/2018

The weather is holding out, and that’s reason alone to leave the city behind and head into the countryside surrounding Brussels. Expats who finally do this are actually amazed at the difference just a couple of kilometres makes.

This is why Flemish Brabant launched its already popular Bucket List earlier this year. It’s specifically designed for expats – full of ideas for how to spend a lovely day in fields and forests within biking distance of Grand’Place.

Nothing could be easier, for instance, than cycling or taking tram 44 to Tervuren, where a breathtaking new open-air installation is on view until 11 November. That is the date of the centenary of the end of the First World War, and “Maaiveld”, or “Ground Level”, is a poignant memorial in the months leading up to it.

Free to access on the grounds of the renovated army barracks next to the enormous Tervuren Park, “Maaiveld” is made up of two walls of tree trunks stacked on top of each other. Each one has a large painting of a poppy on its base.

Visitors walk through the installation, surrounded by this veritable trench of poppies. An extra touch makes the experience more interactive: Little metal tubes allow visitors to leave their own messages behind.

“Visitors can write their own messages of peace and hope and deposit them in the cylinders built into the trench,” says Monique Swinnen, head of tourism for Flemish Brabant. “This makes ‘Maaiveld’ not only a First World War memorial, but also a symbol of hope and peace. Because still today, sadly, war is a bitter reality for so many people.”

Treason, feuds and family rivalries

Another piece of very different Belgian history awaits at Gaasbeek Castle, also just a few kilometres from Brussels, though to the west this time. Gaasbeek is a district of Lennik, and most of it is taken up by the grounds of this absolutely breathtaking castle with a tumultuous 700-year history.

The castle’s ornamental garden, once only accessible by appointment, opened up to daily visitors last year, and late summer is the perfect time to visit, its pear trees heavy with fruit. The views from the garden, perched on a hill, are spectacular.

The castle itself is at the heart of a 49-hectare park, largely developed in the 17th century. “It has both impressive avenues and narrow, winding paths, as well as the tallest beech trees in Belgium,” says Joke Buyl of Gaasbeek. “Walking around, you come across several historical buildings that are connected to the castle, including St Gertrude’s chapel, a baroque pavilion, a neo-Gothic barn and a classical triumphal arc constructed in honour of Napoleon. There are also three large lakes.”

Gaasbeek Castle

Inside, the castle looks just as it did hundreds of years ago, home to an impressively large collection of artefacts. But there are also temporary exhibitions, and currently there are two: a multi-media look at the life and death of Peter Paul Rubens based on his marriage and death certificates – part of the castle’s collection – and Exquisite Corpses, acclaimed Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf’s quirky ode to some of the castle’s more colourful former residents.

Gaasbeek is also one of the most language-friendly tourist sites in Belgium. “We have audio guides that give the visitor in-depth information about the castle and the temporary exhibitions in Dutch, French, English and German,” explains Buyl. “Guided tours can be booked in these same languages.”

Wine tasting

Finally, the Bucket List points out that there are several vineyards in Flemish Brabant – a complete surprise to many expats, who had no idea that Belgium was a wine producer. “The southern slopes of the Houwaartse hill in Tielt-Winge combined with soil rich with ironstone makes this an ideal location for winemaking,” explains Sofie De Prins of Ten Gaerde vineyard in Begijnendijk, about 30 kilometres north-east of Brussels.

Ten Gaerde produces red, white and rose – though in small quantities, so the next red is “currently resting in the cellar,” she says. Ten Gaerde offers tours of Houwaartse hill that include a tasting for groups of 15 people or more. English is gladly spoken.

Ten Gaerde winery

But, most conveniently: On 18-19 August, all the wineries in the area are throwing open their doors for Sprankelend Hageland. “You can walk or bike from one domain to the next,” says De Prins. “At every one, you’ll get a tour or a talk and a tasting.”

Dozens more ideas for days or weekends away can be found on the Bucket List website. Right now, there’s even a contest: Tick off sites you’ve already visited and activities you’ve done and share your progress on social media to be entered for a chance to win a weekend break.

Keep up to date with everything going on in Flemish Brabant by signing up for the English-language newsletter

Photos from top: Lander Loeckx, Ekkow Photography/VisitFlanders, courtesy Ten Gaerde

Written by The Bulletin