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Face the strange: 12 of Belgium's more offbeat offerings
Get lost in a town with dozens of border crossings, wander through a vast rose garden, or sleep in a railway carriage. Belgium has no end of strange, secret places that not so many people know about. These 12 are worth checking out next time you have a free weekend.
The secret museum
The ruins of four great palaces stand in the grounds of Mariemont. Almost nothing has survived apart from some romantic ruins and a staircase going nowhere. But it’s still worth visiting the almost unknown Mariemont Museum created by the fabulously rich industrialist Raoul Warocqué. Here you find Classical antiques, Tournai tapestries and Chinese vases.
Step by step
It’s a long heave to the top. The 373 steps of the Montagne de Bueren climb from Liège’s picturesque old town to the citadel. On the way up, you might be tempted to explore old lanes that run along the hillside, like the lovely Impasse des Ursulines. But don’t give up. The view from the top is spectacular.
A walk to remember
The ancient walls of Ypres have been rebuilt and fortified over many centuries. They have now been turned into a walking trail that takes in a war cemetery, underground fortifications, the Menin Gate war memorial and a new craft brewery.
St Anthony and the fish
A priest in the Ardennes village of Crupet created an eccentric folly dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. Built in 1903 from stone and concrete, the towering crag rises above the little village. When you explore further, you find gaudily painted statues of humans and animals recreating scenes from Anthony’s life, including an odd episode when he preached to fish.
Knowledge is power
Located in a former department store in Mons, the Mundaneum contains a vast collection of newspapers, index cards, posters, tickets, catalogues and programmes. The collection was begun in the early 20th century by the Belgian lawyer and pacifist Paul Otlet, who aimed to gather all the world’s knowledge in a single vast collection. After years of neglect, it was moved to Mons in 1998 and, with funding from Google, rebranded as the paper internet.
Two town halls, two post offices, two fire stations. The town of Baarle Hertog/Nassau has two of everything. That’s because it’s part Dutch and part Belgian. It has hundreds of border crossings, because it’s made up of 21 tiny plots of Belgian territory, including a pub with the national border running through the middle and a house with one room in Belgium and the other in the Netherlands. Even the local postmen are confused, which is why each house has a flag attached to show whether it is Dutch or Belgian.
A former chapel in Mons has been turned into one of the country’s strangest hotels. Each of the rooms at Dream Hotel is a loving homage to Belgian icons, from the blue comic-book Smurfs to bowler-hat-obsessed Magritte. But maybe the strangest room to spend the night is dedicated to Binche Carnival, with bedside tables made from drums and a carpet that resembles a confetti-strewn cobbled street.
No country on earth has such a concentration of military cemeteries as Belgium. All of them are carefully maintained, no matter who lies buried there. The German military cemetery at Vladslo is one of the most impressive, containing memorial stones with the names of thousands of young Germans who died in World War One. Once they were the enemy, but now they are simply victims of war.
Carved by the Brussels sculptor Jef Lambeaux, the Human Passions frieze features dozens of naked bodies in an orgy of white marble. This proved too much for Belgian sensitivities and the entrance to the temple that houses it in Cinquantenaire Park was boarded up just three days after it opened in 1899. Until recently it was strictly closed to the public, but visitors are now admitted for a few hours on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Otherwise you can peer through the keyhole for a glimpse of the forbidden art.
How does your garden grow?
One of the largest rose gardens in Europe is in the grounds of Coloma castle, just outside Brussels. More than 66,000 roses have been planted here, including ancient specimens and rare varieties from all over the world.
We’ll drink to this
Some say this is the world’s best beer. It’s brewed by Cistercian monks in an abbey close to the little town of Watou. A monk dressed in white robes sells the beer from a small hatch outside the abbey. But the order flatly refuses to turn the brewery into a business, which makes it all the more special.
This spectacular new museum for train spotters is in Schaerbeek’s handsome old railway station. You can climb on board a steam locomotive, peer inside a luxurious sleeping car and inspect nostalgic uniforms. And if you’re truly besotted with trains, you can sleep in a former railway couchette in the quirky Train Hostel.
This article first appeared in ING Expat Time