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On tour: Eight unusual guided visits to discover more about Belgium

23:44 19/07/2017
A beer bus, a depressing urban safari and two hours of lies - a handful of guided tours let you explore the country from an often surreal perspective. This is Belgium, after all

Tell me lies

In the age of misinformation, here’s a tour that rises to the challenge. This completely made-up two-hour guided walk of the Belgian capital promises to take you to all the usual spots, including the Manneken Pis and the Grand Place, and give you not a single accurate fact about them. Conceived by Kamiel De Bruyne, a TV producer behind Sorry voor alles, the popular hidden camera show, Ceci n’est pas Bruxelles offers “historical fabrications galore” to show you a version of Brussels that doesn’t exist. Chocolate, beer and a waffle are included. Just don’t believe a word De Bruyne tells you. Seriously. €17/person.

Urban safari

Dubbed the “ugliest city in the world” by the readers of Volkskrant, Charleroi was once ruled by coal mines and steelworks, but today the industry is all but dead. Join local artist Nicolas Buissart on a five-hour exploration of abandoned metro stations, defunct factories and the most depressing street in Belgium, with stops by the house of serial killer Marc Dutroux and the canal where Rene Magritte’s mother committed suicide. By focusing on the bizarre and the disturbing, Buissart is trying to put his home town back on the tourist map, and the tour has attracted visitors from all over Europe. A word of warning: Buissart drives you around in his van, but the dilapidated vehicle has no seats, let alone seatbelts. €25/ person.

On the waterfront

Bruges may be the Venice of the North, but Brussels has a waterway of its own. Hoping to attract more people to the city’s waterside, the enthusiasts behind Brussels by Water have teamed up with a river tour operator to offer cruises along the Senne canal. During the two-hour ride, you’ll see how the banks are being transformed into a mix of skyscrapers, yacht clubs, housing projects, cafes and bars. In the evening, 
take the cruise towards Vilvoorde and relax on deck with an aperitif and snacks, as the guide tells you about the history of the area. Fancy a longer ride? River Tours organises cruises between Antwerp and Brussels that begin with a guided walk of either city. Cost varies according to tour.

Dark days

Mechelen is praised for its openness to migrants – two years ago it even asked the government to send more refugees its way – but there were times when the city experienced darker days. A solemn statute in the middle of Ontvoeringsplein, north of the centre, honours the thousands of forced labourers who were taken to Germany during World War One. The nearby Kazerne Dossin Memorial research centre has been doing commendable work documenting the city’s 25,000 Holocaust victims; an award-winning museum on the persecution of Jews and Roma in Belgium opened on the site in 2012. A guided walk explores these and many other episodes in Mechelen’s history, and puts the city’s astonishing social transformation into context. €75/group.

Beer bus

What better way to indulge in Belgian beer than a glass at a time on board a vintage bus from the 1960s? The journey takes about three hours, with visits to the city centre, Anderlecht, Schaerbeek and the EU quarter. At each stop, you get to try a beer from a local microbrewery, while the guide tells you about the neighbourhood’s history. €45/person (€40 in a group).

Not for the squeamish

Rumour has it that kebab shops in Brussels used to sell hamburgers made of mealworms. Forget the run-of-the-mill walks around the historic centre, this guided tour is all about the lesser-known mysteries and legends that form the modern folklore of the Belgian capital. Your guide, Aurore Van de Winkel, takes you through the darker narratives of the city – from the frightening and disgusting to the funny and unexpected – and explains how and why these legends are formed. It’s the Brussels you won’t find in a guidebook. Not recommended for the squeamish, or children under 12. €12/person.

The walls can talk

With street art becoming an increasingly accepted form of art, Antwerp’s walls have become a living gallery. Tim Marschang, who goes by the name Tim Streetantwerpenaar, started a series of guided walks last year to showcase the changing face of his city. The two-hour crawl begins at Berchem station, where a local artist used nearly 800 square metres of wall as his personal canvas, and ends in the industrial Krugerstraat, the site of an annual festival that brings together street artists from all over the world. Marschang has also created an online map that charts the most interesting sights and an app, should you choose to go it alone. €12/person.

The runaround

Molenbeek doesn’t get the best press these days, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Explore a different side of the neighbourhood at speed, with a jog organised by the non-profit City Runs. Each run is about 11 to 13km, but inexperienced joggers are welcome as well. The guide makes frequent stops to tell you about the different aspects of Molenbeek’s history, including its castle, city gardens and the canal district. You’ll also learn about the changes taking place in this vibrant, up-and-coming neighbourhood. Organised daily, but reserve at least 48 hours in advance. €24/person.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin Summer 2017. Pick up a copy in newsagents now, browse the magazine here or subscribe today...

Written by Bartosz Brzezinski