Let there be light: Six picture-perfect abbeys and churches in the green belt
There’s nothing like coming across a majestic abbey hidden away in the countryside or a charming stone church in a sleepy village. Sometimes you’re content with just enjoying the view from the road, but sometimes you can’t resist trying the door.
The good news is you don’t have to wait to happen upon them: Here are some of our favourite abbeys and churches in the green belt around Brussels.
This is one of Flemish Brabant’s best-kept secrets: An 18th-century neo-classicist abbey in an idyllic garden setting at the edge of the protected Warande forest. It’s only open to visitors by reservation, so it’s off the radar of most travellers. But it’s well worth booking a slot to get a tour of the inside, which can be done in English on request. Kortenberg Abbey (pictured above) is also a retreat centre and hostel. The simple rooms with shared bath are very inexpensive. Should you just want to get a glimpse of the abbey from outside, you can plan a cycle route around Kortenberg (stick the name of the town in the search bar) and take a quick detour over to the abbey. Tour: email@example.com
Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Church, Roosdaal
Now part of Roosdaal, the hamlet that is home to this church is called Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Lombeek (Our Lady of Lombeek) as it was once a popular pilgrimage site. This called for a cathedral-like structure, so the Onze-Lieve-Vrouw Church was built in the 13th century. Besides being an excellent example of early Gothic architecture, it houses a fantastic wooden reredos, with 120 figures telling the story of Mary in nine scenes. Outside of services, it is only open during the Open Door Days, the first four Sundays of every August.
Sint-Martinus Basilica, Halle
If you’ve never taken the quick train ride to Halle, don’t hesitate because the Sint-Martinus Basilica is one of Belgium’s most beautiful churches. Light stone, arched ceilings and unique stained-glass windows are highlights of this masterpiece of the Brabant Gothic style. There is a treasury room to visit and a number of excellent European works of art. One of the highlights is the ‘Black Madonna’ statue from 1250. Legend has it that she caught cannon balls in her cloak, thus saving the city from a siege. The cannon balls are here, too. Halle makes it easy to visit its basilica; it’s open every day of the week.
Benedictine monks have been living in Affligem Abbey off and on for nearly 1,000 years. Like most medieval abbeys in Europe, its history is complex, with fire, occupation and war destroying parts of it in turn. Much of the current abbey dates from the 18th century. The abbey itself is not open to visitors, but the church and part of the gardens are freely accessible. There is also a café, which serves the beer and cheese that bears the abbey’s name. The café is currently between owners and temporarily closed. To get the most out of a visit to Affligem Abbey, just off the N9 between Asse and Aalst, book a tour with the city. It includes a beer and cheese tasting. Tour: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beautiful Grimbergen Abbey, just over the border with Brussels, is also associated with beer. Like Affligem, the monks no longer make the original, well-known Grimbergen beer, but the abbey opened a micro-brewery just last year. It is now producing small amounts of alternative recipes bearing the name Grimbergen. It isn’t easy to get a hold of, but you can order it at the Fenikshof Brasserie attached to the abbey. As for the abbey, which was established in the 12th century, the lives of the Norbertine monks have been disrupted many times over. Their buildings also had to be rebuilt in the 18th century. The adjoining Sint-Servaas basilica dates from the 17th-century and is well worth a visit. The rest of the abbey is not open to the public.
Sint-Pieters Church, Bertem
One of the oldest churches in Belgium, the Sint-Pieters Church in Bertem – about 10 kilometres northeast of Tervuren – was built in the first half of the 11th century. While most churches in Belgium tends towards the dark and sombre, Sint-Pieters is refreshingly light and cheerful, inside and out. A protected monument since the 1930s, it is the best-preserved example of the kind of Romanesque architecture that was popular in the region 900 years ago. Outside of services, the church is open to visitors every Sunday from 14.00 to 17.00 until the end of September.
About 1.5 kilometres southeast of Sint-Pieters Church is Sint-Verona Chapel, which is older still. Dating from 900, it has been renovated several times and now has the look of the version that existed in 1250. It is one of the first churches ever built in what is now Belgium. Services are held on Sundays, and visitors are welcome outside of that by appointment only.
Photos, from top: Courtesy Kortenberg Abbey, courtesy City of Halle, ©EmDee/Wikipedia