A trip back in time: Beautiful castles to explore in easy reach of Brussels
The landscape of Flemish Brabant is dotted with dozens of castles. Some welcome the public year-round, some open up for special occasions and others have been adapted to house atmospheric event centres and municipal offices. Renovated, repurposed or in ruins, each one offers a fascinating glimpse of the area’s history and makes for a great detour or family day out.
With its authentic moat, drawbridge and battlements, Beersel castle is straight out of the pages of a history book – and comic book fans might in fact recognise it from the Suske and Wiske strip De schat van Beersel (The Treasure of Beersel). It’s one of Belgium’s best-preserved examples of medieval military architecture, and a visit here immerses you in castle life through the ages.
Views over the surrounding countryside from the three restored towers are worth the climb, but uneven stone steps and narrow passages mean the upper floors are not easily accessible. The ticket price includes a smartphone audio tour and there’s a treasure hunt for children. Close by you’ll also find the traditional lambic breweries 3 Fonteinen and Oud Beersel, both of which offers tours and tastings.
The main attraction at Coloma castle (pictured below) in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw is its spectacular rose garden, with thousands of antique and modern varieties from around the world. The castle itself, dating back to the 1500s and fully restored, is today a cultural centre, with a restaurant open to the public in the old coach house and a rose museum in the tower. The garden is fully wheelchair-accessible.
The large and lovingly tended park at Groenenberg surrounds a castle built at the end of the 19th century. Its winding paths and extensive lawns are home to stunning floral collections and though the castle itself is private and can’t be visited, this is a beautiful spot to stroll, admire the scenery and enjoy the peace. You might even spot Brabant draft horses in the paddock. Entrance is free. Across the road, and sharing the car park, is Gaasbeek castle – it’s currently closed for major renovations but its fascinating museum garden and rolling parkland are still open and well worth a visit. When it reopens in 2023, visitors will once again be welcome to explore the buildings and admire the valuable collection of furniture, tapestries, paintings, gold and silverware, glass and sculptures.
Close to Grimbergen, the remains of the moated Prinsenkasteel (Princes’ castle) loom above the trees. This once mighty fortress was home to the lords of Grimbergen; it was later used as an ammunition depot by the Nazis and then fell into ruin when retreating German soldiers set it alight in 1944. Only the keep and a round corner tower remain, and they’re today under restoration. The castle’s former farmland and stables house the Museum of Old Techniques, a heritage centre split over three sites that demonstrates blacksmithing, stonemasonry, beekeeping and milling and has an exhibition on the castle’s 600-year history.
The 13th-century Leefdaal castle has been privately owned by the Counts of Liedekerke for 250 years, so you can’t peek inside. But you can enjoy the views of the remaining stone buildings while taking in the wooded surroundings, pond and water mill. A gentle signposted walk takes you past the castle: it follows the Voer valley to the hamlet of Sint Verona and its chapel, built around 900.
In Groot-Bijgaarden, the town’s castle is open to the public just once a year, for the spectacular Floralia event, when the 14-hectare park and greenhouses overflow with thousands upon thousands of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. Mark your diary: the next edition is scheduled to happen in April 2022.
Photos: Lander Loeckx