Belgium’s Limburg region suffered massively with the closure a few years back of Ford Genk. Up to 10,000 jobs were lost, directly and indirectly.
Before that, the closure of the region’s seven coal mines, the first as far back as the early 1960s, also hit the area particularly badly. But the good news is that the province, the easternmost of the country’s five Dutch-speaking regions, has bounced back and done so in real style.
There are lots of local innovative initiatives currently taking place across the whole province, such as the ongoing regeneration of a decaying old coal mine and the start of a four-year restoration of the famous Bokrijk open-air museum which marks its 60th anniversary this year.
The region is arguably best known for its cycle network – the best in the country by far – and cyclists might like to hear about the ambitious and yet-to-be-built “Fietsen door De Bomen” project which will see a raised path that puts cyclists among treetops.
These are just some of the many pleasant surprises that await in this slightly under-rated but terrific part of Belgium.
There are lots more though. Did you know, for instance, that Limburg is also home to the biggest sand box in Belgium? This can be found, almost hidden among the pine forest and lakes, at nearby Lommel.
Situated on top of 200 metres of sand and described as “Belgium’s Sahara”, here you’ll find some of the finest white sand in the world (it was used for the outside heat shields on the space shuttle in the 1980s and is even sold to Saudi Arabia).
Once a year, there’s even a “Day of Sand” event to commemorate the importance sand still has for the local economy. The preponderance of local sand also means the temperature here is normally up to five degrees higher than the rest of Belgium!
Retired primary schoolteacher Fred Kemps takes informative and entertaining guided tours through the forest (a protected nature reserve) and the “Sahara”. For great views, climb the 30m-high watching tower and don’t leave without paying a visit to Het GlazenHuis, a museum solely dedicated to glass (designed by the same artist behind Brussels’ restored Residence Palace) where you can watch intriguing glass blowing and which currently houses a fine exhibition of glass art.
You’re never short of something different to do in Limburg and another example is the donkey rides organised by Andrea Van Hoof at Ezelwandeling at Overpelt, located close to the Dutch border and which also serves terrific homemade ice cream.
One option is a 5km guided walk with the donkeys into the nearby forest. Special “trolleys” are available for the disabled and Andrea’s three very friendly donkeys (Tincan, adopted from a farm for abused donkeys, Ijoor and Donkey) also provide great therapy for children with autism. The donkeys can take up to 40kg on their backs and always have a rest day in between trips.
If the Belgian weather’s at its worst, an alternative (indoor) entertainment can be organised in the form of chocolate workshops run by a top master chocolatier who’ll demonstrate this fine art and help the kids make the famous Bosland praline. It’s fun as well as being educational.
This is one of 175 activities/tips/adventures listed in a super guide (helpfully available in English, German and French) produced by five very proactive tourism offices locally (Lommel, Neerpelt, Overpelt, Hamnt-Achel and Hechtel-Eksel).
Andrea also works closely with Ronny and Linda, a local couple who also provide wonderful picnics for the walks (and lots of other occasions too).
Ronny and Linda also run a very pleasant small bed and breakfast from their home which they have lovingly rebuilt in wood after it suffered severe fire damage under its previous owner some years ago.
This provides two bedrooms and a shared bathroom and makes for a great base to explore the whole region. The accommodation is excellent as are the magnificent breakfasts for which this very welcoming and friendly couple are renowned. There’s a “regular” or “luxury” breakfast/brunch from which to choose and so popular are they that Ronny actually delivers breakfasts to people living across an area of up to 20km.
Many of their bookings come via personal recommendations and this excellent B&B comes highly recommended.
Ronny, 49, works at a nearby military base and 58-year-old Linda, with her husband, has ploughed her heart and soul into the business since she underwent major back surgery. Their combined efforts were rightly recognised when their B&B, “Het Pleintje”, was voted runner-up (out of 450 entries) in the prestigious Belgium Hospitality Awards for 2017 (private hotels and B&B category). You’re guaranteed the warmest of receptions here.
Pleasant hospitality can also be found nearby at de Generaal, a traditional café/brasserie run by a local couple who have turned what used to be a bank into what’s known in Belgium a “brown bar”. They serve wholesome, pub-style dishes and a great range of Trappist beers. The burgers are particularly tasty, being based on an original American recipe. Commendably, owner Willy Kenis and his wife also help handicapped people locally by displaying their simple, but impressive artwork.
After a hearty meal you may feel the need for a bit of exercise and that can be found at CenterParcs, a top visitor attraction nearby which (among lots of other activities) boasts a great indoor pool where you can splash away in the rapids, hit the water slides or take a plunge off the diving board. For those who prefer to stay dry, there are indoor playgrounds with lots of adventures. Lommel is one of two vacation parks in Limburg run by the Dutch-founded company (the other’s at Peer) and you can also grab a nice light Italian meal at the on-site Noona’s (along with some very colourful service).
The region, once the poorest in Belgium but now arguably its most dynamic and thriving, also has lots to offer those of a historical bent. This includes the famous Bokrijk open-air museum in Genk which is currently undergoing a major facelift which will see its 120 historic buildings totally renovated by 2021.
One example is the ancient church, originally located in Peer but relocated, brick-by-brick, to Bokrijk. All its brick (and art) work is being lovingly restored so as to preserve the building for future generations.
Opened in 1958 (the same year as Belgium’s Expo), the “Restorations 120 by 2021″ aims to safeguard this fascinating site, which gives a glimpse of how we used to live, for the next 60 years. There’s also pottery and bread-making workshops (particularly great for the kids) in the “Kempen” quarter and a cosy café (St Gummarus), serving a great blonde beer of the same name and tasty dishes.
From Bokrijk you can also take a short bicycle tour that takes in the (now world-famous!) “Cycling through water” path and De Wijers nature reserve.
Another fabulous attraction fairly close-by is be-MINE at Beringen, which is an especially excellent example of urban regeneration.
Here you’ll walk on top of where a 7,000-strong workforce (mostly miners) used to toil away for up to ten hours a day in literally lung-busting conditions, some 800 metres below ground in temperatures of 33 degrees. This truly was a time when “coal was king” although it’s work few would want to do these days.
Local guides such as Ludo Mombers and Sylvain Maes, both very well informed and knowledgeable, will explain (in near-perfect English) the history of the whole place.
It’s where, for example, Sylvain’s miner father was set to work as a POW by the occupying Nazis during WW2.
Ludo recalls how his father, also a pitman, took him to Beringen mine (one of 7 in the region) for the first time as an eight-year-old and how the sight of dust-covered exhausted miners has stayed with him ever since.
The visit includes the underground mine simulation, Flemish Mining Museum (wonderful) and a trek up the 285 steps to the top of the “adventure mountain” built on one of two huge slagheaps here. There is also TODI, a very impressive diving centre, once part of the pit’s washing plant which is now filled with 6.5m litres of water and over 3,500 fish.
The freshwater is also used to cultivate some of the herbs used in the pleasant ground-floor brasserie.
The whole site is a massively impressive demonstration of how what was once a decaying eyesore can be revived and re-invented in a modern and innovative way.
After traipsing around this sprawling site you will have worked up an appetite and Limburg is certainly not short of great places to sate any hunger.
The strong Italian legacy connected to the province’s proud coal heritage (scores of Italians used to work in its mines) lives on in different ways and, in nearby Hasselt (good for shopping) there’s Guiliano, a popular eatery serving traditional Italian classics. The 275-seat restaurant even has a dish named after Bruno, its Italian-born owner (one of two he runs locally).
Another recommended place to eat, this time back in Lommel, is the delightful Restaurant Diana, run by Vital Dufour who specialises in using local products and ingredients. House specialities include ox tongue (rarely found on menus these days) and mussels. Vital’s mother Marie launched the business back in 1960 and, even today, the sprightly OAP is still a regular presence (just to keep an eye on things, he jokes).
This is a good year-round destination and events such as the Bosland Trail, a 100km walk over three days in September, mean there’s still plenty of reason to visit Limburg later this year.
Time magazine, of course, recently included “Cycling Through Water,” a sunken cycle bridge in Limburg, on its 2018 list of the “World’s Greatest Places”. Since it opened in April 2016, the bridge, which crosses one of the lakes dotting the Wijers in Bokrijk-Genk, has attracted an estimated 500,000 cyclists.
Like many locals, Limburg tourism president Igor Philtjens says he was amazed by Time’s citation of its newest attraction.
But, really, this greenest (and friendliest) of Belgian provinces has so much to offer that it should never really fail to surprise.