Grand past and great future
You don't have to head to the Loire for magnificent castles, there are some wonderful ones right here in the Scheldt valley. The Scheldt castles bear witness to a grand past and remarkable future. Each tells its own story, yet they are inextricably linked.
The Scheldt has been of strategic importance for as long as we can remember. Over time, many fortresses and castles were built to protect the prosperous region around it. So where better to begin a visit to the Scheldt valley than at one of these international gates to the Rivierpark Scheldevallei: Wissekerke Castle in Bazel, D’Ursel Castle in Hingene, Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde Castle in Bornem, Laarne Castle or the Cloth Hall and Town hall in Dendermonde.
Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde Castle
An an old meander of the Scheldt and amidst Bornem's nature lies a real fairytale castle. Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde Castle is a feast for the eye. The drive alone is worth the effort: the hundred metres long avenue with majestic trees already gives away the fact there is something beautiful hidden at the end. And that's right, because in the middle of beautiful park there is a castle like the ones appearing in a fairytale: a magnificent historic building with a large bridge and gatekeepers lodges, towers and a real moat.
Bornem Castle is still home to John II de Marnix, the 14th count of Bornem and 54th castle lord. However, parts of the castle are also open to the public, allowing visitors te see beautifully preserved 18th-century rooms and the world's largest private collection of engravings by Pieter Breughel the Elder. In one of the renovated hallways you learn the life story of Philips de Marnix de Sainte Aldegonde (1540-1598) – forefather of the present earl and right hand man to William of Orange. As external mayor of Antwerp, he stayed in Het Steen on the Scheldt in 1585 during the tumultuous religious battle. Philips Marnix is also believed to have written the Wilhelmus (the Dutch national anthem).
The visitor centre in the old coach house immerses you in the castle's astonishing history and its remarkable residents. The castle estate as an ecosystem, the importance of the surrounding nature and the river Scheldt are also given plenty of attention in the permanent exhibition.
Near the castle lies Bornem Abbey, and this too is worth a visit. It was founded in 1603 by Pedro Coloma, a Spanish officer who also bought Bornem Castle after the fall of Antwerp and commissioned its restoration. These days, the abbey is a public-private project. On the ground floor there is a museum, where visitors receive more information about the history of the abbey and other pieces of patrimony in Bornem. In the walled abbey park you can also enjoy a picnic in the peace and quiet. The permanent exhibition in the public area of the abbey reveals the origins of the abbey and the life of English Dominicans and the Cistercians. The absolute showpiece is the historical library with thousands of wordly and religious scriptures, which were recently archived and restored with heavenly patience.
Laarne Castle is one of the most beautiful and best-kept fortified water castles in the country. The first stone was laid more than 700 years ago, and in the course of the centuries the castle has been neither entirely destroyed nor fully renewed. There was plenty of building on though. If you take a good look you can recognise the various construction styles from all the different periods: along the front, Laarne Castle is a fine example of a renaissance castle, at the back looms the authentic fortified Medieval stronghold. And can you spot the original imposing square donjon tower?
Inside you expect to bump into the lord of the castle at any moment. The castle still oozes the grandeur of the seventeenth century, with its remarkable furnishings. Exceptional furniture, wall tapestries, paintings and the silver collection from Claude D’Allemagne which is known across Europe all ensure an unforgettable visit. The clever movie guide HEKSEN! (witches) reinforces the impression that someone is still living in the castle. With a tablet as your guide you explore all the rooms from top to bottom: the lounges, kitchen knights hall, prison cells… Priest Jan Schatteman and cleaning lady Josyne join you in diving into the exciting history of this castle. The theme throughout their story? The witch hunts! No surprise, as the castle lord was once the judge of Laarne. And those accused of witchcraft appeared before him in the court. You can also get a glimpse of the prison cells and torture room.
In addition to the movie guide, there are active routes for children of all ages: infants follow a trail to track down hidden gnomes, while older children can do the photo trail or help witch Heintje Heks find the key to the silver room. Did you know that Laarne is still known as the witches community? For example, there is a witches guild, where you can sample a witches brew. Those who still fancy a walk after their dose of castle culture can enjoy the varied landscape at the Kalkense Meersen, a beautiful district within Rivierpark Scheldevallei. Departing from the castle there is a route designed especially for children, the Eekhoorntjes (Squirrel) route, which ends up at Prullenbos with its large playground.
For more than 400 years Hingene Castle was the favourite summer residence of the noble D’Ursel family. Each summer, the earl took his family and servants to his splendid country residence. Yet in the mid-sixteenth century, the castle was nothing more than a homestead and was known as ‘het steyne huys’ (the stone house). The owner at the time was the landlord of the Land of Bornem. Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did Hingene Castle acquire its classicist characteristics. It is now owned by the province of Antwerp. Following a thorough restoration of the castle, gardens and more remote De Notelaer pavilion, D’Ursel Castle now opens its doors to the public during special events. Those visiting the castle will be astonished by the amazing stucco decoration, painted cotton wall hangings and marble floors. Don't forget to take a look in the park around the castle, which is beautiful in every season. For example, with a walking brochure you are guided by the duke or you can try to escape from an exciting escape game in the park.
Wissekerke Castle in Bazel was also once a real moated castle, and it was first mentioned as early as the tenth century. Later the noble Vilain XIIII family transformed the fort into a grand neo-Gothic castle, complete with gatehouse in neo-Tudor style. Most of the interiors have been preserved. The Egyptian room and lounge in empire style capture the imagination in particular. Wissekerke Castle is currently undergoing major restoration and is closed to the public, however, it is still worth visiting the surrounding park and its authentic blue wrought iron bridge and round dovecot. And those taking a look just outside the castle domain will be impressed by the 600-metre avenue with its many majestic beech trees. A beautiful place to walk or cycle, or simply enjoy the rustle of leaves.
Cloth Hall Dendermonde
The Cloth Hall and Town Hall in Dendermonde may first appear to be the black sheep in this list. Yet nothing could be further from the truth: on the site where we now see this 14th-century town hall and belfry, stood a fortress right from the 9th century. In 1999, UNESCO put the Belfry on its list of world heritage.
The Cloth Hall has a turbulent history and the building was largely destroyed during the First World War. That's when the Belfry tower was hit head on by a missile. The damage caused inside by the tumbling bells of the carillon has never been repaired. Which is why you can look from the ground right up to the top of the building!
Not only the ground floor is impressive. On the other floors you also learn more about the fascinating history of the town hall. On the first floor you'll find the town's authentic treasury – complete with old archive chest – and on the fourth floor there's the clock tower and town clock. The fifth floor accommodates the town's restored carillon. In the visitor centre in the Town Hall you'll be given more information about the Belfry, Cloth Hall and Dendermonde's history as a fortified town. With photos, texts, maps and audio and video fragments you discover all about the past and present of the town. If you like, you can rent an audio guide in the visitor centre and explore the building, while you hear the exciting town (hi)story.
Want some more?
Would you like to enjoy these castles and get a hearty helping of history? Discover the most beautiful spots with multi-day cycling route. For example, the Scheldt route – one of the Flemish Icoon cycling routes – takes you along the banks of the Scheldt, for example, from Ghent to Dendermonde and Antwerp.
Put your feet up in the evening after each day of cycling in the welcoming accommodation on offer in the region. Those looking for a picturesque place to stay with a hearty helping of nature and castle culture will feel at home in B&B Villa Emma in Ghent. During the Castle arrangement you get a taste of all the beauty on offer in Scheldeland and, of course, you visit magnificent castles. No need to worry about your luggage either, since your bags will be neatly delivered to your next accommodation thanks to this extra service.
You can also book a multi-day cycling arrangement at B&B Adamas in Dendermonde that will take you to all kinds of wonderful places. And here too, they will transport your luggage to your next address. Carefree cycling!
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