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Nestled between Germany and France, the small country of Belgium has every reason to be confident in its cultural offerings. From Medieval fairytale settings to vast nature reserves and eerie ghost towns, here are the best places to visit in Belgium.
Often exalted as the father of the art nouveau movement, Victor Horta has left Brussels dotted with innovative townhouses that changed the face of late 19th-century architecture in the West. If you’re short on time and have to choose between his four Unesco-labelled townhouses, the Horta Museum honours the artist in his former home and workshop, the Maison & Atelier Horta in the Brussels suburb of Saint-Gilles, while Unesco describes the Hotel Solvay in central Brussels as “the most ambitious and spectacular” of his work in the art nouveau period.
Since the Beaufort Project started, more and more strange-looking sculptures have popped up in Belgium’s coastal towns. From Arne Quinze’s giant, indented orange titans (Rock Strangers) in Ostend, to Jan Fabre’s self-portrait that has him riding a massive bronze turtle (Searching for Utopia) in Nieuwpoort, the exceptional pieces that earned a permanent spot at the end of the public art triennial make the country’s seaside a more exciting place to explore.
Tiny Durbuy, a cheery storybook town on the banks of the Ourthe River in the forested Ardennes region, is one of the cutest places to visit in Belgium. This “smallest city in the world” with a population of around 11,300, is an ideal base for long hikes or kayaking trips. The artisan jam factory and quirky topiary park can’t help but up the quirky factor considerably.
In a natural no-man’s-land straddling the Belgian-German border, the High Fens nature reserve, with its mysterious moors and rare wildlife, makes for a hiker’s dream. Be on the lookout for wild boar, the hen harrier bird, and the protected black grouse. The fens are closed during droughts, when there is a high risk of fire.
In the small Walloon town of Binche, clown-like figures known as “Gilles”, which are meant to ward off evil spirits, have been celebrating Mardi Gras by parading around town in ostrich plume hats and pelting oranges at the crowd (don’t throw them back – they’re considered good luck) for as long as memory serves.
An accidental ghost town in the shadows of a nuclear power plant – and therefore a graffiti haven – the village of Doel in East Flanders was long ago slated for demolition to expand the harbour of Antwerp, but protests have stopped this happening so far, and the town is in limbo. It has become an unofficial urban canvas for Belgian and international street artists in which to go hog-wild. Fittingly, seeing as Doel looks like it’s right out of a post-apocalyptic film, there is a dwindling population of rebel inhabitants who refuse to leave.
Talking about urban explorers’ pilgrimages, the abandoned IM power plant of Charleroi is one for the books. Entering its sky-high cooling tower, which was built in 1921, and looking up from its moss-covered bowels is enough to send shivers down the spine. Security guards are often on-site to prevent explorers from entering the aging construction, though, as safety can’t be guaranteed.