Hasselt and Tongeren are two delightful Flemish cities in the province of Limburg, both great destinations for a long weekend break, either individually or combined, as The Foody Traveller discovered.
It’s easy to get to Hasselt and Tongeren. Hop onto an early morning Eurostar train from London’s St Pancras station and within a couple of hours you are in Brussels. It’s an easy platform change and from there the journey to Hasselt takes about an hour and a quarter, or about half an hour more to Tongeren.
Having taken the 9am Eurostar to Brussels we were sitting having lunch a few hours later at Het Smaaksalo in Hasselt. With all its wood and rich bronze and gold colours and comforting ambience the restaurant/brasserie reminded me somewhat of a Viennese-style cafe. And, we have to say, a very good lunch it was too. Smaaksalon, Maastrichterstraat 61, www.smaaksalon.be
Hasselt developed thanks to its location on a trade route running from Cologne to Bruges, and can justifiably call itself the Capital of Taste. With its stylish shops, stunning fashion museum, reputation for Jenever (gin), excellent restaurants plus the delicious Boon chocolate shop it most certainly lives up to the name.
Unfortunately the Jenever museum was shut for renovation, though we understand it is due to reopen this September (2014), but at least we were staying in a converted gin distillery – the very comfortable De Groene Hendrickx Hotel . In the 1840s there were over 20 jenever distilleries in town.
We gave the hotel top marks for its superb breakfast – the long bar covered with everything a breakfast lover could possibly wish for, plus eggs cooked to order. De Groene Hendrrickx Hotel, Zuivelmarkt 25, 3500 Hasselt. Tel: +32 11 28 82 10.
The Fashion Museum, housed in a former convent, however was open. It is stunning; beautifully laid out with changing exhibitions. The one we saw depicted fashion from the 18th century to the present day including some fab designer clothes. I coveted an almost sheer black evening jacket.
Even on a wet and windy morning it is a city with great appeal, noted for its stylish shops and boutiques, many of them featuring upmarket fashions.
Whilst over the centuries it broke free of the constraints of its city walls, which no longer exist, at its heart is a small, chiefly pedestrianized, and attractive centre (a mere 800m from one gate to the next. Several medieval buildings are still in evidence.
I couldn’t work out why copper plaques were set in the pavements depicting a river and a hazel nut. The river, it turns out, represents the Helbeek, a tributary of the river Demer which provided the city’s clean water that was so necessary for the production of woollen goods and indeed Jenever; and the hazel nut – because Hasselt comes from an old word, meaning hazel wood.
It has two noted churches – St. Quintinuskerk, on the Grote Markt, and the Basilica of The Virga Jesse.
Also on a religious theme, outside the city is the very impressive Herkenrode Abbey. It dates back to the 12th century and was a convent for many centuries for nuns of the Cistercian Order. It has had a checkered, and at times violent, history which is retold today in a recently created visitor centre.
It was too wet for us to visit the highly acclaimed Japanese Garden so instead our feet took us into Paardsdmerstraat and to the Boon Chocolate Experience at number 13.
The building dates back some 270 years and in its time has also been a Chinese restaurant. Today it is a chocoholic’s idea of heaven.
In the front of the building is the shop, to the rear the wood-panelled tea/coffee lounge with its cream and gilt ceiling and to one side the kitchen/workshops where under the direction of Patrick Mertens pralines and other chocolate delights are created.
The lounge offers a wide array of treats including many different types of coffee, tea and hot chocolate accompanied by a couple of chocolates and a heavenly chocolate mousse.
Patrick goes one better than the majority of chocolatiers he even makes his own molds. This led him to create the fancy shapes, such as the chocolate flowers and high-heeled shoes that are on display in the shop, and to creating various corporate products.
For the last few years he has also made the huge chocolate Easter Eggs for Harrods, London, that feature in UK newspapers. www.thechocolateexperience.be
Dinner that night was as delicious as it was beautiful to look at, a charmingly-served meal at the excellent De Kwizien close by the Jenever Museum on Jeneverplein. Here Chef Wouter Van Hoof specialises in creating dishes from local, seasonal Limburg products in guests to indulge in fresh and creative dishes.
You can eat well in Hasselt and before moving on to Toringen we certainly managed a very good lunch upstairs in The Century restaurant on Leopoldplein. www.thecentury.be
Tongeren claims to be Belgium’s oldest city, and having toured the superb Gallo-Roman Museum and seen evidence of its Roman and pre-historic past, we have no intention of arguing! It’s a great museum, fun for all ages with exhibits beautifully displayed, fully justifying its 2011 European Museum of the Year award.
Sadly most of the city centre was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1677, a fire started by the troops of Louis XIV who had besieged it. Traces of the old Roman walls still exist. In Roman times the city was even larger than in medieval days. The walls evidently were massive some six metres high and two metres thick, extending over 4500 metres.
Our hotel, the Malpertuus, was actually a few kilometres away at Riemst (www.malpertuus.be). It was a pleasant drive into Tongeren through the pretty, gentle countryside passing the Genoels-Elderen wine estate and chateau – open to the public by the way.
In the city we climbed the Moerenpoort. It is the surviving tower of one of the six original gates built in the Middle Ages. The three floors are given over to a museum dedicated to military history. If you have the energy climb even further to the top of the tower. The reward is a bird’s eye view of the city, and indeed its picturesque beguinage.
A beginuage was where the beguines – women who dedicated their lives to God taking vows of poverty and chastity but not monastic vows – lived. Luckily Tongeren’s beguinage which dates from 1257 survived the Great Fire. In its heyday in the 17th century this particular village within a city was home to over 300 beguines. It is exquisite; a big old Lime tree at its heart with elegant red brick buildings leading away from it to the river Jeker and the Moeren Gate.
Don’t miss the delightful Beghina museum housed in a genuine beguine house of 1660. Creating the museum has been a labour of love for Lea and Johann Vanderborne the couple who set out to show how the women lived. On the top floor, up a steep, narrow wooden stairway, is a little visitor’s centre and in the basement a tiny café. Try the local beer. www.begijnhofmuseumtongeren.be
And for a really good dinner head for Bistro Bis in Hemelingenstraat. It is relaxed, fun and the cooking is great. www.bistrobis.be
But we were also in Tongeren for the Sunday morning antique and flea market. Get there when it opens at 6am for the best bargains – it closes at 13.00.
The market sprawls out on pavements and car parks, anywhere in fact where there is room to set up a stall.
Over 350 exhibitors selling anything from kitchenware to fine porcelain and jewellery are joined by some 40 antique shops; there are some good bargains there too.
We had lingered long in the market but luckily just had time for a quick, but again, very good lunch at De Bazilik in Kloosterstraat (www.bazilik.be) before heading back to Brussels and the 5.56 Eurostar departure for London.
Eurostar: Eurostar offers any Belgian station tickets from £79 return, with stations including Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and stations along the Belgian Coast. It operates up to nine daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels Midi and from there passengers can use their any Belgian station ticket to connect on to local services to their final destination. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 2hrs. www.eurostar.com
Travelodge Euston: If like me you live way outside London and have early morning or late night Eurostar departures and arrivals and are in need of somewhere convenient to stay we can recommend the Travelodge Euston, 1-11 Grafton Place , off Eversholt Street, London NW1 1DJ. The hotel is two minutes from Euston Station and an eight minute walk to St Pancras.
The staff were charming and many congratulations to Aurelia for her warm greeting when I checked in, and for taking the time to chat and make sure I had everything I needed. My room at the rear of the hotel was quiet; the bed very, very comfortable; the dark blue carpet (always difficult to keep clean) was without the merest trace of white fluff; and the little shower room spotlessly clean. My evening meal had been pre-made but was tasty and charmingly served. I now look no further for overnight accommodation in the St Pancras area. www.travelodge.co.uk
Bottoms up in Belgium
Bottoms up in Belgium, written by Alec Le Sueur, is a light heartedly serious account of his time spent in Belgium. For the Foody Traveller’s full review, please click here.