Hands up all those who have previously heard of Geraardsbergen. No? Me either. Yet, having been granted its town charter in 1068, Geraardsbergen lays claim to the title of the oldest town in Flanders. More than that though, this town also defiantly lays claim to having the oldest Manneken Pis statue in Belgium – and therefore the world – dating to 1459. It’s a claim that is contested by the good folk of Brussels.
They say that the Manneken Pis found close to Brussels’ Grand Place is the original, while the one found in Geraardsbergen Markt is merely a copy bequeathed to the town by Brussels in 1745. The original is said to have been stolen by English soldiers, later found in Geraardsbergen but returned to Brussels. There you have it, Belgium, the country with an ongoing dispute for the honour of having the oldest urinating child statue.
It was the discovery of this other, possibly older, Manneken Pis that brought me early one Saturday morning to this East Flanders town. It’s a small place and I wasn’t expecting much. A pleasant day spent discovering the charms of Geraardsbergen, left me feeling very warmly disposed towards it and its people. Come for the urinating child, stay for the history, beautiful countryside and friendly townsfolk.
There is another reason to visit this town of just over 30,000 people, and that is tied to the Flemish love of cycling. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, or Wall of Geraardsbergen, is an epic climb up the 110-metre high Oudenberg hill, accessed by a steep cobblestone road up which cyclists competing in the Tour of Flanders have to climb. At the top is a small, picturesque chapel dating from the 13th century.
A walk up the Muur is challenging enough, I wouldn’t fancy cycling these cobbles. The vast sweeping views were worth it though. I descended to Abdijpark, a pretty green space once the grounds of the former Sint-Adriaan Abbey, dating from 1506. The Abbey is now a cultural centre where I met a nice woman setting up a barbecue hosted by the Workers’ Party of Belgium, one of the few fully national parties.
We chatted for a while and she invited me to come back later once the party got going. I wandered down steep streets until I reached the main square and the original/imposter Manneken Pis. The statue and fountain are attached to the 12th century, but destroyed and rebuilt several times, Town Hall, in front of which is the Marbol, a 15th century fountain. Across the square is the imposing 12th century Church of Saint Bartholomew.
Within this small space are most of the historic sights of the town. I went to the small ‘t Groot Kaffee on the square and ordered a beer and some lunch. The friendly owner came over for a chat to pass the time of day. By this time quite a few cyclists were showing up having just done the Muur. Afterwards, I set off for a walk along the slow moving RIver Dender.
I strolled through the town and then out into the lush green countryside of what is called the Flemish Ardennes. The river trail goes for a long way and I walked for an hour before looping back to town. I had one final thing to do before leaving, and it’s something that can only be done in Geraardsbergen: eat a mattentaart. This sweet cake is a cultural icon in these parts, and is a must if you’re in town.
Just off the main square is De Lekkerbek, where mattentaarts of various sizes are baked fresh daily. Curdled milk is mixed with eggs and sugar, before being encased in puff pastry and baked until golden. Crunchy on the outside, the interior is light and moist. I bought two smallish cakes and sat on the riverbank to eat one. The other I’d planned to take home for later, alas it didn’t survive the train journey.