You don’t need to be a card sharp to enjoy a visit to the ancient town of Turnhout, but it helps. There are so many reasons to spend a day or two in this pleasant Flemish town close to the Dutch border: whether the 12th century castle, formerly the home of the Dukes of Brabant; the utterly gorgeous 14th century Begijnhof; the magnificent 13th century Sint-Pieterskerk that dominates the vast open space of the Grote Markt; or even De Penge, the best bar in town serving home brewed beers.
Without doubt though, the most compelling attraction in town is the Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart, or National Playing Card Museum. It’s no coincidence that Turnhout is the home to Cartamundi, one of the world’s leading playing card manufacturers. The town’s association with card games goes back to the end of the 18th century, when paper production and printing became major industries in the town.
Turnhout became a major book printing centre, and is still famous as a place of creative innovation in graphic arts, but it is now forever known as one of the world’s largest (and probably foremost) producers of playing cards. The Nationaal Museum van de Speelkaart tells that unique story. Since printing became the backbone of the local economy, it’s fitting that the museum is housed in an old printing factory.
So while you can see original metal printers, and the museum has an illuminating set of films about the paper and playing cards industry, there’s also an original and still operational steam engine that once powered the printing machines. It’s a really great museum, with very welcoming staff, that is definitely worth a visit. I’d made a beeline for it when I arrived in town, afterwards I went to check out the Grote Markt.
The centrepiece of the Grote Markt is the hulking Sint-Pieterskerk. A huge building that began life in the 13th century, it has had many additions over the centuries and comes with a peculiar legend attached to it. One day in the 17th century, the good folk of Turnhout saw smoke rising from the church tower. Fearing the worst, people rushed to put out the fire.
It was then that they discovered the ‘smoke’ was in fact a swarm of mosquitoes. This incident was seized upon by local rivals who nicknamed people of Turnhout, ‘mosquito extinguishers’. Hardly the harshest of burns, until you see the word in Dutch: ‘muggenblussers’. No one wants to be called a ‘muggenblusser’. I made a quick visit to the church (no mosquitoes were seen) then grabbed a seat at a cafe to do some people watching.
Nearby is the moated castle, the former home of the Dukes of Brabant. It’s a pretty building in a picturesque setting. Today, it’s used as the court house and not open to the public – unless you’ve broken the law. Just behind the castle is a large cultural centre with a shady park and a nice cafe with outdoor seating. Ominously for any visitors to the court house, the town prison is also on this square.
Turnhout’s most extraordinary sight, the utterly gorgeous Begijnhof dating from at least the early 14th century, is nearby. These communities, almost exclusively of women who lived an ascetic but lay religious life behind the high walls, began in Liege and spread across modern day Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. I’ve visited several of them, but Turnhout Begijnhof is one of the most beautiful.
Walking through the gates is like leaving the world behind, the sense of calm and serenity was palpable. A long, elongated garden lined with pretty houses leads past several shrines to a church and square where there’s a good museum. The Begijnhof was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998, four years before the last begijn died in 2002. At its height, 370 women lived in this magnificent ‘town within a town’.