Like so many other surprising places in Belgium, Oudenaarde is a small town with a big history. I doubt that I’m alone in never having heard of a place that sits in the backwaters of East Flanders and, when I did ‘discover’ Oudenaarde, it wasn’t the thousand years of history the town has already witnessed that led me there. What caught my eye was the Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen, a museum dedicated to the legendary cycle race, the Tour of Flanders.
To say they’re big on cycling around these parts is an understatement. The Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen is a small but brilliant history of one of the toughest cycle races in Europe. It has the feel of a place brought to life by an obsessive cycle fan. As well as bikes, shirts and other memorabilia (including a large collection of water bottles), there are excellent multimedia displays. The sphincter tightening film of crashes and collisions is truly epic.
The museum’s Peloton Cafe with memorabilia-covered walls is the perfect place to grab a drink and read up on this underrated town. Strung along the River Scheldt, Oudenaarde comes with a history that placed it at the heart of European trade and politics from the 13th to the 18th centuries – a fact that resulted in the town being the victim of sieges and military attacks on numerous occasions.
The magnificent early 16th century Town Hall, the centrepiece of the Grote Markt, is an indication that this was once a wealthy and important place. It was wealth originally built on cloth manufacture and, from the 15th century, exquisite tapestries were produced here which adorned the castles and palaces of Europe’s monarchs and aristocracy. It and the attached belfry are UNESCO World Heritage designated.
The 14th century Cloth Hall that is attached to the Town Hall, now houses a museum with some extraordinary examples of original Oudenaarde tapestries dating from the medieval period. It also houses a weird collection of stuffed animals that I’m willing to overlook because the tapestries are so fantastic. The average tapestry is big, took six months to make, and was a truly luxury item affordable only to the very wealthiest.
Tapestry making was at its peak when Oudenaarde’s most famous daughter was born, Margaret of Parma. The illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and half sister to the King of Spain, Philip II, she was appointed the governor-general of the Netherlands, including modern day Flanders in 1559. She was born in the old Bishop’s residence next door to the massive Sint-Walburgakerk.
After visiting the impressive interior of the church, I made my way to the town’s 15th century Begijnhof. This small but picturesque walled community in the heart of the town housed single women who didn’t want to enter a nunnery but chose to live a quiet lay religious life. They were self-sufficient, with their own bakery, brewery and church. It’s a peaceful place only a short walk from the banks of the River Scheldt.
I wandered along until I reached a footbridge directly across from the Liefmans brewery, where Oudenaarde’s famed Oud Bruin originated. This is a Flemish sour beer that really is an acquired taste. Luckily, I have acquired the taste and since I was here already, it seemed like I should taste test the local speciality. Walking back along the other traffic free bank of the river brought me to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk.
The early 13th century Church of Our Lady of Pamele is said to be a fine example of the Scheldt gothic style, yet it appeared dilapidated and unloved. Some windows were boarded up and it was locked. Behind it though, is a small, pretty cloister. Nearby is a 13th century abbey, once one of the foremost religious houses in Flanders and now the municipal archive and an art gallery.
I crossed back over the river and headed to the Grote Markt. Earlier I’d spied a pleasant looking cafe housed in a medieval building. I pulled up a chair, ordered another Oud Bruin, and watched the world go by.