How to unravel a conundrum like Aalst? It’s a 9th century town with a lauded history: the 12th century town hall, the oldest in Belgium, and utterly ridiculous 13th century belfry that is part of UNESCO’s Belfries of Belgium and France World Heritage designation, sit at the heart of the glorious Grote Markt. It is a second UNESCO designation though, recently stripped from the town amidst controversies that embroiled it in accusations of anti-semitism, that brought Aalst global attention.
To be fair, Aalst appears entirely comfortable with those accusations, adopting them almost as a badge of honor – strange what some people think is a noble cause. Peddling racist, anti-semitic tropes that literally mirror those of 1930s Germany – you know, “Orthodox Jews with hooked noses standing on sacks of gold coins” sort of thing – and allowing leather clad ‘Nazis’ to parade through the streets while claiming to defend free speech, is just bewildering.
The trouble began at Aalst’s famed carnival. Alongside other towns in Belgium, it shared an UNESCO listing for “intangible cultural heritage”. That was removed in 2019 “over recurring repetition of racist and anti-semitic representations”, according to UNESCO. There was swift condemnation from Belgium’s Jewish community, as well as Belgian politicians. The townsfolk chose defiance as their response.
The local mayor, Christoph D’Haese, countered that it was actually the complaints about anti-semitism that were “grotesque”, not the stereotyping of Orthodox Jews. This, so he claimed, was just some people “trying to make a joke”. That’s a pretty weak argument given Europe’s history, and definitely not grounds for a casus belli for so called free speech advocates from the far right or left.
D’Haese is still mayor, proving his cause is popular locally, and the pandemic intervened more effectively than reason or common sense to bring things temporarily to a close. Next year’s carnival is one to watch though. This unpleasantness aside, Aalst is a rather lovely place. I got off the train one Sunday morning and headed straight to the small Grote Markt down quiet streets.
The sight of the Schepenhuis, belfry and Borse from across the square is one of the finest of any in Belgium. I sat at a cafe table, ordered coffee and admired the view. These buildings are testimony to Aalst’s great wealth in the medieval period. The manufacture and trade in cloth brought power and enough money to build not only these magnificent buildings, but also the massive St Martin’s Church.
In front of the Schepenhuis is a statue of Dirk Martens who, in 1473, established the first printing house in the Low Countries here. In medieval Europe, this was a big deal and raised Aalst above other towns. I made my way to Sint-Martinuskerk, which is an epically large church for a town of only 80,000 people. Inside, it plays host to a sizeable Rubens called, Christ Appointing Saint Roch as Patron Saint of Plague Victims.
Aalst is not the sort of place that is going to take up much of your time, but I meandered around marvelling at the fact that this, like so many other Belgian towns, was so far off the tourist trail. Although, I have to say, the Begijnhof is a disappointment. Founded in 1261, it closed after the Second World War when the last beguine died. Instead of keeping it, the city knocked it down and built ordinary houses instead.
I’d take away an UNESCO designation for that act of cultural anarchy. Circumnavigating the main sights in Aalst doesn’t take long, and I quickly discovered that what I thought was a carnival museum, was just the warehouses for the floats, presumably including the ones that heaped global opprobrium on the town. There was lots of carnival street art on the warehouses though.
I soon found myself back in the Grote Markt in front of the Rococo town hall dating from the 17th century. I pulled up a chair at a cafe, ordered a beer and admired the view.