The north eastern part of Flanders has a surprising number of historic cities and towns that attract crowds of tourists from around the world. The triumvirate of Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent take most of the glory, but if they didn’t exist, there are plenty of lesser known but equally fascinating places with ancient histories that would be elevated to celebrity status.
Diest, tucked away in the Brabant countryside half way between Brussels and the Dutch border, is only a small place but deserves to attract more visitors. Instead, it feels largely overlooked and is a long way off the tourist trail. That’s all the more remarkable because as well as being a relaxed spot for a day trip from Brussels, Diest has a long history and an UNESCO World Heritage site to offer.
In fact, Diest has the highest concentration of protected historical monuments in Flanders. There seems to be an ancient building around every corner in the Old Town. Preeminent amongst which is the glorious Begijnhof which shares its UNESCO designation with twelve other Flemish Beguinages. These once thriving, all female, lay religious communities are beautiful and tranquil places to visit today.
Scattered across Flanders, I still have three to go before I’ve seen them all, but Diest Beguinage ranks as one of the most charming and picturesque of those I’ve already visited. Inside its medieval walls, cobbled streets lead you past eight centuries of history. The centrepiece of which is the attractive Sint-Catherinakerk, with a host of artwork by lesser known 17th century Flemish painters.
The day I was there, the Begijnhof was playing host to a book fair around and inside the church. There was a friendly atmosphere, but away from the church the streets were very quiet. Just outside the Begijnhof are the remains of the old defensive walls and moat in a typical star fort arrangement. Part of this is now a park hosting the 18th century windmill, the Lindenmolen.
It was lunchtime, and I made my way to the Grote Markt. The Church of Sint-Sulpitius dominates the square, but there are several nice cafes and bars that are perfect for watching the world go by very slowly. The church dates from the early 14th century and its star ‘inhabitant’ is Prince Philip William of Orange-Nassau – the son of William the Silent, the leader of the Dutch Revolution against Spanish rule.
The Dutch ruling house has a long association with Diest. It’s still known as an ‘Orange City’ and was a family possession for centuries. I popped into the church and then made my way to De Kaai, the town ‘harbour’ on the River Demer running through the centre. This wasn’t always the case. After several floods, the town decided to reroute the river away from the centre. In 2009, they decided to return the river to its original course.
The Old Town is more pleasant and more historically accurate (are you paying attention Brussels?) as a result. Along the River Demer are several historically important buildings, including medieval church refuge houses where monks fled in times of conflict. The Refugehuis van Tongerlo and Refugehuis van Averbodeis, belonging to the Abbeys of Tongerlo and Averbode respectively, are beautiful buildings.
One of Diest’s most famous sights is also one of its most disappointing for the casual visitor. The sheer scale of the Citadel’s enormous red brick mid-19th century structure is impressive, but there’s little of interest to see beyond the walls. I climbed up lots of stairs to get there, but at least the surrounding parkland is pleasant. Back in the town, I had just enough time to have a Tongerlo beer in the Grote Markt before catching the train home.
6 thoughts on “The ‘Orange City’ of Diest”
Thank you for the trip Paul. All well I hope?
Could do with a bit more sun, but all well, thanks Brian. Hope the same for you?
Wow! I really hadn’t any idea that Diest was so fabulous. Must add it to the ever growing list of places to see in Belgium. I think we’re going to need a month…
It’s only a small place, but I really liked it and the Begijnhof is absolutely lovely. Like so much of Belgium, just not on the radar.