Medieval grandeur in pocket-sized Veurne

Tucked away in the far west of Flanders, a stone’s throw from the French border and the chilly waters of the North Sea, tiny Veurne is one of those small, historic Belgian towns that rarely, if ever, features in travel guides. In summer this town of little more than 12,000 people gets a lot of day trippers from the hordes that flock to the nearby coastal resort of De Panne. On a sunny autumn Sunday, it felt a long way from the tourist trail.

Walk along the canal that skirts around the town and you’ll find yourself tracing the outline of the old star fort that once protected Veurne. Eventually, you arrive in a small park named after one of the 17th century’s great military architects, the Marquis de Vauban. The very fact of Vauban’s involvement in the building of the defences is a good indication of the military and economic importance of Veurne.

Grote Markt, Belfry and St. Walburga Church, Veurne, Belgium
Grote Markt, Belfry and St. Walburga Church, Veurne, Belgium
The Spanish Pavillion, Veurne, Belgium
St. Walburga Park, Veurne, Belgium
St. Walburga Park and Church, Veurne, Belgium
Veurne, Belgium

It’s only a few hundred metres to walk from the park into the centre of Veurne, but by the time you reach the beautiful Grote Markt you’ve peeled away centuries of history into early medieval Europe. The Grote Markt is ringed by 15th and 16th century buildings, crowned by the medieval Belfry with its UNESCO World Heritage designation, behind which the hulking mass of St. Walburga Church dates to at least the early 13th century.

Viewed from across the square (half of which is tragically a car park), the Grote Markt is a beautiful sight. Viewed from the tower of nearby 12th century Sint-Niklaaskerk, it is magnificent. A 19th century public water pump sits in the middle of the square, with lines like a sundial radiating outwards towards the town hall and church. Old gabled houses, now home to a selection of bars and cafes, line the square.

The completeness of the square is all the more remarkable given just how close it was to the front lines in the First World War. It did suffer some damage, but the town remained under Belgian control throughout the war, and acted as the headquarters of the Belgian military and King Albert I. They were based in a lovely looking 14th century building just off the Grote Markt, called Die Nobele Rose.

Nearby is another reminder of a different period in history, the Spaans Paviljoen or Spanish House. This was a 15th century military headquarters for the Spanish Habsburgs who ruled over the Low Countries. Across the street is a 17th century building that was formerly the headquarters of the Guild of Butchers, the Vleeshuis – literally, the Meat House. All of this history is packed into a space that takes 5 minutes to walk around.

I decided to have lunch in the shadow of the Belfry at one of the cafes on the square, the sun was shining and I joined a clutch of people watching the world go by at outdoor tables. Afterwards, I popped into St. Walburga Church. Built using red stone, the church is a striking contrast to the local yellow-hued brick that is the building material of choice for many buildings. I had the atmospheric interior all to myself.

Behind the church is a small park with some interesting sculptures, including one called Woman looking at the sun. Underlining the religious importance of Veurne, across the other side of the park are two former convents, one housed the Blue Sisters, the other the Black Sisters, after the colour of their habits. Neither is open to the public, and you won’t find any nuns these days. At least one convent is being converted into a hotel.

Sint-Niklaaskerk, Veurne, Belgium
Veurne, Belgium
Grote Markt and Belfry, Veurne, Belgium
Grote Markt and Sint-Niklaaskerk, Veurne, Belgium
Spaans Paviljoen and Vleeshuis, Veurne, Belgium
Convent of the Black Sisters, Veurne, Belgium

Veurne is a small place, and it didn’t take long to see most of it, but I saved the best of it to last – a climb up the bell tower of Sint-Niklaaskerk. The panorama over the town and surrounding countryside is fabulous, and so flat is the landscape the views stretch all the way to the coast.

1 thought on “Medieval grandeur in pocket-sized Veurne

  1. What a beautiful place with lovely historic streets.

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