Presentation of the destination
This lovely green town on the Belgium side of the Belgium-Netherlands border is a fantastic place to unwind in nature. It is only thirty-five kilometers (21 miles) from Antwerp, just an hour’s train ride away. Enjoy cycle paths, hiking trails and gardens, and learn a bit of the region’s history at several nearby museums. At Christmas Essen becomes very popular with beer drinkers for its traditional Christmas Beer Festival. At other times of the year you can try a Belgian brew at the tavern adjoining the Bakery Museum. There is also a leading chocolatier, Ickx Chocolaterie, located in Essen so you can be assured you’ll have the Belgian chocolate experience in any of the cafes and restaurants in town. Several cycleways pass through Essen on their way across the border, including a long distance path which runs from Brussels in Belgium to Amsterdam in the Netherlands. These pathways are a fantastic way to explore the waterways, woods and villages around Essen. While Essen is at its most bustling in summer, when its beautiful greenery is attractive to cyclists and walkers, there are still things to do in winter, although some attractions do have reduced opening hours. Particularly beautiful in winter is the witch-hazel route in the Kalmthout Arboretum, when people come from all over the world to view this winter-blooming tree.
Points of interests / things to see
What could be better on a chilly day than the smell of baking bread and biscuits? At the Baker’s mill you can learn how bread was traditionally made. Although artisan bread has now become somewhat of a trendy treat lately, once it was a staple and a necessity. Several ingenious ways were discovered to power a mill to grind flour for bread, but the best known in Belgium and the Netherlands next door is the windmill. This fully-functioning windmill was built in 1981 and is used to mill the grain which is turned into bread and other treats in this traditional bakery. They sell a range of tasty treats and breads to tempt you. Steam was also used as a power source. In the steam-power exhibit at the Bakery Museum you’ll find a steam-powered fire-fighting pump, engines, a boiler, and even a small steam train that children will love to ride. Attached to the bakery is a tavern and restaurant where you can try the Baker’s Mill Beer brewed right here. Enjoy a Belgian brew in the beer garden! Entry is free but the Bakery Museum is open weekends only.
Cycle into nearby Kalmthout for a wander through one of Belgium’s most beautiful botanical gardens. Plantings were begun in 1857 by Charles Van Geert, and continued by others until in the 1980s it became a public garden of Antwerp province. The garden is planted in the gardenesque style, formulated to display the artistry of a garden with geometric plantings and each plant species shown off to its best. Wander through the arbour of trees, and keep an eye out for rabbits and squirrels, and the many bird species that live here. One important species that you will see here in all its many colours is the witch-hazel, one of the rare plants which flowers in the winter. If you are visiting between January and February there is a witch-hazel festival (Hamamelisfeesten) run at the gardens to showcase the hundred and fifty species of the tree planted here. During spring and summer, you’ll see Japanese maples, blossoming apple trees, roses and the colourful flowerbeds known as the butterfly garden. The garden is right near the train station, so it’s also a very accessible day trip for those staying in Antwerp seeking a green getaway. Organise a tour in English beforehand so you can get the full history and botanical science behind this gorgeous garden!
Learn about the transportation of the past at the Carriage Museum in beautiful green grounds of the sports park. While once these carriages in all their variations were ubiquitous, they are now only to be seen here in the largest museum of its kind in Belgium and the Netherlands. From plain timber to a high shine lacquer, dogcart and sled to Victoria and Hansson Cab, commercial to aristocratic use carriages, you’ll find them all here. There is even a collection of miniature carriages! The enthusiastic craftsmen in the workshops will treat you to a lesson on the fine art of cart-wheel making, from the sawmill to the forge. Draft horses will take you on a cart ride through the park and the kids can enjoy donkey rides. The museum is open during the warmer months from April through to September from 10am to 4.30pm on weekdays and 1pm to 5pm Weekends. From October to March it is only open during the week from 10am to 4pm. Entry costs just a few euros. Stop in at the Kiekenhoeve Restaurant next door for a traditional Belgian meal in what was once a farmhouse. Enjoy al fresco dining in the lush green gardens in summer and warm up by the fireplace in winter.
Essen’s tourist centre is located in a historical type of building known as a ‘haystack’ or Tasberg, used as far back as the bronze age and remarkable for its reed roof. They were mostly used for agricultural storage, however recently they have been used for residences. The centre has a lot of interactive displays that will give you the latest information on tours, accommodation, attractions and festivals in the region. The tourist centre organises a guided two hour long walking tour along the old World War I smuggling trails. In particular you’ll hear stories about Geert Schrauwen, nicknamed ‘Klaveren Vrouwke’ meaning ‘Queen of Clubs’, a trump card. Schrauwen disguised himself sometimes as a pregnant woman or nun, and smuggled contraband across the nearby Netherlands-Belgium border right under the nose of the guards, causing them a great deal of embarassment. There is a memorial located near where Schrauwen was shot dead right by the border. Schrauwen’s memorial stone is quite near to the ‘poo post’ behind which customs guards crouched when they experienced the call of nature. The Tasberg is also a great place to pick up some postcards, purchase bus tickets, and find souvenirs. You can also purchase gift baskets filled with goodies from local producers, among which is the artisanal chocolate company Ickx Chocolaterie. The Tasberg tourist centre is open from 10am to 4pm from October to March, and 9.30am to 4.30pm from April to September.
As Essen is so close to the Netherlands border, it is only a few kilometers cycle or drive to the Wouwse Plantation in the Roosendaal municipality of the Netherlands. Here you will find stunning historic buildings constructed in the mid-nineteenth century, a firefighting museum, and a series of hiking trails leading through the woods and gardens. The plantation buildings are now a Bed and Breakfast with a lap pool, and there is also an eighteen hole golf course attached to the estate. Some of the buildings are open to the public on Wednesdays in July and August. The Firefighting Museum contains equipment and vehicles from throughout history, including: a 1943 Dodge firetruck, an Opel Blitz from 1957, a Ford Firetruck from 1958, and handcart pumps. You must phone ahead to organise a viewing of this museum. In June, the plantation becomes a colourful riot of fantasy at the Fantasyval festival. For two days you’ll see nothing but Cheshire cats, hobbits, dragons, pirates and medieval knights who take winning the costume show very seriously! Music, theatre, circus acts and talks by fantasy writers make this fun festival a cultural event not to be missed. There is also a camping spot in the wooded area with a lake, go karts and horse-rides for the kids, and simple facilities.
Belgium is known for its long distance off-road cycle paths which circle around the country, allowing a safe and picturesque trip for cyclists. The Fietsroute LF2 is a length of 340 kilometers (211 miles) and runs from Antwerp to Kalmhout just outside Essen. From Kalmhout there is a regional cycle way to Essen through picturesque forests, fields and over canals. Cycle routes can be found, selected and printed from the interactive stands in the Tasberg Tourist Centre in Essen. Some companies run tours along the long distance cycle paths which include meals and accommodation. Bicycles can be hired from the Hotel Moerkantheide in Essen to tackle some of the LF2, to try out the mountain biking trails nearby, or just for a short countryside ride.
This cloister and school was built in the early twentieth century by the Redemptorists on a much older homestead built in the seventeenth century. The cloister is still a functioning Catholic school, but its green parklands and forest surroundings have recently been opened to the public. Within the park you’ll discover relics of the religious life led here over the centuries, from the monks’ cemetery and a neo-gothic chapel, to an orchard. The park has undergone landscaping care and maintenance recently due to its joint purchase by the municipality and Kempens Landscape, and provides a green space for concerts and events, and public use. The park is open between sunrise and sunset and is a fantastic place for a walk or picnic.
Within the attic of Essen’s townhall is a small collection of historical items from the town’s history. The museum is divided into rooms: the rustic kitchen, quarters of a rich farmer, chapel and schoolroom compete with a life-sized wax nun. You’ll also see costumes, historic photographs, and traditional cooking utensils, as well as items from local trades such as cigar-makers, barbers and railway workers.The Chapel is perhaps the most interesting room, with original furniture rescued by Gerard Meeusen from a church sacked by Germans in 1944. Meeusen started the local historic society which runs this museum and also publishes pamphlets and books on local history. You will need to organise a group and book ahead to see the Gerard Meeusen Museum.
This is an exhibition of the works of local paper cutting artist Colette Driessens. These incredibly detailed artworks are created with the silhouette cut out of paper. The art form became popular in Europe in the seventeenth century, but in China has been traced back as far as the sixth century! Though he is better known for his works of children’s tales, Hans Christian Anderson was also an avid paper cutting artist. As well as carrying on this tradition of this folk art, Driessens also displays decorative eggs and decoupage. Phone ahead to organise a time to see Colette’s marvellous art on: +32(0)3 667 54 68
Vacation rentals in Essen (Flanders)
How to get there ?
The nicest way to get around Essen is by bicycle, and since most of the bikeways are off-road it’s safe too! Hiring a bicycle is an easy and cheap way to get to attractions in nearby villages, and to explore the woods and waterways. There are also walking paths between the villages – take a wander from Kalmthout station through the heath to Dutch Huijbergen and back to Essen. There is no car hire in Essen, so it’s best to hire one at Antwerp or Brussels, where the major international airports are located. Belgian drivers can be a little impatient, and there is an ‘always give way to the right’ rule in place, both of which can be difficult for international drivers to get used to. It’s something to be aware of on country roads where cars pulling on to the road from your right have right of way. Many road signs and transport signage are written in both French and Flemish. The train to Essen from Antwerp only takes one hour, and an hour and a half from Brussels. You can even catch a train to and from Amsterdam in under two hours! The same bus journeys take a little longer but this means you get to enjoy the view for longer and the tickets are much cheaper.
Hotels in Essen (Flanders)