Presentation of the destination
Aalst, also know as Alost in French and Oilsjt in the local dialect, is a peaceful Belgian city about 19 miles northwest of Brussels on the Dender River, most famous for its UNESCO-listed carnival and ancient feud with nearby town Dendermonde. The city is packed with gorgeous architecture straight out of Grimm’s Fairytales, with shops selling locally produced textiles and fresh flowers from the surrounding countryside. There’s also a thriving beer scene, with hops waving in the fields around the town and a number of breweries in Aalst itself. The currency is the euro, and the time zone is the Central European time zone, UTC+1. Bring an umbrella in winter and some sun cream in summer – Aalst enjoys distinct seasons.
Points of interests / things to see
Explore Belgium's Catholic history with a visit to the Béguinage. The name refers to the little clusters of buildings used by the Beguines, a collection of groups of lay women within the Catholic Church who lived in small communities in order to better serve God without fully retiring from the world and becoming nuns. Beguines were common throughout the Low Countries in the late Middle Ages, and these semi-monastic communities sought to imitate the life of Christ through voluntary poverty, alms to the poor, care of the sick and prayer. Here in Aalst a small square surrounded by simple little houses was constructed in 1261 by a wealthy local citizen. Although little remains of the original structures, it wasn't until the Second World War that the Beguine lifestyle finally died out. The St Katherina Church, built in 1787, is still standing, as is the tiny chapel in honour of St Anthony of Padua, constructed over the grave of Johanna Dedemaecker, a beguine who died in the plague of 1631. Local lore tells that after her death many miracles happened around her grave.
This famous Gothic style unfinished church was built in 1480, although it was never fully completed and construction eventually stopped 180 years later. Nonetheless it is a perfect example of late Brabant Gothic and you can get an insight into how the church was originally intended to look by the architect by viewing the scale model in the Museum ‘t Gasthuys on site. But the real reason visitors flock here is to view the work of one of the great Flemish masters, Peter Paul Rubens. The painting, 'Christ makes St Roch patron of plague victims’, was commissioned by wealthy local beer and hop merchants. Other highlights include the gravestone of Dirk Martens, many beautiful stained glass windows and a grand Van Peteghem organ. Eagle-eyed visitors will notice a copper strip running across the floor, and if you visit at noon you will see that the sun force through a tiny hole in one of the stained glass windows and lines up with this strip. This is a common feature in Belgian churches, and was used to draw up time schedules for the new railways in 1832. Address: Priester Daensplein.
Situated on the Grote Markt, this beautiful building is one of the oldest alderman's houses in the Low Countries, constructed in 1225 with a high roof and round corner towers that became a model for later medieval town halls. It has been partially rebuilt twice, once after damage sustained during a 1380 war, and once after an accident with some fireworks in 1879. Highlight of the building is the stunning belfry tower, completed in 1460 and first equipped with bells from Mechelen. Obviously they're ringing them hard, because the current bells are the sixth such set, a carillon of 52 bells. The tower is inscribed with the motto of King Philip II of Spain, who ruled the area in 1555: ‘not with hope, not with fear’. At the front of the building a small Gothic extension looking for all the world like a shrunken cathedral juts out into the square, added in the 16th century. Adorned with five life-size statues, is worth going inside to head down to the cellars, which were once torture chambers.
Some of Aalst’s more famous residents have been immortalised with city statues, and it’s worth paying them a visit if you have a spare afternoon to wander the city. Perhaps the most famous is the statue of Dirk Martens, the man who brought mass printing technology to the city. In 1473 he set up his printing press in Aalst, bringing literature to the masses like never before by printing works by Erasmus and Thomas Moore. His statue was erected in the Grote Markt in 1856: a greenish black bronze cast made by Jean Geefs. Over at the Oude Vismarkt you can meet another notable local, Louis Paul Boon, a novelist and local historian who drew his inspiration from the life and times of his hometown of Aalst. At the Oud Schepenhuis you can meet various Counts of Flanders and Counts of Aalst, whose likenesses peer down over the square. There’s also Lady Justice with her sword and scales, Emperor Charles V and his court painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst, and Cornelius De Schrijver, the famous humanist and Latin poet.
If you're in town for Shrove Tuesday then you're in for a treat, as Aalst holds its own version of Mardi Gras, a three-day spectacular that was recognised in 2010 by UNESCO as a cultural tradition of world importance. The streets heave with people eating candy floss and hotdogs and struggling to get to the front. Over 70 different groups, all from Aalst, pass by in fantastical costumes, often lampooning political figures and current events, while brass bands, samba bands and drummers fill the air. From drag queens with six-foot high wigs to gigantic papier-mâché babies, 20-foot-high clown puppets to gigantic gilded floats, the entire day is a feast for the senses. If you missed the main event don't worry, the Winter Fair happens at the end of every February, and is an ideal warmup. With over one hundred whirling fairground rides, fireworks displays and delicious smaâbol doughnuts, it's a great day out for the family. The (Dutch) website is at: http://www.carnaval.oilsjt.be/.
You might be more of a limp wobble-along than a Lance Armstrong, but don’t let that hold you back from having a crack at the famous Ronde van Vlaanderen bike race route. From tiny cobbled streets to hardcore hills, peaceful riverbanks to shady forests, you're bound to find a section of the route to suit your skills. The race has been going since 1913, and if you’re more of a spectator than a cyclist you can watch the race itself every spring. Website: http://www.rondevanvlaanderen.be/en
Ypres, or ‘Wipers’ as it was known to many British troops during World War I, was the centre some of the bloodiest warfare Europe has ever seen, and this wonderful museum housed in the stately Cloth Hall in the centre of Ypres offers an unparalleled insight into the darkest days of 20th century European history. Curated by a historian, the museum offers a series of moving exhibits to bring the horrors of the so-called ‘Great War’ to life. Website: http://www.inflandersfields.be/en
If you fancy escaping the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoying the tranquil countryside surrounding Aalst then why not enjoy a river tour? Boats leave Aalst daily for return trips to pretty St Amands and Mariakerke, Temse or Rupelmonde, the birthplace of the famous geographer Mercator. Conveniently, it's also possible to enjoy a lazy bike ride from Aalst to Baasrode in the morning before returning to Aalst by boat. Or enjoy an evening cruise with a free aperitif. Visit the River Tours website for more information: http://www.rivertours.be/EN/index.php.
This beautiful Flemish city is an ideal destination for a day trip, as it’s just 30 minutes drive from Aalst or 20 by train, and packed with things to see and do. Architecture buffs will love the historic buildings such as the Belfry of Ghent, the St Bavo Cathedral and the St Nicholas Church. Foodies will go wild for local specialities such as mastel buns, praline chocolates, tierenteyn mustard and delicious Stoverij stew. And museums such as the Museum voor Schone Kunsten display world-class art by painters such as Hieronymous Bosch and Peter Paul Rubens.
Vacation rentals in Aalst (Flanders)
How to get there ?
With a great location in East Flanders, it’s very easy to get to Aalst either from Ghent or the capital, Brussels, which is just 25 minutes away by train. Belgium is a bijou country with excellent public transportation, fast high quality roads and a mobile population. Many visitors fly into the country’s melting pot capital, Brussels. Brussels Airport has over 19 million visitors each year, with direct flights to countries including Italy, Austria, Germany and the UK, as well as America, Russia and North Africa. Once you arrive in Aalst it’s easy to walk everywhere, or there are frequent buses traversing the city centres. Taxis and car rental can both be expensive, but are perhaps more convenient. Or hire a bakfiets, the iconic Dutch style bicycle, and explore the Dender River trails with a picnic of local bread, beer and cheese tucked into your wicker basket – bliss!
Aalst city hall
Hotels in Aalst (Flanders)