Secret gardens in Belgium
This modest almshouse is hidden in the centre of Kortrijk near the K shopping centre. It isn’t always open, so seize the chance if the little door is unlocked. You enter a quiet complex of 13 small whitewashed almshouses built in 1638 for ‘unmarried women of unblemished character’. The beautiful overgrown apothecary garden is planted with mediaeval medicinal herbs and a lovely mulberry tree. The tiny almshouses around the garden have been turned into a children’s play village.
2) Japanese Garden
The Japanese garden in Hasselt is the largest in Europe, but it’s still quite small. It is squeezed into a little site on the edge of town next to the ring road. You might have trouble finding it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit, especially in blossom time. It was created in the early 1990s by a team of skilled Japanese gardeners who landscaped the modest site with a flowing river, small hill, waterfall, tea house and even a pebbly beach. The cherry blossom is gorgeous in the spring, but it is a beautiful peaceful spot at other times of the year. It’s a pity there is nowhere for lunch, but you can head into Hasselt to eat at the stunning brasserie Het Smaaksalon (smaaksalon.be), which is located in a mansion decorated with pillars, chandeliers and oil portraits.
3) Coloma Rose Garden
Located in the grounds of Coloma castle, this is one of the largest rose gardens in Europe. More than 66.000 roses have been planted here, including ancient species and rare varieties from all over the world. The garden is divided into countries, so you can study typical British roses or wander among tough species that survive in Canada. This is an enchanting spot in the summer months, with secret corners, hidden benches and odd windows cut in box hedges to provide unexpected views. Open Tuesday to Sunday.
4) The Gardens of Rue Naimette
The steep cobbled lane Rue Naimette in Liège is known as Little Montmartre. It’s perhaps a slight exaggeration, but this is a lovely spot near the city centre with secret gardens hidden behind high stone walls. The gardens are private, but you can hear birdsong, smell the lilac blossom and occasionally glimpse inside a romantic urban retreat. At the top of the hill, you can take the Grande Randonnée hiking trail back into the old town. Simply follow the red and white markers.
5) Hanging Gardens of Thuin
It hardly seems possible, but the little town of Thuin, not far from Charleroi, has ancient hanging gardens built on the steep hillside overlooking the River Sambre. Reached by cobbled lanes, the gardens were recently restored to create a fascinating trail running past small allotments, old city gates and an unexpected vineyard where they produce a few hundred bottles of Clos des Zouaves red wine every year.
6) Les Jardins d'Annevoie
Deep in the woods in a remote corner of the Ardennes, the gardens at Annevoie are almost forgotten. You might be the only visitor on a quiet morning, yet these are among the most elaborate water gardens in Europe. They were created in the 18th century by Charles-Alexis de Montpellier, who borrowed ideas from landscaped gardens he had seen during his travels in Italy, France and England. Begun in 1758, the garden incorporates more than 50 water features including fountains, waterfalls and a grand canal. Some areas have become overgrown, like the English garden which is now lost in the woods, but there are now plans to restore the estate to its original grandeur.
7) The Garden of Smells
The Belgian garden historian Catherine Mathys has created an intriguing collection of six small gardens in the grounds of the Château de Namur. Located on the citadel hill above Namur, the gardens have 350 plant varieties grouped according to different properties. You will find a garden of emotions, a lavender garden and a taste garden, but perhaps the most curious is the garden of strange smells, which is devoted to plants that give off particularly unpleasant odours. Always open, free.
8) Godshuis Sint-Jozef
Look out for the open door on the Nieuwe Gentweg in Bruges. It leads into an unexpected garden where crocuses push through the soil in early spring. One of 44 almshouses dotted around the city, Godshuis Sint-Jozef was built in the 17th century as a home for the poor. Hidden from the street by high whitewashed walls, the gardens are planted with ancient trees, rose beds and low box hedges.
9) Plantin Moretus Garden
Here is a beautiful baroque garden hidden within the walls of the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp. Created in 1639 by the printer Balthasar Moretus, it is modelled on an Italian formal garden. A small garden was added behind the museum shop in 2002. Designed by the Belgian landscape gardening firm Wirtz International, it is a simple garden with brick paving, clipped trees and an undulating hedge.
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Hidden Belgium takes you off the beaten track and sets out to prove that Belgium is in fact one of the most interesting states in Europe.
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