UNESCO World Heritage
Belgium is a major contributor to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, having joined as long ago as November 1946. There are currently two UNESCO Professorial Chairs at French-speaking Belgian universities.
The first, the Chair of Linguistics and Didactics of Languages in Educational Systems, was established at the University of Mons-Hainaut, Wallonia in 1995. This was followed in 2002 by the Chair in Academic Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Leuven, Flanders.
There are quite a number of spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites to be found in Belgium. With the Carnivals of Binche and Aalst and the Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges this is the only Northern European country to have several Masterpieces of the Oral and intangible Heritage of Humanity listed.
And if that’s not enough there are also more than a dozen Belgian entries on the UNESCO tentative list of sites being considered. Recently the Flemish government started the process of getting the trenches, battle fields and other Great War locations recognised.
The latest addition was in November 2016 when Belgian beer culture was officially recognised by UNESCO and is now listed as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Check the official UNESCO website for more infomation on Belgian and international World Heritage sites.
Belgian Beer Culture
What makes our Belgian beer culture so unique? First of all it’s the respect for our ancient brewing traditions and typical Belgian beer styles such as lambic, oude gueuze, oude kriek, Flemish red ale, saison, white beer or amber ‘Spéciale Belge’.
Not forgetting our world famous abbey and Trappist beers. But it’s not only about the product. We are talking about a specific culture involving a large community. Look at the variety of beer glasses used in our cafés, brasseries and taverns. We will never drink a Trappist beer out of a lager glass if we can avoid it.
Drinking beer has to be a unique experience. We treat our beers with respect. Beer lovers meet in local and national beer clubs, attend the numerous beer festivals all over the country, visit beer tastings…
Some collect beer glasses, bottles or labels of their favourite brands or start their own private museum. Not to mention the hobby brewers. When they experiment with water, malt, hop and yeast, they soon find out that ‘brewing a fine beer is not as easy as it seems.
We Belgians love our beers well balanced. It takes much time and very specific know how to produce beers with a nice balance between the basic ingredients.
Extreme beers can be very exciting but do we order a second glass…?
Or do we continue with our favourite saison or tripel after trying that ‘interesting’ experiment; of course some do.
Yes, our brewers do innovate, but our great tradition – beer culture – is always there. When you run a 200 year old brewery, why would you copy the latest international beer trend? It can inspire you but you make it your own, turn it into real added value for your brewery, yourself and your fans.
Our beer has its place at the finest tables and in the best cuisine. In Belgium you enjoy beer and food pairing at the highest level in gastronomy or ‘beerstronomy®’ if you will and in our brasseries and taverns.
Beer can be a nice fit with our chocolate, cheese, in and with classic stews etc.
There is a Belgian beer for every occasion, in winter or summer, with the barbecue or near the open fire, a thirst quencher or a grand cru’ revealing its full complexity after a while.
We are so passionate about it that thanks to the efforts of Luc De Raedemaeker and our own Erik Verdonck we produced ‘The Belgian Beer Book’. A large, 704 page fully illustrated book, which is dedicated to our beer culture. So even when not in Belgium you can still experience and immerse yourself in it, preferably with your favourite Belgian beer to hand.
Last but not least. Why is our beer culture so developed? Because it is supported and embraced by expert brewers, scientists, teachers, chefs and of course… beer lovers. Cheers!
Belfries of Belgium
Many of the Belfries of Belgium and northern France feature on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In fact some 33 Belgian belfries in both Flanders and Wallonia are on the list along with 23 French belfries.
These were all built between the 11th and 17th centuries and they are showcases of the Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles of architecture.
Belfries are very symbolic of this part of Europe. Whereas in Italy, Great Britain or Germany, large town halls were built as symbols of power and prosperity, in this region a greater emphasis was placed on the building of belfries.
The majority are attached to town halls, although some are attached to churches. Originally they were wooden towers and many of the present-day belfries are successors to earlier structures that have been destroyed by fire.
Among some fine examples are the belfries in Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Ypres, Kortrijk, Leuven, Oudenaarde, Charleroi, Mons, Namur, Tournai and Menen.
Centre of Bruges
The Centre of Bruges is a settlement that has evolved over centuries. It is described as a testimony to the considerable exchange of architectural influences, particularly in brick Gothic, that took place over a long period.
It is further described as being an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble, illustrating significant stages in the commercial and cultural growth of medieval Europe, featuring public, social and religious institutions.
While continuing to be a vibrant modern city, Bruges has preserved many of the architectural and town planning structures that document the various phases of its development. The Bruges Fair was established in 1200, by which time the city had developed as an important port with a thriving wool trade with Britain.
This brought great prosperity to the town and it became the economic capital of Europe. Bruges also became the centre of the Flemish Primitive School of painting of which Jan van Eyck is the great master.
Grand-Place/Grote Markt in Brussels
One place that quickly comes to mind when talking about UNESCO sites in Belgium is the Grand-Place (or Grote Markt in Dutch) in Brussels. This is described as being a “remarkably homogenous body of public and private buildings dating mainly from the late 17th century”.
The architecture provides a vivid illustration of the social and cultural life of that period. The earliest written reference to the Grand-Place dates from 1174, when it was then known as the Nedermarckt, or Lower Market.
At that time it was located on marshy ground on the right bank of the River Senne. This marshland was drained in the 12th century and during the following centuries the present rectangular outline began to develop.
The present name came into use in the latter half of the 18th century.
The Grand-Place is now considered an outstanding example of the way that architectural and artistic styles can be blended to reflect the characteristics of the culture and society of the region.
The Union of Belgian Brewers (one of the oldest professional guilds in de world) has its headquarters in the Brewers House that was constructed more than three centuries ago. The vaulted basements also house the National Brewers’ Museum.
The Flemish Béguinages are distinctly Belgian institutions. They are a group of lay convents that began to spontaneously emerge during the religious revival the swept Western Europe at the beginning of the 13th century.
The Béguines or "Begijntjes" were women who dedicated their lives to God, but did not retire from the world in the same way as nuns.
They lived in Béguinages, which were enclosed communities that were designed to meet the women’s spiritual and material needs. The women were either unmarried or widowed and dedicated their own and their community’s life to prayer, caring for the sick and manual labour.
They took no vows and were free to come and go as they chose. The whole béguinage story was in fact very close to a medieval version of woman’s lib.
The Flemish Béguinages, and there were many of them, were architectural ensembles of houses, churches, ancillary buildings and green spaces. They were both urban and rural and built in styles unique to the Flemish region. They formed miniature towns, enclosed by walls or ditches with gates that opened to the “world” during the day.
The urban type was a bit like a medieval city, with a plot set aside for the cemetery and a square for the church. The rural model was based on a courtyard, with a central area of lawn planted with trees. The church was located here, with the houses built around it.
Although the life of the Béguinages was characterised by simplicity and humility, personal possessions weren’t completely ruled out. Wealthier Béguines built or rented their own houses while others lived in community dwellings, with the poorest setting up home in the infirmary.
The religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries had a serious impact on the Béguinages which fell into a gradual decline that was speeded up by Belgium’s annexation by France in 1795.
Today only a handful of Béguinages still exist, but they continue to form an essential part of the architectural heritage of a number of cities. They are havens of tranquillity and still fulfil their functions as living spaces for a dozen or so Béguines.
These fascinating reminders of a tradition that developed in north-western Europe during the Middle Ages are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Major Mining Sites of Wallonia
An usual World Heritage site are the Major Mining Sites of Wallonia. There are actually four sites that spread across the country from east to west, in a strip about 17 km long by between three and 15 km wide. Here you can find the best-preserved 19th and 20th century coal-mining sites in the country. The four sites are Grand-Hornu, Bois-du-Luc, Bois du Cazier and Blegny.
They offer an insight into all aspects of mining life, including the technical expertise of the miners, their effect on the landscape, the homes in which they lived and how they remembered their dead.
The Walloon Coal Basin is one of Europe’s oldest and mining areas and a real symbol of the industrial revolution.
The four sites include numerous technical and industrial remains both under and over ground. There are excellent examples of the industrial architecture associated with the mines, workers’ housing, the urban planning of mining towns and the social and human impact of the industry.
Of particular poignancy are memorials to the Bois du Cazier mining disaster of 1956.
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai
Also listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list is Notre-Dame Cathedral in Tournai. Tournai is in Wallonia and has the distinction of being the only Belgian city ever to have been under the control of the English crown.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is considered one of the best-preserved cathedrals in northern Europe. It is renowned for its impressive Romanesque nave and transept dating from the 12 th century.
The 13th century choir is in the Gothic style. There is a remarkable array of statues and a porch decorated with sculptures by Tournai craftsmen. There is also a Treasury Museum.
Across the square from the cathedral is the Belfry. This is the oldest belfry in Belgium and stands at a height of 72 metres or 236 feet. It is among the list of 56 UNESCO World Heritage Belfries of Belgium and France.
Plantin Moretus Museum
One of the smaller of Belgium’s World Heritage sights is the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp. Its size though is no reflection of its importance, because it’s one of the finest printing museums in the world.
It is found in the former home of a 16th century bookbinder by the name of Christoffel Plantin, who founded a printing business.
When he died his son-in-law, Edward Moretus succeeded him.
The museum possesses an exceptional collection of typographical material together with the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world.
There are complete sets of dies and matrices, plus an extensive library.
The Stoclet House is a notable Brussels home. It is very rare for UNESCO to elevate a private home to the World Heritage list, but such is the importance of the Stoclet House. The visionary architect Josef Hoffmann, one of the leading architects of the Vienna Secession movement, built the house for the banker and art collector Adolphe Stoclet.
Stoclet imposed no aesthetic or financial restrictions on the project and after five years of continual work the house and gardens were completed in 1911.
The austere geometry of the building marks the transition between Art Nouveau and the coming Art Deco and Modern movements in architecture.
The house was designed as a “total work of art” and this is expressed in every aspect of the building: interior and exterior architecture, decoration, furniture, and household objects as well as the gardens and their flower beds. Even Gustav Klimt was commissioned to provide this palace with some matching artwork.
The house has been an inspiration to many architects, both from Belgium and from other countries. Somewhat remarkably today the estate is still in the hands of the Stoclet family.
The Lifts on the Canal du Centre
The most unusual UNESCO World Heritage site in Belgium are The Four Lifts on the Canal du Centre and their Environs, La Louvière and Le Roeulx .
Amongst these four is the ship lift of Strepy-Thieu, the biggest one ever built anywhere in the world.
The industrial city of La Louvière, Wallonia can hardly be called a prime a tourist attraction, but these extraordinary lifts make it worth the visit.
These are found on the canal between La Louvière and Mons, where there was a need to tackle a height difference of some 55 feet, or nearly 17 metres.
The lifts are considered to be one of the finest industrial achievements in Europe and the lifting is done entirely by hydraulic power.
The Major Town Houses of Victor Horta
Another “different” example of a UNESCO World Heritage site is The Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta in Brussels. The architect Victor Horta was one of the earliest supporters of Art Nouveau in Belgium. Some of his most pioneering work is found in four major town houses in Brussels: Hôtel Tassel, Hôtel Solvay, Hôtel van Eetvelde and Maison & Atelier Horta.
What makes these buildings so unique are their open plan designs, the way light is diffused by the architecture and the brilliant way that the curving decorative lines are integrated with the structure of the buildings.
The Hôtel Tassel can be considered the founding work of Art Nouveau. It was commissioned in 1893 by Professor Emile Tassel and was completed the following year, although it was some years before Horta finished designing the furniture.
After World War II the house was converted into small flats, hiding much of the original decoration, but in 1976 the street façade was restored and the building was converted into a prestigious office building.
Hôtel Solvay was built between 1895 and 1898, with the furniture completed in 1903. In 1957 it became the home of a fashion house and in 1980 the owners embarked on a programme of restoration. As a result it is the best preserved of Horta’s houses.
The Hôtel van Eetvelde was built for the Secretary General of the Congo and named after him. Construction started in 1897 and Horta was briefed to build not only a family home but also a stunning setting for receiving distinguished guests.
The house was completed in 1901, but in 1920, after the death of Mme van Eetvelde, it was divided into two.
The Maison & Atelier Horta were built by the architect for his own family. After his divorce he continued to live there and made a number of additions and alterations. In 1926 the two parts of the building were separated and in 1961 the Commune of Saint Gilles bought the residential part to become a museum of Horta’s work. The four houses are regarded as one World Heritage site.
The Flint Mines at Spiennes
The Neolithic Flint Mines at Spiennes are yet another somewhat obscure entry in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Nevertheless, these truly are a perfect and early example of mans’ technical inventiveness. Flint was a major resource in prehistory used by hunters to fabricate much needed weaponry as speer heads or axes. Back then flint was nothing less than vital and used for a wide variety of tools.
There are about half a dozen of them all located in the small Walloon village of Spiennes, 5 km south of Mons and are the largest and earliest concentration of ancient flint mines in Europe. This was a serious industry and the mines cover more than 100 hectares, nearly 250 acres.
The mines straddle the period between the Stone Age and the Iron Age and and were active for well over 2,000 years, from approximately 4400 to 2000 BC.
War Memorials and Cemeteries
Belgium has important war memorials and cemeteries honouring those who fell on Belgian soil during the Battle of Waterloo, WWI and WWII.[ more... ]
World War I
Belgium and World War One. The role of Belgium and the Belgian people in WWI.[ more... ]
Battle of Waterloo
Detailed and illustrated Information about the infamous Battle of Waterloo which was fought out on what is now Belgian soil on the 18th June of 1815.[ more... ]
Information on the Belgian diamond industry and the historical link between the city of Antwerp and diamond trade.[ more... ]
Belgium by bicycle. Throughout Belgium and in the Flemish region in particular, the love of cycling borders on fanaticism.[ more... ]
Information about Belgian fashion. With details on the fashion industry and fashion designers in Belgium.[ more... ]
Belgian Antiques and Flea Markets
An extensive guide to some of Belgium's most important antique cities, shopping areas and flea markets in Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia.[ more... ]
Belgium has no single national language. In fact it has three: Dutch, French and German,[ more... ]
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