Hasselt, tucked between the Albert Canal and the A13 motorway on the mid-east side of Belgium, is something of an ambiguous city. It's called the capital of Belgian Limburg, but this region was actually Loon for a thousand years. It has an exquisite medieval street-plan, but most of its medieval charm seems to have gone absent without leave.
The wide sandy moors of the Kempen/Campine plateau lies to the north; the rolling orchards of the Haspengouw to the south. But Hasselt itself just seems to float, unremarked, between the two.
The best thing to be said about it (say some) is that at least it isn't Genk (though that's a little unkind to both of these long entwined twin-cities). What Hasselt does have, however, is a fantastic can-do attitude – one that has brought the sparkle of the unusual and the positive to this city of 70,000 souls (or 'Hasse Boot', as the locals are known).
Japanese gardens, comic strip walks, a world-leading free-bus system and a museum celebrating the joys of gin – these are just some the pleasures awaiting the Hasselt-bound. And the history and the culture (and the beer) are all here to be unearthed – if you're prepared to dig a little deeper.
Hasselt may not flaunt her generous charms in a flashy show, like some Belgian cities. But charms won a little harder, pay back a little longer. Your first stay in Hasselt almost certainly won't be your last.
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The roots of the name 'Hasselt' lie – as you might guess in the Flemish-speaking province of Belgian Limburg – in the old Germanic. Hasaluth was its name, which actually means hazel wood. So the first settlement on the banks of the river Demer was probably quite a pleasant little grove.
And there even are signs that this area was settled long before the first Germanic tribes arrived. But for once, this is a Belgian town without a Latin 'great-uncle' in its historical family-tree.
The Romans are noted by their absence. Instead, the first time that the history books had anything to say about Hasselt was in 1165. And then it was only a fleeting reference. By 1232, however, Arnold IV, the Count of Loon, felt there was enough mud-hut, thatching and rough stonework to grant Hasselt city-status. So it must have managed to become a something of a local attraction by then.
Probably that was thanks to Herkenrode Abbey, which was founded in the nearby hamlet of Kuringen, in 1182. Hasselt's claim of being a 'local attraction' grew considerably when the Count of Loon arrived.
He moved his residence from the old capital of Borgloon, and set up shop in nearby Kuringen. With the seat of government, and a powerful abbey, Hasselt became the capital of Loon – and then quickly became embroiled in the tussle between the Loons and bishops of Liège. The bishops won, and the County of Loon, along with Hasselt, then slipped quietly into the Bishopric of Liège. That was in 1366. The bishopric rule was to last for four long centuries, right up until the French Revolution.
Shortly after that world-shaking event, Napoleon turned up in Loon – and promptly annexed the whole of the Bishopric.
That was when the County of Loon (and so Hasselt) was first 'tidied up' with next-door Limburg, an arrangement that was formalised by King William of the Netherlands in 1815. The Dutch king wanted to keep this part of the world in his Kingdom, and keeping it as part of Limburg helped – so the land of Loon was forced back into the history books. But Hasselt was about to have its spirits uplifted.
Time for a gin
It was also at this time that Hasselt became known as the jenever (or gin) producer par excellence across Belgium. Some reckon that the Dutch approach – of strongly flavouring the jenever – was passed onto Hasselt when a Dutch garrison was stationed here in the 1670's.
Whatever the reason, Hasselt Jenever became the defining drink of the 19th-century Flanders man and woman. By 1840, Hasselt had no fewer than 24 jenever distilleries, with steam-power adding to the their ability to churn out the stuff.
That gin-fuelled prosperity faded in the 20th-century. But with industrialisation taking over parts of the Kempen, both Hasselt and adjacent Genk grew rapidly. That expansion accelerated with the arrival of the King Albert Canal, which connected Antwerp to the Meuse, and encouraged water-traffic through the Limburg area.
Recent years have seen the gloss of the post-war industrial boom fade, though, and some of the bigger multinational companies have pulled out. But while Hasselt may not be that pleasant hazel grove of its dim past, the city has done an excellent job of rejuvenating itself, as a new millenium service economy.
Getting There & Getting About
Although tucked away in one of the less well-known corners of Belgium, Hasselt is actually on an important crossroads in its east. The E314 runs east-west past Hasselt, connecting Brussels to Aachen (and eventually Cologne), while the E313 slants southwards from Antwerp to Liège. That puts the city within an hour's drive of five airports – Brussels, Liège, Maastricht-Aachen, Antwerp, and Cologne-Bonn. So whether driving or flying in, there are plenty of options for reaching Hasselt.
Connections via trains, from those self-same airports, aren't so hot, however. There are no major intercity trains, with those coming by rail having to rely on the slow local routes for the last leg. Take the high-speed trains as far as Leuven, if coming from the west, or Liège, if coming from the south.
What Hasselt does have, however, is an excellent bus-based public transport system. Up until very recently this service was completely free, but now there is a small flat fee per journey.
The city has a double ring-road system, both of which are usually busy. The inner one pretty much marks out where the mainly pedestrianised inner city begins. So walking or cycling around the central attractions is both simple and hassle-free. And with the local H-line buses extremely frequent and reliable, the getting around the rest of Hasselt really is a breeze.
Hasselt is well-furnished with hotels. In fact, it's difficult to escape from the shadow of them, with the twin towers of modern Radisson Blu Hotel shooting their 14 storeys up over the city centre. Unlike most other Belgian cities, it seems, it's the practical, not the religious, dominating Hasselt's skyline. The four-star Radisson offers high-class facilities, and over 120 rooms, as well as the best views in town (it is the highest building in town, after all).
The other four-star hotel is the Holiday Inn Hasselt, on the north-side of the city centre, similarly modern, but with a lower profile. The city centre also has a thick quiver of less expensive hotels, and good number of townhouses, offering B&B style accommodation.
But if you shift your gaze outside of the city centre, you'll find some interesting options in the surrounding countryside. One such is the Kasteelhoeve de Kerckhem, a beautifully-arranged courtyard and castle set in the pretty hills of the Haspengouw.
If you'd prefer to share, in the interests of budget, strangely Hasselt has no youth-hostel style accommodation in its town centre – but it does have a great one just outside. De Roerdomp lies in the wooded countryside, just north of the Open Air Museum of Bokrijk. With bike-hire on site, it makes for a good base to go exploring the rural charms of the Demer valley, and the Kempen plateau to the north. The area also has several small campsites dotted around its woods.
For The Love Of Beer
As seems par for the course with Hasselt, the breweries of this Limburg city are a diverse bunch, and rather keen on doing things their way. Perhaps the best brewery experience to be had actually isn't one. Well not a trading one, anyway. It's at the Bokrijk Open Air Museum.
This living history museum has brought-to-life the skill (and hard work) of a 17th-century brewery. Based on the tools, techniques and ingredients used by the Paenhuys Brewery, in nearby Diepenbeek, you can find out more about the 'old-school' brew, Hasselt-style, here.
More 'beer and history' associations can be had at Helchteren, a few miles north of Hasselt, up on the Kempen. Here you will discover the charms of the Abbey brewery of De Dool, housed in the 16th-century castle of Ter Dolen. This was once the home of the abbots of St. Truiden, but is now a brewery, pub, B&B and history lesson – all rolled into one.
The beers range from the Ter Dolen Lager (ABV 6.1 %), known for its softness and slight-bitterness, to the Christmas-y caramel carnival of the Ter Dolen Dark (ABV 7.1 %).
Not forgetting the fully-hopped and malted marvel of the Ter Dolen Triple (ABV 8.1%). And no trip to the Castle is complete without a tipple of its award-winning Armand (ABV 7.0%).
Another Hasselt brewery kicking its own path to your palate is the microbrewery of Jessenhofke. A local Kuringen family – with a passion both for beer and the environment – have produced a fine line of organic beers from their tiny brewery. Not only are the ingredients sourced from organic providers, but all power for the brewery is 100% green. The beers range from the typical Belgian Blonds and Bruins to the very atypical: garlic beer, Hungarian pepper beer and Quinoa beer all feature. Like we said, those 'Hasse Boot' do like to keep it diverse..
But if you want to get back to the straight and narrow, one beer you certainly can't miss in Limburg is the Alken Cristal. This pilsner of repute was first brewed in Alken, just south of Hasselt, way back in 1928.
Sadly, that local brewer, with its fine pedigree, has long been swallowed up by multinational brewing behemoth Carlsberg/Heineken; the Cristal is no longer actually brewed here. But you'd be mad not to have a sip of three this refreshingly bitter foam-topped lager, while here. After all, you're in its birthplace, the land of Loon.
Food & Gastronomy
Like many Belgian cities these days, the food-culture of Hasselt is a bit of medley. Its restaurants draw in their influences variously from Flemish, French, European and world cuisine. So you can simply pay your money, and take your choice. But the really distinctive thread, which really makes Hasselt stand-out, is its Limburgisch attitude to food: food for the pleasure of eating, not necessarily for the viewing.
So portions are generous, ingredients carefully selected, preparation paramount – and presentation secondary. And, because Hasselt lies close to one of the more wooded, and less populated, parts of the wider Flanders region (the Campine, or Kempen) wild foods feature highly.
So too does offal. Typical dishes to be found in the more traditional Hasselt restaurants could include kopvlees (or 'head cheese'), a jellied brawn often accompanied with a hunk of bread and sliced sausages; balkenbrij, a meaty blood pudding made from stock, flour, blood, bacon and offal, all ground together with rommelkruid spice blend; and zoervleis, a horsemeat stew, mixing sweet and sour flavours. So far, so offal, as it were.
You'll also find the fries are a little different here, too. Thicker, and more like British chips, they are somewhat meaty, invariably being fried in oxen suet (so that's one to watch out for among the vegetarians). And no trip to a city this close to the Limburg heartland should end without at least a whiff of that most notorious of cheeses – the Limburger.
Hasselt also has its sweetmeat specialities, top of which has to be the Hasseltse speculaas, a wonderfully crispy-yet-goey baked biscuit. Most of the local patisseries will have thick slabs of spicy speculaas cooling on the racks, so do grab a homp (chunk) or two.
Then there's the knapkoek (a cinnamon snap-biscuit from Maaseikse), and the local take on the vlaai (Limburg's most famous marmalade pie) the Bakkemiekesvlaai, which is actually from Neeroeteren.
Shopping & Markets
Retail is obviously big in Hasselt – you just need to look at the way the twin towers of the TT-wijk shopping centre grab all the attention in the city centre. In fact some reckon it's fourth-ranked in the list of top Flanders shopping cities. Some might also say that over-development has left the town lacking a little in authentic and artisanal shops.
But it has made Hasselt something of mecca for modern-day shoppers. And the authentic is still here, if you know where to look. The Koning Albertstraat and Demerstraat are the busiest of Hasselt's shopping thoroughfares, with a mix of brand fashion stores, chocolatiers, perfume shops and jewellers.
The Kapelstraat, Aldestraat and Hoogstraat areas are reckoned to have the most upmarket shops, with boutique clothes and shoe shops, together with some of the top designer brands.
Traditional markets are held here every Tuesday and Friday, in the wide open-space of the central square, the Kolonel Dusartplein. This becomes a winter village, just before Christmas, complete with ice-rink and festive stalls. From April to November there is also an antique and flea-market, held here every Saturday's morning. And behind Hasselt's town hall, on Saturday evenings throughout summer, an art market reveals some of the most interesting, and current, works of local artists.
Sightseeing & Culture
With most Flanders cities, the sights start (and end) with the towering church or the splendid town hall. Hasselt has both of these, of course, but it also has a few left-of-field sights, just begging for the viewing. Perhaps the most unexpected is the Japanese Tuin, six acres of sculpted serenity, modelled on a 17th-century garden from Japan's Edo era. The idea for this unusual garden came from the twinning of Hasselt with the Japanese city of Itami, in 1985.
It involves rivers, ponds, verandahs and 250 cherry trees – a great place to visit in April, when the Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) party kicks off. If you'd rather take in a swig of Flemish, rather than Japanese, culture, perhaps the best place to head is the Witte Nonnenstraat.
Here is where you'll find the National Jenever Museum. And there are few things more Flemish than jenever, that wickedly unrestrained precursor to the tamer gins found elsewhere.
Hasselt is one of the few cities to bear the title of jeneversteden (or Jenever Town). Here you can find out everything you wanted to know about the origins of this juniper-infused spirit. You can also get a free tasting of the famed liquor – and maybe learn the difference between oude jenever and jonkie (hint: it's all about the malt, not the age).
But leaving the spirits aside, and looking to the spiritual instead, don't forget that Hasselt does have religious buildings of merit that are worth more than a glance.
Granted, St. Quintinuskerk Cathedral, on the Grote Markt, may not be the most impressive church to be seen in Belgium.
But it does have some interesting features: the Niehofforge, an organ dating back to the 16th-century, and a gargoyle of a screaming woman, who many say is a witch. Out of town is the most-impressive Herkenrode Abbey, a 12th-century abbey founded by Count Gerard of Loon. It is a wonderful, ranging pile of red bricks, most of which has been restored relatively recently.
A fire in the 19th-century destroyed much of the original abbey church. It has been a retreat for Cistercian nuns for some eight centuries, except for a long period after the arrival of the French Revolutionary Army.
Also out of town is the Bokrijk Open-air Museum. This is a 17th-century village brought back to life, complete with farmhouses and cottages from various parts of the rural Flemish provinces.
Here you can see real live practitioners of crafts like milling, baking and lace making – and maybe even get to help out. Perhaps the demonstration most likely to get attention, though, is the reconstructed Paenhuys brewery, where you can get up close and personal with the ancient art of brewing.
Finally, you can round off your Hasselt sight-seeing quest with a walk on the light-side – the Comic Strip Route. This celebrates the best of Belgium's many famous cartoon characters. All along the way you'll see bright murals of some you may have heard of – Tin-tin, Nero, Spike and Suzy – and some you probably won't – Jommeke, The Kiekeboes, Urbanus, Samson and Gert anyone?
Activities & Entertainment
With the pretty rolling orchards of the Haspengouw to the south, and the wide open moors of the Kempen to the north, Hasselt makes for a good base for touring. You could do it by car. You almost certainly could do it by bus (the area being renowned for its public transport). But many, naturally enough, choose to wander around by bike. There are certainly a plethora of cycle routes around town, along the Albert Canal, with some casting further afield, for those who feel fit enough.
The canal itself actually makes for a great day out. There are regular river cruises through the town, and you can even book special trips to Liège, or overnight stops in Maastricht. Or if you're want a seriously different perspective, hot air balloon flights can be booked from a company in town.
When evening comes, Hasselt is a city that knows how to keep you entertained. It has a good club-scene, as well as plenty of bars offering live music (though many are geared towards students). It's been enough for the city to win awards for being the “most sociable city of Flanders". They also like their festivals here. The suburb of Kiewit hosts the annual Pukkelpop (or Pimplepop) festival, which now one of Europe's biggest gatherings for alternative music – with 100 or more acts playing out over a weekend in August.
And just to keep the elders happy, there's now a counterpart, called Rimpelrock (or Wrinklerock!), which targets a more mature demographic. Festivals of a more religious nature include the annual Kermesse for the town's patron saint (Saint Lambert), which happens in September, and the once-7-yearly event of Virga Jesse festival. This is when a venerable (and sacred) wooden statue of Jesus and Mary is paraded around town. The spectacle is well worth catching, if you happen to be in town on the right year (next scheduled for 2017).
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
As the capital of Limburg, and a city at the heart of the Meuse-Rhine Euro-region, Hasselt is ideally located for international events. Although it may be on the edge of Flanders, it has good connections spanning cities from three countries (including to Belgian Heerlen, Hasselt and Liège, Dutch Maastricht and German Aachen), as well as back to the capital Brussels.
As a result it has become well-equipped for conferencing. In fact, it has one of the largest exhibition complexes in the Low Countries – the Grenslandhallen. With 5 halls, a massive 20,000 seater arena, and a full-complement of facilities, it is perfectly for placed to host larger-scale events. Halls range from 400 square metres to over 13,000 square metres.
The large modern hotels in Hasselt also provide excellent facilities for more mid-sized meetings and conferences. Holiday Inn has meeting facilities that can handle up to 300 people – with all the support services they'll needed – while hotels like Hassotel and Ibis Hotel can cater to smaller groups of less than 100. And, of course, the Radisson Blu offers up its conferencing facilities with the boast of the best view in town, atop their 14 storey tower – including the famed 'Sky-lounge' champagne bar.
Hasselt also has numerous possibilities for making events that little bit special. River cruises, balloon rides, brewery tours, Japanese gardens, and the wide open spaces of the Kempen – these are just some of the ingredients the city brings to the table. The local Hasselt MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is focussed on helping organisers develop these event ideas. They can advise on the logistical side of organising meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Hasselt can even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and to get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.
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