A bewitching path
Castles conjure up rich historical imagery. These commanding stone structures elicit thoughts of a bygone era where the iron fist of nobility and armoured battles were commonplace. For the third instalment of our castle recreation series, we take you to a place in East Flanders with an especially wicked past.
Castle Laarne’s haunting past is revealed along a seemingly innocent walk
The town of Laarne lies just east of Ghent and is home to Castle Laarne, one of the most well preserved, feudal water castles in Belgium. In the early 1600s, Laarne and the adjacent village of Kalken were the sites of witch hunts. Several accused witches were imprisoned in the keep of the castle, where they were interrogated and tortured. Four of these were later burned at the stake.
A few years back, some creative and clever women convinced the towns to embrace this sordid history. The Heksengilde (Witches Guild) is a group of eight women who regularly don capes and pointy black hats in order to promote tourism and historical interest in their communities.
The Heksengilde worked with the area tourist council to establish the Heksenpad (Witches Path) in 2007 as a way to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of the witch burnings.
The Witches Path
The Heksenpad is a walking or biking path that references Laarne and Kalken’s dark but fascinating witchhunt history. You can get a map of it at the Laarne tourist office. The map includes historical information, and there are also placards along the route with information in Dutch.
I chose to bike the 20-kilometre Heksenpad due to its length, but there are some portions of the path that are more suited to walking if you have the time. The route is well marked with white hexagonal signs, which are easy to follow if you’re on foot, but which can be a bit elusive if you’re cycling. I suggest procuring a map to avoid getting too lost.
You start your trip at the castle, cycling east on Kasteeldreef. Follow the signs until the road turns to dirt. You’ll see mainly farmland here with some trees along the edges. When you get to a bend in the road, take a right. This is where Janne Callens, midwife and suspected witch, had a homestead. Callens is one of the four unfortunate souls to have been burned at the stake back in 1607.
Keep following the signs, and you’ll soon be on another dirt path heading towards Ascopstraat. At the intersection of Ascopstraat and Heirweg is the site of the Laarne gallows, where criminals were hung and where the witches were burned.
Turn right onto Heirweg. As you continue, take note of the intersection with Rivierenstraat on your left. This is the site where Passcheyne Neyts lived – another of the persecuted witches.
Keep going on Heirweg until you reach Holeindestraat and then make a left. Take care here; this can be a busy intersection. The path here is fairly straight and then it makes a curve. Take a left at Holeinderede – a dirt path that connects back to Rivierenstraat. Just before it does, you’ll see the spot where Lieven Lammens, the only man in this area accused of witchcraft, lived. Lammens escaped death by fire but was tortured both at the Castle Laarne and Gravensteen Castle in Ghent, before being exiled from the community for 10 years.
Cross Rivierenstraat and make a left onto Beddeneedstraat. Follow Beddeneedstraat for some time until you reach Ascopstraat and take a right. The signs will lead you then down a dirt path that will take you through fields and then into a pretty clearing within a wooded area. Three dirt paths intersect here. It’s a great, shaded spot to take a break.
Make a right out of the woods. The dirt path will line up with Bergstraat, and you’ll be headed towards Klein Gent (Little Ghent). You’ll see a placard indicating the home of Josyne Celis, another midwife and suspected witch, who was also executed in 1607.
Continue onward and upward to cross over the E17. Make a right on Magretstraat and follow this street until it intersects with Rietveldstraat. Follow the signs, and soon you’ll cross over Dendermondesteenweg. You’ll see the restaurant La Fermette; the witches were said to have held Sabbath near this spot.
Continuing, you’ll cross over the E17 again and end up on Meerskant. You’ll pass the Vanhercke B&B, owned by one of Laarne’s contemporary witches. It’s a cosy place with two guest cottages across from a pretty pond.
Next take a right on Lagen Heirweg. This scenic, tree-lined portion of the ride takes you past the Paardenmelkerij 't Kattenheye, an equine dairy farm with beautiful Halflinger horses. Here you can buy a number of items made with horse milk, including cosmetics, ice cream and even a liquor with a pleasant coconut flavour. ’t Kattenheye also provides tours and rents out stagecoaches. If you are lucky, and catch the owner at the right time, you can meet some of the horses.
Continue on Lagen Heirweg and follow the signs until you eventually make it to Eekhoekstraat. Turn right at Korte Eekhoekstraat. This puts you on a lovely path that takes you around the backside of the castle and back to the starting point via Mellestraat.
If you don’t have a leisurely day to spend in Laarne, I recommend walking the final portion of the route (from Eekhoekstraat to Korte Eekhoekstraat to Mellestraat) in order to do a small circle around the castle.
Or try the six-kilometre Kruidenpad. This marked walking path begins in Kalken and meanders along a canal. The walk features herbs and plants that were used by witches. Maps are available at the Laarne tourist office, and there are guided walks available. Members of the Heksengilde guide the first (18 July) and final (17 September) walks of the season.
Laarne Castle is only open on Sunday and Thursday and only with a reservation. It comes with a tour in Dutch for €7. The castle is home to an impressive collection of European silverware as well as antique weapons, furniture and art. You can request an English-speaking tour in advance, and a guidebook for the castle is also available in English.
Maps for the Heksenpad are available at the Laarne Tourist Office, but it is not open on the weekends and has varied hours during the week. Plan accordingly.
Laarne Tourist Office
There aren’t many options right along the Heksenpad for food and libations, but I did come across a charming little place in Destelbergen. De Verseau serves up typical Belgian cuisine and features a lovely terrace with comfortable teak chairs and umbrellas for shade. Meersakkerstraat 1, Destelbergen
If you are in the mood for more of a gastronomic experience, check out the Kasteel Van Laarne restaurant. It’s located in the outbuildings of the castle and has a terrace that provides a stunning view. For €60, you get dinner and dessert, with options like a half-lobster grilled with garlic butter and herbs or a smoked tuna and foie gras terrine. They also offer a business lunch for €30.