Industrial meets natural at Connecterra gateway

Summary

A new gateway at Flanders’ only national park is part of a local initiative to give new uses to Limburg’s former mine sites

Remnants of the past

Belgium’s only national park has a new gateway, but it’s not actually located in the Hoge Kempen National Park. And that’s not the only way in which Connecterra is different from the other five recreation areas that provide public access to the park.

Located just to the east of the Hoge Kempen on the site of a former coal mine, Connecterra combines a natural environment with Flanders’ industrial heritage. Eisden, in the municipality of Maasmechelen, was one of seven mines in Limburg and was active from 1922 until 1987. When the mine closed, three large slag heaps – hills comprised of waste material from the mines – were left behind. Today, those hills are covered with vegetation and comprise the main features of Connecterra’s landscape.

The new gateway encompasses other relics of the site’s industrial past: two distinctive headframes that once crowned underground mine shafts now greet visitors at the park entrance. The older of the two dates from 1921 and is completely original. The other is a reconstruction of a 1926 structure. Visitors can climb the staircase to the lower platform, situated at a height of 12 metres, for a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

The sixth gateway to be opened, Connecterra has the prestigious title of hoofdtoegangspoort, meaning it’s the Hoge Kempen’s main access point. So it’s a little surprising to learn that it’s not actually enclosed within the boundaries of the national park (pictured).

The land, along with the rest of the Eisden mine site, is privately owned by the Maas Valley Development Company, which is responsible for other tourism and commercial ventures in the area. The inauguration of the new access gate is part of a local initiative to find economically viable uses for the former industrial site while respecting Eisden’s role as part of Flanders’ cultural heritage.

Innovative construction

Visitors can choose from four hiking paths varying from 1.4 to 10.9 kilometres in length. The two longer paths circle a large lake at the centre of the park, and there are panoramic lookout points atop two of the three former slag heaps. The slopes of the three hills provide a habitat for a range of flora, birds and insects. Along the various trails, walkers encounter a variety of terrain, from shaded woods to grass-covered fields.

In keeping with its status as the park’s main gateway, Connecterra boasts a brand new visitors’ centre that showcases an innovative construction method. Clad in untreated larch, the wood-framed structure was completed in just five months. Its simple lines and natural materials harmonise with the landscape, and the floor-to-ceiling windows offer a panoramic view of the outdoors. The centre also houses an info desk, snack bar and shop.

Rangers are on hand at the visitors’ centre to offer educational programmes for young and old. There is also a large playground for kids, while a number of picnic tables provide a nice spot to enjoy a cold drink or ice cream. Connecterra is conveniently located next to the local tourist information office and the Maasmechelen Village shopping mall. A restaurant and cinema occupy former mine buildings at the site, and a luxury hotel is currently being developed.

Photo by Anneleen Mengels

Hoge Kempen National Park

Hoge Kempen National Park is Flanders’ largest nature reserve and its only national park. Situated between Genk and the Meuse Valley in Limburg province, the park consists mostly of heathland, moorlands and pine woods.
Purple - In August and September, species like common and bell heather colour the park purple.
At the top - With a 50- to 100-metre altitude, the park is in the highest part of the Kempen.
Five - Visitors can enter the park from gateways in five cities – As, Genk, Lanaken, Maasmechelen and Zutendaal.
2 006

park opened

5 000

surface area in hectares

800 000

visitors per year