A night to remember
One evening a year, people in Flanders have the chance to immerse themselves in the past and learn about their local history. De Nacht van de Geschiedenis, or The Night of History, finds more than 240 events spread across the whole of Brussels and Flanders in such diverse places as castles, bakeries, artists’ studios, town halls, farmhouses, breweries and churches.
History lessons have never been so engaging as during Flanders’ annual Night of History
Every year, The Night of History is organised around a different theme, and this year it’s Craftsmanship. Craftspeople, historians and storytellers will give lectures and demonstrations on a rich array of trades practised in bygone times and today. Glass blowers, chocolatiers, bookbinders, auto mechanics, luthiers, stone carvers, master brewers, cheese makers, surveyors, blacksmiths, art restorers, puppeteers ... a dizzying array of experts wax poetic about their vocations.
In Zwalm (East Flanders), graffiti artist Quentin Van Den Brande will talk about his work and let participants try their hand at creating some graffiti of their own. At the Brussels Museum of Mills and Nutrition in Evere, witloof cultivator Henri de Schouwer will recount his personal experience growing “white gold”. And in Assebroek (West Flanders), archivist André Vandewalle will give a presentation on craftsmen in Bruges during the middle ages and how to identify traces of the guilds still visible in the city today.
Can’t decide on one vocation? Then choose one of the many events that combine several in one location. In Maaseik (Limburg), for instance, 10 presentations will be featured in a handful of historic venues in the city centre. These include painting restoration, ornamental wood carving, haberdashery and brewing, and you can follow the city’s walking tour to ensure that you don’t miss a thing.
Making history sexy
This year’s theme, says Jeroen Sleurs, general director of Davidsfonds, the organisation behind the Night of History, addresses the duality behind craftsmanship. “On the one hand, there are fewer craftsmen today than there were 10, 20 or 50 years ago. On the other hand, people are becoming interested in doing things themselves, as a hobby.” There’s a nostalgia for the handmade and a renewed appreciation for sustainability and for quality.
Sleurs describes Davidsfonds as a “cultural network” of 5,000 volunteers working with 500 local groups across Flanders to organise 10,000 activities a year. What started out in 1875 as an organisation dedicated to promoting the Dutch language has now grown into a modern educational institution that also encompasses a travel company, a publishing department and the University of Free Time, offering classes for adults on a wide range of topics.
The idea behind the Night of History was to “make history sexier,” says Sleurs. For many people, history is boring – something you have to learn in school, or that happens in a museum. “We wanted to show as many people as possible the variety of historical activities in Flanders and Brussels.” And because the past can be mysterious, they chose to hold the event in the evening “to evoke the mystery a little”.
My Night of History
Lest you think this is all rhetoric, let me tell you about my first Night of History experience. It was last year, and the theme was Drink, which sounded promising. My husband and I signed up for an event in Sint-Lambrechts-Herk, a district of Hasselt, on the Wideux estate, a feudal domain that once encompassed a castle, farm, chapel, lake, brewery and surrounding lands.
Our evening’s activities took place in three places that once formed part of the Wideux lands: the gatehouse, the farm and the chapel. Our meeting point was De Bloonwinning, a bed and breakfast in a traditional, four-sided brick farmhouse. Due to the number of participants (Night of History is quite popular), we were divided into three groups and took turns visiting each location.
Our group was led out of De Bloonwinning’s inner courtyard by a torch-wielding volunteer who guided us to a second location: the former gatehouse and stables, now a private residence. We followed him down a rutted farm road between the fields, the path lit by candles glowing in glass jars hung from fence posts.
On reaching the neoclassical gatehouse, we were directed towards a small door and stairs that led to a basement room. A slide projector, portable screen and benches were set up on one side of the room, and we were given a brief talk about the history of the domain and its role in the region.
We were then invited to an adjoining room where our hosts offered everyone a glass of apple wine, which was excellent, and I found myself wishing I could take home a bottle. Sadly, it wasn’t available for purchase at any price, having been made in limited quantities by a local from apples grown nearby. Trays of rustic boterhammen (sandwiches) were passed around as well.
A light on the past
Finally, we headed back out into the night and retraced our steps to De Bloonwinning, where we sat at tables warmed by heat lamps in the courtyard. We nibbled on gourmet bites from De Bloonwinning’s kitchen, while Gert Jordens, the brewer behind Jessenhofke in Hasselt, gave an informal talk about his organic beers and brewing process. And, of course, we also enjoyed a glass of Jessenhofke’s blonde.
Although we were reluctant to leave the cosy atmosphere, it was soon time to head out again and walk to our last destination, the old estate chapel. Small glasses of poire, a liqueur made from pears grown on the estate, were passed around, along with trays of bite-sized canapés. After the talk, we filed down the narrow stairs into the crypt to see the tombs of the former lords of Wideux.
Walking through the countryside at night with only candles to light our way, then hearing about the history of the land and the people who lived there, I had the feeling I was walking back in time. Combined with the unique alcoholic drinks and other treats, the educational aspect took on a pleasurably tactile component. It was an evening to remember, and a history lesson I’ll never forget.
De Nacht van de Geschiedenis
Across Brussels and Flanders