The 86-kilometre River Dijle rises near Nivelles in Wallonia but soon crosses the border a few kilometres south of Sint-Agatha-Rode. Here the river drunkenly zigzags through the fertile Flemish fields before sobering up and straightening out as if in reverence to its next ports of call: the cathedral towns of Leuven and Mechelen.
Follow the Dijle to Sint-Agatha-Rode and immerse yourself in the beauty of nature
Around Sint-Agatha-Rode the Dijle’s sharp bends have over the centuries become inaccessible to local farmers and are thus pockets of wildness: at this time of the year, a mass of Himalayan balsam. This relative of the garden Busy Lizzie is actually an unwanted introduction, but I can’t help liking it. Its purple or pink helmet-shaped flowers are pretty, and its seed pods are such fun; when ripe, they burst explosively with a delicate squeeze.
The village is named after Saint Agatha, the Christian martyr who was born in Sicily and died there in 251 AD. Among the tortures she endured was the removal of her breasts. In paintings, she is often depicted carrying her breasts on a plate.
It’s no surprise that Agatha is the patron saint for breast cancer. Less obvious is why she’s also the patron saint of bakers. This job may have been added to her CV from the mistaken impression that the paintings showed her carrying bread rolls.
I assumed that the rode (red) in the village name was linked with Agatha’s spilt blood, but I was way off. It’s from the Dutch word rooiing, which means to uproot. It simply refers to the digging up of trees in the 11th century to make way for the village.
The village church dates from the 13th century but has been restored multiple times. In 1578, iconoclasts set it on fire. During the Second World War, the nearby Dijle bridge was blown up, simultaneously blowing out many of the church’s stained-glass windows.
More resistant to the blast was the magnificent vrijheidsboom (liberty tree) in front of the church, which was planted in 1830 to mark the independence of Belgium. Since then it’s reached a height of over 30 metres and a girth of nearly five metres.
A pleasant 7.5-kilometre walk encircles Sint-Agatha-Rode and is excellently signposted. Along the way, you can stop off at the Grootbroek, a 30-hectare man-made lake and nature reserve. Despite its large expanse (hence its name), the Grootbroek is shallow, making it a favoured eatery for waders, herons and egrets – particularly in the spring and autumn migration periods. Overlooking the Grootbroek is a very smart wooden bird observation hide. It even has posters and info materials available – and is, amazingly, graffiti-free.
Bats on the water
The walk continues through the Rodebos (Red Forest), where in 1907 the remnants of a Roman villa were discovered. On the return path, you get to walk alongside another river – the Lane – which flows into the Dijle just north of the village.
The Rodebos and the Lane Valley are renowned among local naturalists as favourite hunting grounds for many species of bat. One type regularly identified in the area is Daubenton’s bat. Of medium size, it’s sometimes known as the water bat as you’ll often see it flying a few centimetres over the Lane’s surface, feeding on small flies and midges.
Daubenton’s bat also plucks insects directly from the water using its large feet, or sweeps up water bugs with its tail membrane. Being nocturnal, bats are not the easiest mammals to spot. You’re more likely to see a roe deer browsing among the beech trees.
There used to be 40 cafes in Sint-Agatha-Rode. One of them has been converted into a lovely B&B on Leuvensebaan: the Huis van Rooi. Established two years ago by local midwife Benedicte Vansina, it has already attracted guests from as far afield as Mexico, Japan and South Africa.
“Business people regularly stay here as their ‘second home’ because we are so much more cosy than a hotel,” Vansina says. “Tourists are attracted by the peaceful countryside and the endless walking, cycling and mountain bike routes.”
If you would rather be on two wheels than two feet, then you might be interested in paying a visit to Bike & Adventure on Oude Waversebaan. Here you can hire a mountain bike or a touring bike for adults and kids for €15 a day. They can also supply maps and recommendations for your excursion. If you want to take to the water, Bike & Adventure is also the place to go: They offer mini-rafts at €9 per person, which you can take for a paddle down the Dijle.
For a pleasant evening glass of something (or to quench your thirst after your walk, cycle or paddle), Vansina recommends the newly restored village cafe De Plataan, virtually next-door to The Huis van Rooi.