Turnhout’s Hotel Taxandria features a different history in every room
It’s called a hotel, but it’s in fact a museum, where each beautifully renovated room sheds light on the Kempen city’s past through a group of special residents
Welcome to the Hotel Taxandria
In Roman times, the area was called Taxandria, after the Germanic Toxandri tribe. Hence the name of the museum, which tells the tale of Turnhout as a city of culture, trade and rich history with the help of some special hotel guests.
The Taxandria Museum was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by the city’s historical society and moved to its current location in 1996. The building is in fact a 16th-century patrician’s residence, the oldest existing private dwelling in the city.
Locals still know it by the medieval name Huis metten Thoren (the house with the tower). It was home to visiting nobility in the days when the Dukes of Brabant ruled the surrounding Duchy.
The Huis metten Thoren’s well-preserved exterior and beautifully renovated interiors are the first reason to visit, but the collection on display inside also merits attention. The museum exhibits a large mix of art, objects and archaeological findings that have something to do with the city or the Kempen region.
In most cases, anyway, because the society behind the museum as well as its curators have also added some random personal favourites over the decades. This makes for a surprising mix, which is handily compartmentalised in the new museum set-up.
Museum turned hotel
The “hotel” in the Hotel Taxandria name is there for a reason: The rooms in the house are occupied by a lively gang of guests – some historical, some fictitious – who give an insight into the history of Turnhout.
The region was famous for falconry, and a deer can still be seen in the city’s coat of arms
The first to move in were the Ladies of Turnhout, prominent women who vacationed in the city’s castle and frequented the Huis metten Thoren in the 16th and 17th centuries. Women like Mary of Hungary, for example, the wife of King Louis of Hungary and Bohemia and the sister of Emperor Charles V, who made her Governor of the Netherlands in 1507. Or Amalia of Solms, wife of Prince of Orange Frederick Henry, or Maria van Zimmeren (pictured).
The two rooms dedicated to these royals, their suites if you will, are filled with portraits and take visitors back to the medieval heyday of Turnhout. They give insight into the relationships between the various noble houses and illustrate the growth of the city thanks to the textile industry.
In the 15th century, Turnhout was called Little Brussels because of its prominence. Stories about the exotic castle gardens, with their fountains and zoo, reached far and wide. When Charles V offered to build city walls, Turnhout declined. It preferred to stay a large vrijheid, in feudal terminology, instead of becoming an enclosed town.
Connecting the two spaces devoted to the Ladies of Turnhout is a magnificent old entrance hall, now known as the hunting room. It is inhabited by Hendrik “Wiske” van Heertum, the symbolical last deer of Turnhout. In reality, the last wild deer was seen in the city in 2004. It died in the garden of a woman called Wiske van Heertum. Hendrik refers to the Duke of Brabant, who gave the town autonomy in 1212, making its inhabitants free citizens.
The deer moved into the hotel with the ladies last year. His room tells of the forests and fields of the Kempen, beloved hunting grounds of old for dukes and duchesses. The region was famous for falconry, and a deer can still be seen in the city’s coat of arms. Hunters, however, were not the only ones drawn to the Kempen. Even today, artists find inspiration in its beautiful nature.
New guests, old stories
Hotel Taxandria opened last year, and several new guests have recently checked in. They are seven archetypical figures, introduced to further illustrate the history of the region and help connect the museum’s multifarious collection.
The archaeologist lives in a room filled with shards of ancient pottery and other remains found in the local soil. He explains that the first inhabitants were Neanderthals who lived here more than 200,000 years ago. In 57 BC, Julius Caesar invaded the territory and defeated the Eburones and Menapii tribes. Several Germanic tribes, including the Toxandri, eventually took their place.
The lace-makers earned the city the reputation of Bruges’ biggest rival
In the attic, visitors meet the lace-maker. In the 17th century, nuns as well as secular women began making lace in Turnhout. Their work earned the city the reputation of Bruges’ biggest rival, but the wages were so low that the entire industry was seen, in retrospect, as an exploitation of women.
This critical aside included on the information panels shows that Hotel Taxandria is concerned with presenting a historically correct image rather than just good PR. And that, despite the imaginative display, this is not a children’s museum. Young ones who tag along, however, can explore the museum at their own pace with the troubadour in the playroom.
More interesting guests and rooms include the tower guard, boarding school pupil, collector and commoner – and the tranquil garden is an attraction in itself. It is the perfect place to rest and bring oneself back to the present day after a walk through Turnhout’s past.
Hotel Taxandria may not have a Rubens or a Magritte, but it invites guests to rediscover local history on a human scale. More of a boutique hotel than an all-inclusive resort, it’s worth a five-star rating.