Valley full of life
In the east of Flanders, the river Maas forms the border with the Netherlands for 46 kilometres. It’s now also the backbone of the RivierPark Maasvallei, a 2,500-hectare nature park co-created and maintained by Flemish and Dutch organisations that cleaned up the region after decades of mismanagement and pollution.
The river Maas sheds its polluted past to provide fertile grounds for the Maas Valley River Park
On a tour of the RivierPark Maasvallei (Maas Valley River Park), project leader Lambert Schoenmaekers points out how the area has been redeveloped in the last five years. Negotiations with farmers and gravel companies have already led to a park of 650 hectares in Flanders, and the goal is to return an area of about 1,100 hectares on this side of the border to nature.
Schoenmaekers works for the RivierPark’s co-ordinating non-profit Regionaal Landschap Kempen en Maasland (RLKM). Trained guides – called Maas Explorers – can lead you around the wild river banks of the Grensmaas (Border Maas) and show you the old villages with their castles in the Maas valley.
“In the past, farmers expanded their fields until they reached the river, pushing out the wild species of fauna and flora,” says Schoenmaekers. “The fertilisers and pesticides also polluted the water.”
Gravel companies also did not consider the consequences for the environment in the places where they dug up gravel for cement production. Part of the financing for RivierPark now comes from the contributions made by gravel companies to a “restructuring fund” that goes towards returning gravel pits to the natural state. RLKM sets up dialogues with all actors in the process to balance different interests, with visible results.
Birds are flocking to the sites and animals such as beavers are again being seen in the region. “Just like fish, they benefit from the improved water quality,” explains Schoenmaekers. Water quality has gotten a further boost with the opening of a water purification plant at Liège. “In the future, we hope to welcome back otters, who could be ideal mascots for our eco-friendly reputation.”
Perhaps less appreciated by the general public – but vital to the eco-system – are the insects that have returned. They populate an increasingly varied landscape of flowers, plants and trees. Responsible for safeguarding this newly rebuilt biodiversity are nature organisations such as Natuurpunt and Limburgs Landschap. They, for example, have brought Galloway cattle and Konik horses to the terrain, which help to preserve the landscape by grazing and spreading seeds. Waterways management company De Scheepvaart maintains the riverbank, with special care for the herbs growing there. The RivierPark Maasvallei is developed with the subsidies and knowledge of Flemish government departments and European projects.
Rare in Europe
Flood protection is a major issue for the Maas valley, as this part of the Maas river is extremely unpredictable, quickly increasing in volume with rain, which makes it also unfit for shipping traffic. The wild characteristics of the Border Maas are unique in the Low Countries and rare in Europe.
Until recently, the principal strategy was to put the river in tight channels by building high dikes. But this approach proved to be counterproductive, actually leading to an increased risk of flooding. “Compare the Maas to a dog who was constantly kept on a very short leash,” says Schoenmaekers. “The river didn’t have the room to manoeuvre when necessary, leading to disasters.”
In the winters of 1993 and 1995, heavy rainfall caused floods that put several Maas valley villages under water. Since then, a mentality change has gradually been transforming the water management system into a method of building with nature instead of building in nature.
De Scheepvaart, based in Hasselt, is lowering the tight summer dikes, providing the river with plenty of space to occupy in humid winter conditions. “High water” conditions are also to the benefit of the grounds next to the river, where the water enriches the biodiversity. The winter dikes further away prevent the water from reaching residential areas. “While floods in the past occurred about every 50 years, the goal is to limit the risk to once in 250 years,” says Schoenmaekers.
What’s in it for you
Currently, the team at RivierPark Maasvallei is working hard to address the needs of visitors while preserving the wild character of nature. There is a large network of walking and cycle routes, with several picnic spots along the way. A viewing tower is being planned, while bird watchers will be able to spot different species from a bird hide. There will be special facilities for fishing, and tourists can board quiet, eco-friendly electric boats or kayaks to roam the water.
Visitors will soon be able to book themed tours, under the guidance of the trained MaasVerkenners or Maas Explorers. “They will serve as rangers in the park,” says Schoenmaekers. In the future, there will also be digital tours available on tablets and smartphones.
Reviving the villages
RivierPark combines ecological improvement with restoring the cultural heritage of the villages in the Maas valley. The valley has a rich history as an important commercial centre until shipping traffic on this part of the river became prohibited in the 19th century.
Maaseik was the area’s most important trading village in the middle ages, gaining considerable cultural prestige thanks to the influential master painters Hubert and Jan van Eyck, born in the city in the 14th century. A statue on the market square honours these famous sons of Maaseik.
Five authentic medieval villages serve as “entrance gates” (see sidebar) to the RivierPark and to eight castle domains. The cultural hotspots are often situated at river branches that used to be part of the main river, until it altered its course after a flood.
One of the best features of the RivierPark is the ferry service, which allows you to quickly hop over the river to villages in the Netherlands, such as the “white village” of Thorn. Close by is also the Hoge Kempen National Park, the largest nature reserve in Flanders.
If you want to explore the RivierPark Maasvallei, it’s best to first visit the Maascentrum De Wissen in Dilsen- Stokkem, which also houses an exhibition on how the river Maas has shaped the history of the region.
On 25 August, RivierPark Maasvallei hosts its official launch event for the public, with concerts, sports and cultural activities.
This way in
In the course of the centuries, a string of small villages developed alongside the Maas river, of which five now serve as ideal “entrance gates” to the RivierPark Maasvallei. The route connecting the villages via the dikes is about 35 kilometres long.
1 Kessenich is the most north-eastern village of Flanders. Because of the unpredictable character of the river Maas and the need for protection against looting Vikings, the area was ruled from a mountain castle – around which the village grew. Today, Kessenich no longer borders the Maas, which has changed its course. Kessenich is however the ideal spot to discover the diverse nature reserve Vijverbroek.
2 Aldeneik is of Frankish origin, like almost all Maas villages,
more specifically through the establishment of a monastery by
the saints Harlindis and Relindis. According to legend, these
sisters wrote the Gospel Book known as the Codex Eyckensis,
still preserved in Maaseik. The cultural history of Aldeneik is
further interlaced with legends of witches and miracles.
From Aldeneik, you can walk into the recreation area Heerenlaakplas, which came into being through gravel extraction. The area of the popular pilgrimage site Heppeneert is also surrounded by walking trails.
3 Stokkem was for centuries the dominant centre of basket
weaving. An exhibition at the Maascentrum De Wissen brings
this traditional craft back to life. The village surrounds you in
the atmosphere of the early 20th century via its remarkable
facades, cobblestones, lampposts and fishermen’s houses. An
exceptional site is the town church, which is situated in the
midst of a row of houses.
The wild environment of Negenoord-Kerkeweerd is an ideal walking area, while the nature area Bichterweert is the place to be for bird watchers.
4 Leut’s highlight is the castle domain Vilain XIIII, with its spacious English park. The castle has a moat, and you can visit the ruins of an ice house, where ice was once stored throughout the year. The Maas dike leads you to the varied landscape of Maesbempder Greend, with extraordinarily rich herb beds.
5 Oud-Rekem was awarded the title of most beautiful
village of Flanders in 2008 by Tourism Flanders, thanks to its
authentic village centre. Central to it is the Groenplaats and
Sint-Pieters Church. From here, winding streets take you to
picturesque historical buildings. The castle of d’Aspremont-Lynden is a monument in the Renaissance style of the Maas
Outside the lovely village lies Hochterbampd, the most southern nature area in the RivierPark Maasvallei. It’s a rare spot along the Border Maas where a forest has grown.