Where the lion sleeps
Hidden off the beaten path in far eastern Flemish Brabant, Zoutleeuw is awash in the history of the region. A hugely important city 800 years ago, it still bears some of the trappings of the time and one of the region’s best recreational parks.
Once an important trade centre, Zoutleeuw still offers much to curious visitors
First of all, let’s deal with its strange name. Zoutleeuw. Does it originate from the times when lions (leeuwen) with a taste for salt (zout) roamed the hills of Flemish Brabant?
Not at all. Until the 16th century, the village was simply called Leeuw. Disappointingly, it has nothing to do with lions at all. It’s believed to be a corruption of the old Germanic word hlaiwa, meaning a tumulus or burial mound. The salty bit was added much later, probably referring to the salt tax that Leeuw charged neighbouring villages.
Today, the once-prominent town of Zoutleeuw is hidden away, found only by those seeking it out. The E40 flashes by to its south. Shoppers descend on the larger nearby towns of Tienen and Sint-Truiden. But things were different in the 12th century. Then the town – still called Leeuw, remember – was on the important Bruges-Cologne trade route. Even better, it was the first/last border crossing between the Duchy of Brabant and the principality of Liège. In 1312, it was named one of the most important cities in Brabant.
Such a strategic location demanded strong town walls – dating back to 1130 and still evident today. In the 14th century, four new city gates were added. Soon afterwards, a new garrison was built to house the soldiers sent to Zoutleeuw to keep law and order in such a bustling and economically important place.
Alas, by the 16th century Zoutleeuw was struggling to maintain its reputation. In 1525 the navigability of the Grote Gete river was extended to Tienen, which became the most important centre of trade in eastern Brabant. The Flemish cloth industry began to decline in the face of English competition, resulting in less trade with Germany. In retrospect, the construction of Zoutleeuw’s magnificent town hall in 1529 was more of a swansong than a demonstration of its wealth.
Worse was to come. The great flood of 1573 submerged most of the town, and the resulting plague decimated its inhabitants. Five years later the Spanish army plundered what was left of Zoutleeuw. The final nails in its coffin were no less than three huge fires between 1676 and 1706.
Past on view
And yet, amazingly, much of Zoutleeuw’s magnificent past can still be seen. The town hall was renovated in the 19th century and is a wonderful example of early Renaissance architecture. Alongside is the small but splendid Cloth Hall, which dates from 1317. Opposite, the huge Sint-Leonardus church looms over the Grote Markt.
All three buildings can be visited, while an interesting four-kilometre walk takes in the remnants of the town walls and gates. It ends on the Grote Markt, where you can enjoy a drink on the terrace of one of the cafes, while admiring other remarkable buildings such as the Spiegelhuis (Mirror House) and the Huis de Rode Leeuw (House of the Red Lion).
That’s your morning done, and, after a bit to eat (see sidebar), it’s time to head to Het Vinne, the provincial nature domain just two kilometres from Zoutleeuw’s Grote Markt. It really is a lovely area to walk in, and it, too, is swathed in history.
Het Vinne is mentioned as far back as 1278 as an area set aside for the residents of Zoutleeuw to cut peat for their fires. Peat-cutting ceased in 1844 when the Union Allumetières company planted the area with poplars, which they harvested to make matches. When the matchmaking industry fizzled out, the province of Brabant bought the whole area and converted it into a recreation and nature park.
They’ve done an exceptional job. The lake, reed beds and surrounding woods have been carefully nurtured to encourage a wealth of wildlife. Birdwatchers come from far afield to spot the rarities that frequently drop in during migration: osprey, spotted crake, purple heron, little bittern, great reed warbler and whiskered tern have all been sighted in the last few months.
The marshy areas, meanwhile, hold large populations of green frogs, marsh frogs, toads and newts, and on a sunny day you won’t know where to look next as hundreds of dragonflies zoom by, with glorious names like green-eyed hawker, four-spotted chaser, black-tailed skimmer and large redeye.
What I particularly like about Het Vinne is that it is very child-friendly. You may find it hard to drag your offspring away from the large playground at the entrance, but once you do they will find plenty more to occupy themselves. This includes the visitor centre with a lot of easy-tounderstand displays; an insect hotel and a bee village; a cute collection of rabbits, sheep, goats and donkeys; and part of the forest where they can run wild, jump on tree trunks, build camps and pretend they are Bear Grylls.
Also, there are numerous well-signposted walks around the lake. You may have to hold your little one’s hand tightly on some of the boardwalks that extend over the water, but they are well worth following as they lead to four observation hides to give close-up views of the local birds.
After all that, you’re probably in need of more sustenance, so you’ll be pleased to know that Bistro Het Vinne offers an excellent selection of drinks and meals. As the terrace overlooks the children’s playground, you can relax over a Herkenrode Tripel while keeping an eye on the kids as they burn off their remaining energy.
Now there’s just the evening left! For the perfect end to your day in Zoutleeuw, what about a hot air balloon flight? Rainbow Ballooning specialises in flights over Zoutleeuw and the surrounding region in the safe hands of professional pilot Bart Liesmons. One of their packages even includes a barbecue at Het Vinne.
Or if you like to keep your feet on the ground – or your wheels, rather – you can rent bikes at Het Vinne and take off for a pleasant evening’s cycle ride through the region. One interesting 33-kilometre route starts in the domain and passes through the valleys of the Kleine Gete and Grote Gete rivers.
Eating and sleeping
Between your walk around the
town walls and your afternoon
spent at Het Vinne, you’ll need
some refreshment. Peppermill is an American sports
bar and restaurant on the Grote
Markt that does a mean burger
and blueberry cheesecake, while,
for the more refined palate, L’Air
des Sens on the nearby Vincent
Betsstraat offers an eight-course
meal that focuses on local produce
and regional specialities.
Finally, if you think there is enough to do in and around Zoutleeuw for longer than a day – and there certainly is – then don’t hesitate to knock on the door at Hof Ter Wallen, a charming vacation house available to rent for a weekend. The beautifully restored 17th-century farmhouse features a cobbled courtyard, cherry orchard, peaceful rose garden and well-equipped rooms. Alternatively, B&B Het Leeuwerveld is right next to Het Vinne and offers three two-person rooms.