Ward off madness at the Fiertel in Ronse


A 1,000-year-old tradition in the Flemish Ardennes keeps the people of Ronse mentally fit as they make a pilgrimage in the name of St Hermes

Our daily bread

This month the citizens of Ronse will take part in a historical procession meant to keep them all from going mad. Allow us to explain.

The town in the Flemish Ardennes is home to the Sint-Hermes basilica and crypt – both very much worth visiting – and throughout the middle ages, it was a major pilgrimage site. This was because St Hermes could cure the mad.

This was not a pilgrimage site in name only; the bones of St Hermes are in fact in a shrine inside the basilica. Transported from Rome to Aachen in the ninth century, they soon settled in Ronse due to a relationship between the regions’ Catholic communities.

Residents, however, were known (and still are) as the Zotte van Ronse (the Mad of Ronse) because they could not be cured by St Hermes. The cure required a pilgrimage of at least 20 kilometres, and they all lived much closer than that.

It was a pickle. So the pragmatic people of Ronse came up with a solution: walk away from the village and back again. They created a very formal procession around this concept to show that they meant business – carrying the relics of St Hermes with them.

And so they do to this day. The Fiertel (the name is derived from feretrum, the Latin word for a funeral bier) takes place every Trinity Sunday, which this year is 16 June. It is more than 32 kilometres in distance, and thousands of people take part.

Besties: Rome & Ronse

Those who can walk the distance do, while others walk part of it or take to their bicycles. It’s not as important how you do the Fiertel as that you do the Fiertel.

“We’ve been doing this every year since the 11th century,” says Ronse city guide Isabelle De Vleeschauwer. “It’s the big event of the year; everybody talks about it. It’s our hope to get it recognised as Unesco world heritage.”

The city has recently donated €10,000 to the catacomb in Rome that served as Hermes’ burial site. The money will go towards a marble plaque to mark the site. A copy of the marker will be installed in the Sint-Hermes Crypt, below the basilica in Ronse. City authorities are also working on a plan to introduce a ceremony in Rome that would coincide with the Fiertel.

The presence of Hermes’ relics, the illustrious history as a pilgrimage site and the beautiful restoration of the crypt – some of which dates to the 11th century – prompted the Pope to recognise St Hermes as a basilica this year. All of this should help the Unesco application.

Weekend Fiertel celebrations, meanwhile, begin on Saturday with the bell tower ringing out, cannon fire and a late afternoon service. The next day, marching bands set the pace, as the Fiertel takes off from the centre of Ronse in the morning.

The group makes several stops along the 32.6-kilometre route for ceremonies and prayer. It winds back to the Sint-Hermes church at about 18.30 for a final ceremony.

And then, as the Flemish say, feest. “People visit the chapels over the weekend,” says De Vleeschauwer, “and I always joke that they visit the real chapels and the drinking chapels.”

They made sure they had bread that was not infected by the fungus. And that was how they cured them

- City guide Isabelle De Vleeschauwer

Pilgrims made the trip to Ronse for centuries; its reputation for curing physical and mental ailments was known throughout what is now northern France and Belgium. And there’s good reason why the story held up for so long: Ronse really did cure people.

It seems that the area was rife with ergotism, an illness caused by the ergot fungus. The fungus grows on grain crops, most particularly rye. While modern farming has all but eliminated ergot, in the middle ages, harvests of rye were full of it.

Conveniently for Ronse, everyone ate rye bread. And ergot not only causes diarrhoea and vomiting, it gives people seizures and hallucinations. In other words, madness.

The story gets better: the people of Ronse knew about the ergot but never informed the pilgrims. “It was a city secret,” says De Vleeschauwer. “Here, they made sure they had bread that was not infected by the fungus. And that was how they cured them. Word got out, and it was seen as a miracle.”

This had everything to do with the economy. “The pilgrims had to pay for lodging in Ronse and also for the cure,” De Vleeschauwer explains. “That required them to give the church goods that equalled their own weight, in bricks, paving stones, foodstuffs or livestock. They bought all of this from local merchants and gave it to the church. The church used what they needed and sold the rest back to the merchants, who then sold it on to the next pilgrims. It was a real circular economy. And it all worked based on one big secret: give them good bread.”

Creepy crypt

Visitors to the basilica can see the chest holding Hermes’ relics above the altar. But the building’s real draw is the crypt. Restored but never altered, the Gothic-style crypt – some of which dates from the 11th century but most of which was rebuilt, along with the church, in the 15th century – is breathtaking.

Its 32 pillars make it the second-largest crypt in Belgium after Ghent’s Sint-Baafs Cathedral (which is plastered over and hence very plain). Vaulted ceilings, dim lighting and soft music set the scene for witnessing where the treatment for the mad once took place.

“They took hot baths here, which helped to calm them,” says De Vleeschauwer. “It was essentially a wellness centre.”

Visitors also get to see parts of the scales used for weighing the goods brought to pay for the treatment. There is also a copy of the book all pilgrims who received the treatment had to sign (the original is in the city archives). The earliest signatures are from the ninth century, and the final ones from the 17th century.

Down a passage is a small archaeological museum with some nice pieces as well as a spooky former archaeological site with a half-exposed skeleton.

Ronse has other attractions to recommend it aside from its location in the picturesque Flemish Ardennes and the lush Muziekbos forest right next door. Following the period of wealth built up by its pilgrimage business, it made its fortune in textiles.

A guided tour of the Must Textile Museum shows how the industry transformed from singular looms operated with foot pedals to steam-operated machinery to the modern automation of today. The museum is inside a former textile factory, one of the buildings that ring a central courtyard that previously served as a monastery.

Next door is the tourist office and Experience Centre, inaugurated last year. It’s a helpful place to start a tour of Ronse, as it goes over the history of the city, some of its more notable residents and the Fiertel, as well as housing a wonderful video of the life and death of St Hermes.

Over in front of Sint-Hermes church are a new set of fountains and ponds. The central fountain spurts water in ever-changing colours, a beautiful addition to this lively square ringed with cafes. Glance down the street to see three descending pools. While they are not operational quite yet, when they are the water inside will flow from one to another.

Sleeping and eating in Ronse

Ronse is small, but has several good restaurants. Definitely step into De Passage, which is a must-see in the town even if you’re not hungry.

De Passage is housed in the old Sint-Martinus church. At the end of the 19th century, the church was deemed too small, and a new one was built less than a kilometre away. After that the old church was used as a carpentry shop, a garage, a cinema and a parking lot.

It’s hard to imagine that now, after a full restoration a few years ago turned it into a gorgeous food hall. Visitors can sit in the central area or inside one of the trendy bistros. De Passage is home to Ronse’s only organic restaurant, Envie. An organic food shop is right next to it.

Up the street, meanwhile, is Le Temps Perdu, a tea room serving huge sandwiches made with thick focaccia bread. It’s a fun, cosy place to sit, decorated in Victorian style and all manner of antique wooden clocks.

For drinks, look no further than Local Unique on the Grote Markt. A wonderfully old-fashioned brown café, it is home to 1920s mosaics made by the Maison Helman shop in Brussels. The 20th-century firm’s highly skilled craftspeople hand-painted tiles to create decorative patterns or scenes. More Helman mosaics can be seen in De Harmonie, also on Grote Markt, and on the exterior of The Tower on Kleine Markt.

Should you want to spend a weekend in Ronse, the Remington Hotel is highly recommended. Inside an Art Nouveau mansion, the ceilings are high, and the rooms airy and appointed with the sense of sophistication the building deserves.

Remington has stained-glass windows, decorative tiling, exposed beams and a nice back terrace. The women who run it are super friendly, and the breakfast is expansive. It’s also an easy walk to the city centre as well as the train station.