On the Belgian border in Limburg, the origins of the white village of Thorn go back to the last quarter of the 10th century when it was founded as a Benedictine abbey.
This was a monastery for noble women, but also its own principality with all kinds of privileges.
For 500 years Thorn was able to print its own money, and its Princess-Abbesses wielded serious wealth and power until the abbey was disbanded by the French in the late-18th century.
The village’s cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses are untouched and are set in a spectacular lake district on the River Maas, with boat trips on the cards in summer from Thorn’s own jetty.
Let’s explore the best things to do in the white town of Thorn:
1. Historic Centre
Easily covered in an hour or two, the snug centre of Thorn feels like an outdoor museum and is a Dutch protected cityscape with more than 100 Dutch heritage sites (Rijksmonumenten) in the space of a few streets.
The tourist office VVV Midden-Limburg has laid out a 1.6-kilonetre walking route around the village, leading you to many photogenic spots.
Wijngaard, leading to the abbey church’s westwork is very pretty, and home to the local museum and the tourist office itself, in a gorgeous gabled building.
And if you’re wondering why the village is totally whitewashed.
Well, after the abbey was disbanded at the end of the 18th century the occupying French imposed a tax on property depending on the amount of windows a building had.
One way around this was to brick up the windows, and then whitewash the facades to disguise the new brickwork!
The former abbey church has been a parish church since the end of the 18th century.
This monument is Gothic on the outside with a Baroque interior, and was first built around the middle of the 12th century.
You’ll be met by a remnant of this first building at the striking westwork, the lower levels of which are Romanesque.
The interior is theatrically decorated by Dutch standards, with altars, polychrome statues and paintings.
There’s an array of late-Gothic carvings, including two images of Mary in the nave, a Pensive Christ, Calvary Group and Virgin and Child with St Anne, while the Sint-Lambertuskapel has a stunning 16th-century triptych evoking the Holy Kinship (Jesus’ extended family). An elegant Baroque stairway in the westwork carries you up to the chapter room, now a treasury with the abbey’s former liturgical tableware and paraments.
Also go down to the crypts: The western one has an interesting lapidarium, while the eastern crypt has a natural mummy on display in a glass sarcophagus.
3. Gemeentemuseum Het Land van Thorn
Thorn’s enthralling history and the story of its abbey are uncovered at the local museum on the charming Wijngaard.
In these galleries you’ll find out once and for all why Thorn is white.
But there are also details about Thorn’s time as a principality in Medieval Times when it could print its own currency.
You’ll get to know some of the abbey’s most distinguished abbesses and canonesses, and explore Thorn’s connection to the arts through painters like Frans van den Berg, and a host of eminent musicians, composers and conductors like Pierre Kuijpers, Léon Adams and Jan Cober.
The showpiece is the Panorama Thorn, a painstaking 3D painting of Thorn’s incomparable centre.
Crossing the border, south of Thorn and east of the Belgian village of Kessenich is a verdant nature reserve part-managed by the Dutch Natuurmonumenten and the Belgian Limburgs landschap.
The Koningssteen is grassland and hardwood forest on a corridor between two lakes created by gravel extraction.
This narrow tract of land straddles the border, and occasionally you’ll come across cast iron posts marking the boundary.
The Dutch side is grazed by a herd of Galloway cattle, while on the Belgian side are Konik semi-feral horses.
Thorn’s former beguinage, a historic community for lay religious women, can be seen at Kloosterberg 1. The beguines were given accommodation in return for carrying out tasks like laundry, looking after the sick and praying from the souls of deceased canonesses.
The Begijnhof is a cute elongated building with a mansard roof, turned into private residences after the abbey was dissolved.
In the past this building was called the Pottenhuis, as it sits at the place where Thorn Abbey’s pottery used to be.
6. Veldkapelletjes (Chapels)
Around Thorn are 14 whitewashed outdoor chapels, six of which are listed as Dutch heritage sites.
The pick of these is the Loretokapel at Kapel 4, a destination for pilgrimages.
This was donated in 1673 by Clara Elisabeth of Manderscheid-Blankenheim, a canoness at Thorn Abbey and sister to the abbess Anna Salome.
This was extended twice, in 1811 and 1898, but the oldest portion has beautiful stucco ceilings with medallions from the 1770s and an original carved altar from 1673. The remaining chapels are small but worth looking out for – Barbarakapel (Baarstraat), Sint-Annakapel (Boekenderweg/Sint-Annapad), Sint-Antoniuskapel, Sint-Hubertuskapel and Sint-Rochuskapel (Heerbaan), and tend to be found on the pilgrimage route to the Loretokapel.
7. De Grote Hegge
The main body of water to the south of Thorn is De Grote Hegge, fed by the Maas and somewhere to hang out when things warm up in summer.
There’s a jetty on the north shore for boat trips on the river and its many lakes, and just to the west is a sandy beach on a scallop-shaped bay.
In June this is the scene for Once Upon a Beach, a one-day techno and house music party by the water.
On Waterstraat is the Kasteelhoeve de Grote Hegge, a historic estate with a 15th-century mansion.
The stables and barns are now a restaurant and conference centre, while the house is hired out for weddings and other events.
8. Fun Beach Event & Leisurepark Panheel
A couple of kilometres out of the village there’s a beachside recreation centre open from May to October with a big menu of activities for every member of the family.
Kids can put on a life jacket and take on the Mega Aquapark, an inflatable adventure course with jumps, slides and obstacles to climb.
The centre also has equipment and facilities for volleyball (on the beach and in the water), paddleboarding, wakeboarding, flyboarding, canoeing, living foosball, pedal-boating and zorbing (walking on water in giant inflatable balls). There’s a children’s playground on land, and a bouncy castle, all complemented by a choice of places to eat.
And for people who just want to laze in the sun the beach has a Blue Flag, and is the first in Limburg with this award.
9. Boat Trips
A cruise is the only way to appreciate the full beauty of the Maas the water-rich environment around Thorn.
On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in July and August the Paep van Meinecom III makes three border-hopping trips on the Maas River and its lakes from Thorn to the Belgian village of Ophoven.
The journey takes an hour, and makes a stop at the garrison town of Stevensweert where you can go ashore.
Another company, Rederij Cascade, runs a regular ferry service between Thorn and Maasbracht on the opposite bank of the river, but also schedules cruises to Stevensweert and Roermond, downriver, with rows of whitewashed “floating” houses on the water in the marina.
10. Duiklocatie Boschmolenplas
Diving may not have been high on your list of things to do at a village like Thorn, but one of the lakes close by has a combination of factors that have turned it into a diving hotspot.
Like the other Maasplassen lakes, the Boschmolenplas was caused by gravel quarrying.
But unlike the rest, the lake is fed by groundwater, which is filtered through the soil and, with no currents to speak of, has an unusual degree of visibility (12 metres). The lake is rich with flora and fauna, and all sorts of objects have been lowered in to the water like sunken vessels and even a giant yellow Minion.
The lake has its own oxygen filling station and rental centre, but is also served by the accredited Scuba Adventures dive centre, for equipment hire, lessons and excursions.