On the Kempen Basin, the city of Beringen went through a mining boom that burned bright for a time after the Second World War before quickly fading.
In Koersel, Beringen has been left with the largest industrial heritage site in Belgium, spread across 100,000 square metres.
Of all the former mines in Belgian Limburg, this is the only complex that has kept hold of all of its industrial infrastructure: Cooling towers, headframes, offices, slag heaps, a hulking washery, workers’ houses and a power station are just a few of the sights left behind.
There’s a mining museum for the whole region here, but the site, rebranded Be-MINE, is a lot more than a museum piece.
Modern leisure attractions, housing and shopping amenities have imbued the old colliery with new dynamism.
As with a lot of the Kempen basin, Coal mining in Beringen was a 20th-century phenomenon.
Production began just after the First World War, peaked in the wake of the Second World War and ended with the closure of the last mine in the city in 1989. This left Beringen with obvious vestiges of the industry, in epic slag heaps and industrial architecture ranging from giant headframes, to the grand central office and the absolutely humungous cooling towers and coal washery.
Plans to remove this heritage were met with an international outcry, so only the more recent parts of the washery have been demolished.
The rest has become an immense leisure, cultural and residential complex called Be-MINE, with a mining museum, diving centre, pool complex, climbing centre, nature reserve and commercial park.
2. Vlaams Mijnmuseum
Former miners serve as guides at the museum set up in one of the old office buildings.
The Flemish Mine Museum offers a complete account of the coalmining industry in the Kempen Basin.
You’ll start with a geological explanation of carbonization, through peat, lignite and the various forms of coal.
There’s information about the pace of change after the discovery of coal in Kempen, and how labour was recruited from the Mediterranean, as well as Central and Eastern Europe to supplement the workforce in this sparse, rural area.
You’ll find scale models of this massive site, and interesting accounts how miners would spend their leisure time, as well as the riots that greeted mine closures here and across the region.
Particularly worthwhile is the replica mining longwall excavated in the basement with pillars.
The first Sundays of the month are Mijnzondagen, for tours of facilities normally off limits, like the shower block and salary hall.
3. Alpamayo Climbing Centre
The former power station at Be-MINE has been repurposed into a spectacular indoor mining centre, named for the iconic Alpamayo mountain in Peru.
Alpamayo caters to newcomers and children as much seasoned climbers.
For those who have mastered things like belaying and grip technique there’s around 1,300 square metres of wall, rising to 18 metres, as well as a substantial bouldering space.
The climbing hall has capacity for 50 rope groups, and there are roughly 150 different routes.
The centre’s Clip ‘n Climb service meanwhile lets kids use the fun, safe climbing room for 90 minutes, all in the company of a dedicated instructor.
If you’re waiting for a friend or family member there’s a cafe in the power station’s former control room, looking over the action.
4. Recreatieoord t’Fonteintje
Close to the village of Koersel, within Beringen, there’s a recreation space that grew up around the pilgrimage chapel, t’Fonteintje (the fountain). This building goes back to the 1830s and was set up next to a spring that became venerated after a story of a man who had become lost in the heathland and was dying of thirst until he happened upon the water.
The story goes that he was instantly restored to health, and placed an image of Mary next to the spring in gratitude.
The highlight of the accompanying recreation area is the 30-metres observation tower, rising over the woodland for distant vistas of the Kempen landscape.
At its foot there’s mini-golf, a splashpad, a playground and campgrounds for youth clubs.
One of the many bewildering sights greeting you at Be-Mine is a brand new swimming and leisure centre in the shadow of the mine’s old cooling towers.
Sportoase not only looks great, integrated with the old industrial buildings, but is an easy and affordable family activity at any time of year.
There’s a 25-metre pool for proper exercise, as well as a recreation pool with two slides, an instruction pool and a toddler and nursery pool.
Dry-side Sportoase has a fitness and dance studio and four saunas.
Come on a warm day in summer and you’ve got an outdoor pool with sun terrace, sun bathing area and water playground for kids.
The Brasserie at Sportoase is an anchor for the whole of Be-MINE and commands a view to remember.
6. Adventure Mountain
One of Beringen’s slag heaps has been turned into an adventure playground/assault course, the likes of which you’ve surely never seen.
To help you make your way up this man-made hill there’s a forest of 1,600 wooden poles.
And to make the slopes more fun for younger members of the clan there are slides, rope courses, crawl tunnels and all sorts of other play elements.
Interpretation boards and viewpoints will also hold your attention, and then of course there’s the exhilarating panorama of the mining complex and Kempen countryside awaiting you at the summit.
The parish church in the centre of Beringen is a monument to the continuous upheaval that beset this region from the 15th century onwards.
The original Sint-Pietersbandenkerk was destroyed by the Burgundians in 1467, burnt down in 1584 in the 80 Years’ War, then destroyed again by Lorraine troops in 1654. A Baroque reconstruction was completed in 1695, and was given neo-Gothic alterations after the tower collapsed in 1838. The oldest parts of the building are the choir, transept and vestries from the 16th century, and wherever you see iron sandstone (as opposed to brick limestone) you may be interested to know that this belongs to the Medieval Demer Gothic church first destroyed in the 15th century.
There’s masterful woodcarving to be found from the Baroque reconstruction, in the altars, panelling and confessionals.
Also essential viewing are the choir stalls and communion rails, mostly from the same period, the high altar painting of Christ on the Cross by Erasmus Quellinus II (1607-1678), a variety of 16th and 17th-century statuary, and the Baroque tombstones in the choir.
8. Vallei van de Zwarte Beek
You don’t need to stray far from Beringen for walks in peaceful countryside.
The obvious destination around Beringen is the Vallei van de Zwarte Beek, a 1,300-hectare nature reserve on the banks of the Zwarte Beek stream.
The valley has pasture and meadows fringed with oak woodland on its upper sides, and then fens and peat bogs up to eight metres deep in the lower portions.
It’s a habitat for rarely sighted passerine bird species like the bluethroat, tree lark and black woodpecker.
If you want to know more about the valley’s ecology there are informative displays at the De Watersnip visitor centre, about 15 minutes from the centre of Beringen.
This can also be a stepping stone for a host of walks, including on a boardwalk crossing the swamp and a “stimulus path”.
9. ZLDR Air Factory
You may be hungry for more industrial heritage, in which case the Heusden-Zolder colliery a little way east should be your next port of call.
This was the very last coal mine in Benelux to close its doors, in 1992, and today answers a question that you may have been mulling over.
Exactly how were miners able to breathe in tunnels 800 metres below the surface? You’ll find out at the restored central compressor room within the lift shaft building, which retains all of its air pumping machinery and can be seen for free.
There you can also get a sense of what it was like to enter a seemingly bottomless shaft.
A lot of the buildings at the Heusden-Zolder colliery have been given protected status and were restored in the2010s.
There’s a cafeteria in the bathhouse and a newly built square in the complex hosts event like a multicultural market on the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month.
10. TODI – The Ultimate Diving Experience
Another out-of-the-ordinary attraction to arrive at Be-MINE in recent years is an indoor diving centre in an amazing underwater environment with 5,000 tropical fish from 30 different species.
It’s an ideal, controlled environment for families to try diving for the first time, and if you’re in town for a little longer you can work towards international indoor or open water certificates.
As of 2020 a single dive is €37 at peak times and €30 off peak, and you can rent all the necessary gear for €12. Alternatively, TODI offers snorkelling, with full-face masks to avoid steam-up.
For either experience you can take a waterproof sheet to help you identify the aquarium’s many fish.
People not participating can watch their loved ones, and that vibrant underwater life, from a viewing window.
11. Be-MINE Boulevard
What has to go down as the most unusual retail park in the country has sprung up in full view of the washery, cooling towers and headframes.
Be-MINE Boulevard is by no means large, but comes with lots of Benelux and international brands like C&A, AVA, Bent, ZEB,Chaussea, H&M, Vanden Borre, Bel & Bo and the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn.
These are all in a row in a single structure, with a roof that extends over the pedestrian walkway that grants unbroken views of those industrial monuments.
12. Blueberry Fields
Found embedded in the meadows on the Beringen side of the Vallei van de Zwarte Beek is more than 12 hectares of blueberry fields.
This superfood is harvested around the end of the June, and goes into jams, a coulis, wine and even tea that is sold at the shop on site.
Best of all is the ice cream with blueberry sauce.
If you come during the short window when the blueberries are in season there’s also a pick-your-own programme, but for the rest of the summer the fields are ripe for an easy family walk on three different waymarked paths.
13. Castle Brewery Ter Dolen
A bit further away, but a journey that beer aficionados will want to make is a brewery that moved into a then derelict 16th-century castle in the 1990s.
Ter Dolen earned the coveted “Erkend Belgisch Abdijbier” (Recognised Belgian Abbey Beer) label in 2008, and produces a highly praised range of beers, counting a blond, bruin, tripel, kriek, donker and koperblond.
There’s a bar in the outbuilding/orangery in front, with a charming terrace in summer and a cosy fireplace for the wintertime.
Guided tours are given on weekends at public holidays at 15:00 and take 45 minutes, explaining Ter Dolen’s brewing techniques and the history of the castle.
A short drive north of Beringen is a project without equal in Flanders, where more than 5,100 hectares of forest have been turned into a recreation space for walking, horseback riding and especially cycling.
The memorable experience in Bosland can be had on the Fietsen-door-de-Bomen (Cycling through the Trees) path, from knooppunt (junction) 272 of the regional system.
Here in the coniferous Pijnven woods, planted a century ago for the mining industry but never felled, there’s an innovative circular cycling bridge.
This structure is 700 metres long, 100 metres in diameter and climbs gently to a height of 10 metres to let you gaze over the forest canopy.
15. Remise 56
An old depot building from 1907 for the Diest-Koersel steam tram has found a new role as the microbrewery and Grand Cafe, Remise 56. On the beer menu you’ve got a soft blond tripel, a full-bodied dubbel and the refreshing Superpils.
These are all poured at the Grand Cafe, and even go into some of the dishes, like the beef stew, which is made with the dubbel.
There’s a selection of salads, pasta dishes and hearty fish and meat options, from steak to fish and chips.
This is all in the glow of those beautiful copper brewing kettles.
And if you want find out how Remise 56’s beer is brewed there’s a tour and tasting every second Sunday of the month at 15:00.