Set where the River Dender flows into the Scheldt, Dendermonde is a Medieval city loaded with important heritage.
Making the headlines are two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, one a Gothic belfry and the other a beguinage dating back to the 13th century.
Another of Dendermonde’s great claims to fame is its folkloristic horse, Ros Beiaard, which according to legend saved its master and his three brothers (Four Sons of Aymon) from capture by Charlemagne.
Every ten years, most recently in 2020, this 800kg wooden beast is paraded around Dendermonde, ridden by four real brothers playing the Medieval riders.
No doubt Ros Beiaard is a real VIP, as it’s even the subject of Dendermonde’s city anthem.
1. Grote Markt
It’s exciting to think that people have been meeting on Dendermonde’s main square for many hundreds of years.
Early on, this space was the outer bailey of a castle, and excavations have brought to light an 11th-century cemetery.
Now attracting your attention are the Vleeshuis (meat hall) and the city hall with its Gothic belfry, all of which are open to the public.
The square’s old cobblestones were replaced with more accessible paving in 2004, laid with a design by artist Harold Van de Perre.
You can sit back on the terraces with a local tripel or dubbel, and if you’re brave you can pair this with a slice of the local speciality, headcheese with a dash of mustard.
There are markets every Monday and a big one-off Christmas market takes place in early December here and on the surrounding streets.
The 13th-century city hall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its magnificent belfry, one of 56 such tower listed across Belgium and Northern France.
Dendermonde’s belfry started out as a corner tower for the city’s cloth hall.
This building, with stepped gables and a row of finely moulded niches, was integrated into the city hall in the 15th century.
The belfry has held a carillon since the 16th century (reinstalled in the 70s following the destruction of WWI), and if you come on a Sunday or Monday between and 11:00 and 12:00 you can catch a concert by the city’s carilloneur.
The city hall, belfry and cloth hall are all accessible on a self-guided tour with an audioguide.
This is an experience not to be turned down, especially because of the collection of fine art on the first floor, mostly by the 19th-century Dendermondse School, but also with works by Piet van de Ouderaa, Henry De Noble and Frans and Jan Verhas.
The majestic Late Gothic meat trading hall on Grote Markt was completed in 1462, replacing an older edifice from the 13th century.
Local butchers traded on the ground floor, and this was the only place in Dendermonde where they were permitted to sell to private individuals.
The old meat counters had been dismantled by the 1860s the and the hall was turned into a covered vegetable market.
The city’s museum set up shop in 1899, and thankfully the building came through the First World War undamaged.
On show inside there’s a real 30,000-year-old mammoth skeleton, centuries old blades and firearms and a wooden Merovingian or Saxon figurehead.
You can also get up to speed on Dendermonde’s culture, learning about local guild life, the city’s processional giants and the heroic horse, Ros Beiaard.
Beguines, lay religious women who hadn’t taken vows of poverty, lived at this community from its foundation in 1288 right until the last beguine passed away in 1975. The Sint-Alexiusbegijnhof has 61 houses on a grassy trapezoidal square, reconstructed at the end of the 16th century after an iconoclastic riot.
The beguinage was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and earlier a museum had been created, preserving houses No. 11,24, 25 and the infirmary from 1709, all helping to pay for the site’s upkeep.
These buildings, with period appliances and furniture, shed light on the daily life of a beguine in the 19th and 20th century.
There’s a lot to discover inside the beautiful Sheldt Gothic church with an octagonal tower.
Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk gained its current design when the previous 11th-century Romanesque building was reworked between the 13th and 15th centuries.
The structures that you see attached to the church on the east side belong to a chapterhouse that has been here in some form since the 12th century.
First off there are paintings inside by Anthony van Dyck, Gaspar de Crayer and David Teniers the Elder.
Also make time for the 12th-century Romanesque baptismal font carved from Tournai blue-black limestone, as well as the 17th-century Baroque choir screen, the pulpit, confessionals and various other pieces of church furniture masterfully carved at around the same time.
Added to this is the church treasury glimmering with invaluable silver and gold liturgical pieces like monstrances and reliquaries.
6. Abdij van Dendermonde
Another remarkable monument awaiting you in the old heart of Dendermonde is the functioning Benedictine abbey on Vlasmarkt.
Dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, this was established in 1837 by one of the last surviving monks from Affligem Abbey, dissolved in the French Revolution in 1797. The location for Dendermonde’s abbey was an old, 16th-century Capuchin monastery, reconstructed in the neo-Gothic style from the end of the 19th century.
The monks also purchased part of the Prinsenhof palace next door.
Sadly the complex was badly damaged in fires during the First World War and was reconstructed in the 1920s.
The abbey’s monks make a living by brewing a prized abbey beer, Dendermonde Tripel, which is top-fermented, dark blond and with a subtly sweet flavour.
They also distil a herbal liqueur, Smaragdus, fine as a digestif or in desserts.
Apart from the low-key but attractive basilica and monastery shop, the abbey is closed to guests except in the afternoon on Whit Monday, when you have a rare chance to see how a monastery works in the 21st century.
7. Dendermonde–Puurs Steam Railway
There’s a 14-kilometre heritage line operating in July, August and September between Dendermonde and the town of Puurs, about halfway to Antwerp.
The railway is cared for by a non-profit society looking after a fleet of nine steam and diesel locomotives in various states of restoration.
Riding through the East Flanders and Antwerp countryside in a genteel carriage from the 1930s, the journey takes 70 minutes one way from Baasrode-Noord in Dendermonde, stopping on the way in Sint-Amands.
You can also stop by the workshop and yard in Dendermonde to see the collection of rolling stock and the railway’s ongoing work on carriages, electric commuter trains and locomotives.
8. Gerechtsgebouw van Dendermonde (Justititiepaleis)
In Medieval times the Lords of Dendermonde resided at the site of the current Court of First Instance on the left bank of the Oude Dender.
In 1664 the castle was assigned to a Carmelite monastery that was eventually suppressed during the French Revolution.
The grand neo-Gothic courthouse you see now is actually the second at this location after the first Neoclassical building was burnt down in a German attack in the First World War.
Prominent sculptors Geo Verbanck and Oscar Sinia were involved in the decoration on the facade.
You can identify Dendermonde’s famous folkloristic horse Ros Beiaard, mounted by the Four Sons of Aymon.
Also on the facade are coats of arms for Belgium’s various judicial cantons and the palace’s tower is embellished with gilded owls, a symbol of wisdom.
9. Bastion VIII
Until the 20th century Dendermonde was encircled by metre-high walls and a belt of canals, dating from its time as a barrier fortress between the Dutch Republic and the Kingdom of France.
There are traces of defensive structures all over the city, and if you look at a map it’s not hard to make out the course of that moat.
In the west of Dendermonde former bastion had been left to decay and become a landfill.
That site was cleaned up a few decades back and has since become a nature education centre, mainly geared towards schools.
For grownups it’s ideal for a relaxing walk so close to the city centre.
There are a few interpretive boards labelling the old defences, in a mosaic of habitats like scrub, wet woodland and freshwater.
10. Wandelroute: Dendermonde Vestingstad
If this has piqued your interest in Dendermonde’s military past, there’s a three-kilometre walking trail set up by the city’s tourist office.
This route isn’t signposted, but can be done with a free leaflet and map.
You’ll witness bastions, ravelins, restored city gates, an infantry barracks, an arsenal and a military hospital, mostly from the beginning of the 18th century when Dendermonde was fortified by the Austrians and Dutch against a French attack that eventually came in the 1740s.
The leaflet comes with detailed descriptions of each sight, as well as an explanation of the convoluted geopolitics that made Dendermonde vulnerable to invasion.
In the heart of Dendermonde you can visit the remnants of a Cistercian Abbey that was founded within the city walls in 1223. Zwijveke Abbey was relocated behind the church of Sint-Gillis-Binnen in the 17th and 18th century, but met its end with the French Revolution and was sold off in 1798. A lot of the complex was destroyed, but the Neoclassical cloisters became housing for Dendermonde’s working class and were finally restored in 1980 and turned into a museum.
Take time to admire the elegant gallery arches, which for more than 150 years had been filled by dwellings.
The museum, open Monday to Friday, holds a collection of memorial stones and tombstones from the 1500s to the 1800s, and documents local cultural history across the 19th and 20th centuries.
12. CC Belgica
Dednermonde has a compact performing arts space in a gabled Renaissance Revival building on Kerkstraat in the city centre.
CC Belgica has been here since 1996, and when you catch a show you can pop to the swish bar with a terrace next door.
The auditorium may not be huge but is well equipped for music of all genres, as well as plays, comedians, dance, lectures, family shows, movies and workshops/educational events for anything from poetry to first aid and stress management.
One of the largest lakes in Flanders at 86 hectares can be found about ten kilometres west of Dendermonde in Berlare.
This is quite a young body of water, formed by human hands in the 18th and 19th centuries through peat cutting.
That led to more than 600 hectares of marsh and standing water, all eventually drained in two goes in 1862 and 1926. Donkmeer and its surroundings have long been known for its eels, and there’s a sprinkling of restaurants by the water, particularly on the eastern shore.
In summer this is a recreation mecca, catering to walkers, cyclists and fishermen, and renting out rowboats and pedal-boats to anyone who fancies a little voyage.
There’s also a little tourist market to potter around on Sunday afternoons between April and September.
Dendermonde is on an extensive network of mostly car-less cycle paths, to the point where it’s easier to make nearly all your local journeys on two wheels.
To help, there are numbered junctions or “knooppunten”, making it even simpler to plan your route.
The Dendermonde tourist office also gives away free leaflets for extra inspiration, for routes along the Dender, Scheldt or Rupel, or to some of the dozen or so acclaimed breweries in the area.
If you don’t already have a set of wheels, there’s always the Blue-bike share program.
You’ll find a depot at Dendermonde’s railway station.
A €12 annual pass will let you rent a bike for as little as €3.15 per 24 hours, as of January 2020.
Dendermonde is well known for its UNESCO-protected heroic horse, Ros Beiaard, who is paraded around the city streets once every ten years and ridden by selected local siblings playing the Four Sons of Aymon.
This figure, even without its riders, weighs 800 kg, and when we wrote this article in early 2020 there was a parade due in May.
A festivity that takes place a bit more frequently is Katuit, at the end of August annually, when Dendermonde’s historic processional giants, Indiaan, Mars and Goliath make their way through the city to the strains of the city anthem, which is about Ros Beiaard.
The giants are carried by a guild of “giant carriers”, (Reuzendragers), a privilege passed on from father to son.
Also part of the event are the archers’ guilds, “Schuttersgilden” armed with muskets and a holdover from the old militias than defended cities like Dendermonde up to the French Revolution.