In the south of the Kempen region, Geel is a city that was much venerated by Medieval pilgrims.
This was all for Dymphna, a 7th-century Irish princess supposedly martyred here.
She was beheaded by her mentally ill father, who was struggling with the death of his wife and lusted for her because of her resemblance to his spouse.
Dymphna eventually became the patron saint of mental and neurological disorders.
There’s a Medieval hospice where you can find out more about the pilgrims who travelled to Geel, and the Augustinian sisters who cared for them.
Amazingly, modern Geel maintains this tradition for psychiatric care, and around 300 families open their homes up to boarders suffering from psychiatric disorders.
A few hundred metres east of the current market square, Sint-Dimpnakerk is on the supposed site where Saint Dymphna was martyred and buried in the 7th century.
As it is, the present building is 14th-century, but was damaged in a city-wide fire in 1489. So while much of the church, in the Demer Gothic style, is built from white sandstone, you’ll notice that the imposing tower came later, in the 16th century, and has narrow horizontal bands of pale sandstone and darker ironstone.
There’s art spanning hundreds of years inside.
Among the many pieces to investigate are a Romanesque triumphal cross (c. 1200), the 16th-century Late Gothic ciborium (canopy), the Dimpna retable from 1515, frescos depicting the Last Judgment (c. 1500) and the marvellous alabaster Renaissance tomb of Jan III van Merode and Anna van Gistel from 1554. The church possesses some 20 paintings, including the Baroque Martyrdom of Dymphna (1688) by Godfried Maes.
And finally the treasury holds the 17th-century reliquary of Saint Dymphna, a 13th-century Romanesque wooden reliquary in a 16th-century Gothic shell, and two monstrances, one sporting what is purported to be the jawbone of Gerebernus, Dymphna’s confessor, also martyred by Damon.
You can find out more about Geel’s tradition for charity at this Medieval hospice (gasthuis) established at the end of the 13th century.
The Oud Gasthuis van Geel was run by Augustinian sisters who took in pilgrims brought to Geel by the cult of Saint Dymphna.
These would often be suffering from some kind of mental illness, and would be cared for by the sisters, together with those who were sick from the area.
The complex dates from the 15th century to the 19th century, the oldest portion being the Brick Gothic chapel from the 1470s and also housing an old ward for the sick.
The hospice’s museum was given a makeover in 2017 and paints a picture of the day-to-day routine here in Medieval times and the life of the Augustinian sisters.
An engaging audioguide lets you hear from 17th-century characters, as both the sisters and patients tell you what brought them to this place.
Looking at this parish church, the oldest in Geel, on Markt, it’s easy to tell which parts survived that devastating fire in 1489. The nave, transepts and choir were rebuilt in brick at the turn of the 16th century, while the Late Gothic western tower and some of its substructure survived, all in white Brabant sandstone.
The interior is almost uniformly Baroque, and some noted Flemish sculptors from the 17th and 18th centuries worked on the fittings.
The confessionals and panelling on the side aisles were by Pieter Valckx (1734-1783), the pulpit from 1715vwas by Willem Kerricx (1652-1719) and the splendid high altar (1748) was by Theodoor Verhaegen (1700-1759). Also make time for the 17th-century choir stalls, as well as the images of the apostles attached to the columns in the nave, by Pieter Scheemaeckers (1640-1714).
In the 2010s the market square in front of Sint-Amandskerk was totally revamped.
This space had turned into one large car park after the Second World War, and has now been given back to the city’s pedestrians and cyclists.
The surface has been re-laid with smooth granite and limestone slabs, arranged in a pattern that recalls Geel’s historic textile industry, evoking a draped damask rug.
There’s also extra seating, newly planted trees and a water feature that youngsters love in summer.
And, of course, the bar, restaurant and cafe terraces all around are now more attractive than ever.
Visit on a Tuesday morning and you’ll be in time for the weekly market, trading fresh produce, specialty foods, household items, clothing and a lot more.
If you’re the kind of traveller who likes to roam, then two wheels are better than four in Geel.
Cyclists have a 2,000-kilometre network of mostly traffic-free, paved paths at their disposal, putting heritage and pastoral countryside in easy reach.
The network can be traversed using numbered junctions, or knooppunten, and you can buy a detailed map of these “nodes” from the tourist office on Markt.
There you can also discover short or long-distance routes.
Since you’re in Geel you may be interested in delving further into the history and legend of Saint Dymphna via the 46-kilometre Saint-Dimpnaroute.
Alternatively you might want to strike out in search of the Kempen area’s dunes via Sporen-in-het-Zand, learning about the region’s folklore and historical figures as you go.
6. Molen van ‘t Veld
As is often the way with historic windmills, this post mill in Geel’s Elsum parish has moved home a couple of times.
Molen van ‘t Veld went up 25 kilometres away in Heist-op-den-Berg in 1796 and was relocated to Elsum in 1823. There it was in use all the way up to when its last miller passed away in 1987. In the years that followed, this beautiful piece of agricultural heritage began to fall apart, before being rescued and transferred to Ten Aard.
Lots of interesting old messages have been carved into the beams inside, and the ground floor has been turned into an educational space, with preserved implements and machinery.
On the first Sunday of the month from April to the end of September you can take a look inside for free on Sunday afternoons.
There’s also a seasonal bakery museum nearby, which we’ll cover later.
Catch a sunny day and you may prefer to amble up to the city park, a few steps from the market square.
This small-ish but well-maintained space is good for picnics, but most handy for young families.
A new play zone, added in the last couple of years, is aimed at children aged three to ten, and as well as using wood as a material for its equipment and obstacles, is also bedded with soft wood bark.
In summer there are open-air concerts at the Stadspark, and at the end of May the Frinket food truck festival sets up here.
8. Halle en Waag
After Sint-Amandskerk, a monument that will draw your gaze on Markt is Geel’s old town hall and the attached former weigh house (Waag). The old town hall, De Halle has a Neoclassical facade from 1894, but the building’s core goes back much further, as Geel’s former cloth hall from the second half of the 15th century.
When the cloth industry subsided in the 17th century the building was turned into the town hall.
In front, check out the 13th-century coat of arms on the wrought iron balcony above the entrance.
This building, as well as the weigh house beside it, was recently renovated and turned the headquarters of the city’s tourism and entertainment department.
There’s also exhibition space for Geel’s De Werft culture centre and a cafe with a little terrace in front.
Close to the amusement park Bobbejaanland is a nature reserve, on the remnants of the Geels Gebroekt peat bog.
Mosselgoren has a tapestry of delicate biotopes, including pools, wet meadows, reedbeds and forest of alder and other deciduous trees.
This is a dog-free environment because of the proximity of rare or endangered wildlife to the paths.
Reed warblers, bluethroats, reed buntings and nightingales all breed in this habitat, and in summer Mosselgoren thrums with colourful butterflies.
Geel is one of the closest cities to this theme park honouring the Flemish pop icon Bobbejaan Schoepen (1925-2010). Schoepen founded this park in the early-60s as an outdoor performance venue, and over the years Bobbejaanland evolved into a fully-fledged theme park.
What might grab you about this place is the amount of white-knuckle rides, like the spinning rollercoaster Naga Bay, or Typhoon, which has a steeper-than-vertical first drop, or Fury, which became the fastest rollercoaster in Benelux when it opened in 2019 (106.6 km/h top speed). It’s not all about adrenaline at Bobbejaanland; there are more than 40 attractions, with lots of gentle fun for wee ones, on a monorail, and via a variety of slides, spinners and wheels, as well as the interactive Wondergarden playground.
Right by Molen van ‘t Veld and open on Sunday afternoons from the beginning of April to the end of September is a museum all about the art of baking.
This is housed in one of the oldest homesteads in the Geel area and was started by one Willy Goossens, a former baker who fell in love with this trade.
He has accrued a wide-ranging collection of objects and implements that tell you a great deal about the history of baking in the Kempen region.
There are waffle irons, brands and forms for everything from marzipan, to ice cream, chocolate and speculaas.
Also interesting are the 19th-century “bread tokens”, an early form of social security.
Don’t miss the homestead’s shed, holding a collection of historic vehicles involved in transporting bread and its ingredients.
12. Commonwealth Begraaftplaats Geel
Just off Molseweg (N71) in the east of Geel is a Second World War cemetery for the Commonwealth troops killed in and around the city.
There are 400 burials at the cemetery, six of which are unidentified.
These personnel lost their lives at various phases of the conflict; some covering the withdrawal at Dunkirk in May 1940 and many more perished in the intense fighting in September 1944 to open crossings on the Albert and Meuse-Scheldt Canals.
In the intervening years a number of RAF servicemen had been shot down or crashed around Geel.
These had all been buried in a meadow or at the St Dymphna civil cemetery, before being interred here after the war.
13. Molen van Larum
Five minutes west of Markt you’ll be in a very idyllic scene, where a sweet old post mill is ensconced in fields with sheep and goats.
Raised to mill flour, the Molen van Larum was raised in 1846 and equipped with a steam engine in 1900. The last miller sold the windmill to the city of Geel in 1973 and it has been milling flour on and off since 1977. In 1992 both the mill and its bucolic surroundings were protected as a monument.
Now, it’s a pretty sight to take in on a walk around Larum, but you can book a tour through Geel’s tourism and entertainment department.
14. Kinderboerderij de Heihoeve
Another attraction to keep in mind if you’re in Geel with smaller children is this farm close to the Albert Canal in the south of the city.
Kinderboerderij de Heihoeve opens from March to October, and welcomes visitors seven days a week during the school holidays.
At the farm there’s a little menagerie of domestic animals, including ponies, horses, chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, goats and alpacas, as well as a playground.
Throughout the season there are set days dedicated to certain activities, like pony rides, grooming the horses and ponies and petting the farm’s smaller animals.
This calendar is posted on the attraction’s website.
The largest spring fair in the region takes place in Geel across five days beginning on the Friday before Palm Sunday.
The event unfolds on Markt, but also nearby Havermarkt and the Werft , and kicks off with a speech by the mayor at 18:00, followed by a peal from the bells of Sint-Amandskerk.
Hundreds of balloons are then released into the sky, and there’s a fireworks display at 22:00 that night.
Over the next four days there’s as many as 150 fairground rides and amusements to enjoy around the city centre.
The Palmenmarkt goes right back to the end of the 14th century when Geel was a crucial centre of commerce for its location on long distance roads.