South of Brussels and just on the Flemish side of the boundary between Flanders and Wallonia, Halle is an endearing city around a white Gothic church.
For a few short weeks around April people flock here when the Hallerbos forest is bedded with bluebells as far as the eye can see.
You need to be flexible, because the blooming period fluctuates and depends on the weather in the previous months.
Hallerbos is a delight in all seasons, especially in autumn, and Halle deserves as much time as you can afford.
The old centre has a Renaissance town hall, looking towards St Martin’s Basilica, which holds an unusual amount of centuries-old treasures.
One is a 13th-century image of Mary with child, long venerated by pilgrims and paraded around the city every two years on Whitsunday.
On Halle’s outskirts is a 550-hectare forest of mostly oak and beech.
Come spring (April or May) the forest floor is a sea of bluebells.
People visit Hallerbos from far and wide for this short-lived spectacle, and for a couple of weeks there’s no better place to be in Belgium.
You can traverse the Hallerbos on three marked trails ranging between 1.8 and 4 kilometres (remember to stay on the path to preserve the flowers!). The landscape is creased with valleys, and is beautiful in any season, comprising other habitats including marshland, heather and coniferous woodland.
In fact there’s even a plantation of giant redwoods that you can discover on the Sequoia Trail.
A marvellous point of reference for Halle since Medieval times is the Gothic St Martin’s Basilica and its 71-metre tower.
The church was built from white sandstone, mainly in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The nave, choir, lower floors of the tower, Maria chapel and baptistery are all from this time.
Something very rare about this building is that it has never been looted, so there’s a lot of art and objects of interest in situ.
The most notable of these is the Black Madonna of Halle, a highly venerated image of Maria carved in 1250 and ascribed miraculous properties.
Also extremely valuable is the alabaster Mone retable at the high altar, fashioned in 1533, and the carved images of the apostles from the 14th century.
In the octagonal baptistery is a radiant hammered copper font 2.46 metres high and produced in Tournai in 1446. And finally, the treasury in the crypt is brimming with invaluable pieces, like a monstrance given by King Henry VIII, papal bulls, centuries-old chalices, vestments and another monstrance given by Louis XI and Charlotte of Savoy.
One captivating item is a 14th-century book connected to the alliance between England and the Holy Roman Empire against France in the 100 Years’ War.
3. Grote Markt
Halle’s main square is a long, narrow space with a triangular plan between the Sint-Martinusbasiliek in the north and the historic town hall in the south.
With pride of place in front the town hall is a statue of the feted cellist Adrien-François Servais (1807-1866) who was born and died in Halle.
Grote Markt has a selection of bars, cafes and restaurants, all with outdoor tables, and is a gathering space for public events, like the Hale Carnival, which is one of the largest in Belgium.
Off the south-eastern corner of Grote Markt is Joseph Possozplein, where Halle’s Thursday and Saturday markets take place.
This is remarkable for the large number of small-scale, local producers who trade here.
4. Provincial Domain Huizingen (Provinciedomein Huizingen)
There’s 91 hectares of greenery and recreation at this park on the estate of a 19th-century château.
There’s a lot going on at Provinciedomein Huizingen, encompassing big parcels of woodland for walks and bike rides, and a pond where you can rent rowboats.
There are playgrounds dotted around the estate, and children will be thrilled with the small zoo, keeping domestic animals like goats and sheep, as well as rabbits, parakeets, pheasants and many more.
The landscaped spaces are a treat, like the rockery growing 1,200 kinds of rock-friendly plants and flowers, and an arboretum with exotic deciduous trees and conifers.
And added to all this are sports facilities, a mini-golf course and a massive outdoor pool with slides and a beach area primed for hot summer days.
5. Den AST
After a few decades at the 17th-century Jesuit college next to the Sint-Martinusbasiliek, the museum documenting Halle and its environs moved into a beautiful old malt house at Meiboom 16 in the 2010s.
The change in venue makes sense, given Halle and the Pajottenland’s tradition for brewing beer.
One of the permanent at Den AST walks step-by-step through malt production, and recalls the malt house’s 19th-century heyday.
“Halle, Heilig” (Halle, Holy) meanwhile chronicles 800 years of city history, touching on old Medieval guilds and old crafts like pottery, weaving and stained glass painting.
“Halle, Duivels” (Halle, Devils) delves into the city’s traditions and customs, from pilgrimages to Carnival.
Halle’s first, Gothic town hall was built in 1432 with oak beams donated by the Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Good, but burnt down in 1595. Its successor is a stately Flemish Renaissance construction, ready in 1616 after eight years of work.
Woven into the design are Gothic details like crow-stepped gables and rib-vaults, while the symmetry and horizontal aspect of the facade are Renaissance hallmarks.
There’s also a hint of the Baroque in the scrolling ornamentation (volutes) on the dormers and gable steps.
You’ll be able to go inside, as Halle’s tourist office is based here.
On the side wall along Basiliekstraat is a plaque memorialising 19th-century author Hendrik Conscience’s time in Halle.
As a former Belgian revolutionary, Conscience went against the grain, writing his works in Dutch rather than French.
Halle’s historic Recollects monastery was taken over by the Franciscans in the 1840s.
They would be here for 170 years before moving out in 2013, and over the last few years the complex has sought a new purpose.
Since 2016 the residential areas have been turned into assisted living apartments, and the cloistered garden is now a city park.
Halle also now owns the monastery church, which has been made available for social, cultural and artistic events – anything from concerts to contemporary art installations.
In that spirit, two innovative street artists, Bart Smeets and Steve Locatelli have been commissioned to produce thrilling murals inside, and their inspiration was “fairytale jungle”.
8. Rozentuin Coloma
Within five kilometres of Halle there’s a beautiful old estate around a castle that was turned into a luxurious home in the 18th century.
Domein Coloma is noted for its rose garden, claimed to be the largest in Europe at 15 hectares.
In a formal style with low boxwood hedges, pergolas, alleys and grand views over to the castle, there are over 3,000 varieties planted here from 25 different countries.
You’ll find special beds for historic rose varieties and one for the surprising amount of rose varieties that have originated in Flanders, many of which were developed by the rose breeder Louis Lens.
One of the most memorable sights is the bed recreating the red and white coat of arms of the Roose barony, which owned the castle for hundreds of years until the 20th century.
The castle today contains the cultural centre for the Sint-Pieters-Leeuw municipality, and also on the estate is an orchard growing historic varieties of fruit trees.
9. Kasteel van Beersel
You won’t have to travel far for one of the best-preserved pieces of military architecture in Belgium, just ten minutes east at Beersel Castle.
With three intimidating towers on a moated, circular enclosure, the castle was first built as a frontier stronghold for the Duchy of Brabant, protecting the southern approach to Brussels.
The circular enclosure, or “enceinte” dates from the middle of the 14th century, and there were reconstructions following a successful siege by Louis XI at the end of the 15th century, and when the castle was converted into a home in 1617. The reason we find this brick-built monument in such great condition is because of a program of restoration in the 1920s and 1930s, in which the residential building in the middle of the enclosure was demolished because of decay.
Drop by to walk the battlements, climb those towers (now inhabited by lots of bird), and see how the bricks have been worn down by centuries of footfalls.
Beersel Castle is open Tuesday to Sunday, April through October, and on Sundays in March and November.
10. Oud Jezuïetencollege
Facing the Sint-Martinusbasiliek at Kardinaal Cardijnstraat 7 is a fine Baroque building constructed in the middle of the 17th century as a Jesuit college.
It held that role for a century until the Jesuit order was suppressed, after which the building had a variety of uses, as a school, a hospital and later an orphanage/care home, all run by religious orders.
This was the venue for the regional museum until 2014 and continues to house the Servais Academy for Music, Word and Dance, which first took up residence in the 1970s.
The Oud Jezuïetencollege is still a linchpin for Halle’s old centre, with a composed of brick with sandstone for its window dressings and a monumental portal.
11. Brouwerij Boon
For people with a taste for world-class beer the Pajottenland west-southwest of Brussels means Lambic beer, a unique style made with wild yeasts and bacteria that only occur in the Zenne Valley (as opposed to brewer’s yeast). One celebrated local variety, Gueuze, comes in champagne-style bottles because of the secondary fermentation that takes place thanks to the presence of young Lambic beer.
Gueuze has a dry, sour flavour, as does Kriekbier, in which crushed Morello cherries are added to the Lambic, kick-starting fermentation again because of the sugar in the fruit.
You can find out all about Kriekbier, Gueuze, as well as the dark beer Duivelsbier, at Halle’s Boon Brewery, which has the largest reserve of barrel-aged Lambic beer in the world in its cellars, adding up to more than 2,500,000 litres.
12. Streekproducten Centrum
If there’s a specialty food or beverage specific to Flemish Brabant, chances are you’ll be able to find it at this shop.
In fact more than 250 products sourced from around the province are on sale at Streekproducten Centrum.
Now, if you’re a beer aficionado hoping to stock up on the region’s coveted Lambic beers, you can save yourself a lot of legwork by heading straight here.
The Streekproducten Centrum sells Gueuze, but also has a range of Kriekbieren.
Naturally a bottle of Gueuze or Kriekbier makes a great souvenir or gift, but there are masses of other local products, like Poireke (pear schnapps), traditionally prepared jams, Babelutte (toffee), not to mention pralines, which are a Halle forte.
Two wheels are better than four in this part of the world, what with a 1,800-kilometre network of bike paths at your service.
This is the fietsknooppuntennetwerk Vlaams-Brabant (Flemish-Brabant cycle junction network), that you can navigate using numbered junctions.
One trail using this system is the 21-kilometre Halle by Bike, which takes in the Hallerbos and a picturesque stretch of the Brussels–Charleroi Canal.
For wildlife enthusiasts, the countryside around Halle is a bat haven, and this applies especially to old bunkers, church towers and historic ice cellars.
Bat Bike is a 20-kilometre family-friendly trail that shows you to places where you’ve got a good chance of sighting the only mammal capable of flight.
14. Mariaprocessie, Halle
On Whitsunday (Pentecost) every two years you can witness a tradition that was first observed in Halle more than 750 years ago.
This is a procession devoted to Mary, organised by the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Halle (Broederschap van Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Halle), and taking place on even years.
The procession is in three phases: The first tells the story of the Marian image at the Sint-Martinusbasiliek, emphasising its importance to Halle and how it became a destination for pilgrims from all over the continent.
The second part deals with contemporary social issues from a Catholic perspective, and this heralds the solemn procession in which that historic image is carried around the city, concluded with the Holy Sacrament.
There’s a seasonal museum at the Hallerbos, open on Sunday afternoons when the bluebells are in flower in spring.
This can be found by the entrance, and has taxidermies, models and well-researched information panels dealing with the fauna, flora, history and geology of the forest.
If it’s open when you come by, the Bosmusuem is a welcome primer for a walk in these woods.
You can also pay a visit during the popular autumn period when the museum is open every Sunday in the month of October.