On the banks of the languid Durme River, Lokeren is a small city in the East Flanders.
Lokeren’s greatest asset is the nature found effortlessly close city centre.
From the train station you can hop on a bike, and Waasland’s immense cycle network can do the rest.
Within touching distance is the largest nature reserve in the region, De Molsbroek, an expanse of water-laced marshland abounding with birdlife.
Back in Lokeren there’s a pretty market square, between a Baroque church and Rococo city hall, while the nearby city museum will fill you in on local modes of life, long consigned to the past.
Come August, Lokeren is ready to party, at a city festival attended by Patti Smith, Gucci Mane, Die Antwoord and Belle and Sebastian in the last five years alone.
A church has stood on the east side of Lokeren’s long main market square since at least the 12th century.
The building that you see today has a Baroque design, and was built throughout the 17th and early-18th century after its predecessor was mostly destroyed in 1584 during the 80 Years’ War.
The nave inside has three aisles, and their altars all warrant your attention for the quality of their carving.
In the left aisle is the alter for the Virgin Mary (1671), and the one on the right is for St Lawrence (c. 1683). The high altar in the choir is 18th-century, representing the Sacred Heart of Christ in clouds and rays, as well as the crucified Christ with a pelican, a symbol for the Passion and Eucharist.
Also important are the very expressive Baroque pulpit from 1736, the organ, first installed in 1660, and the profuse stained glass, all painted in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s.
2. De Molsbroek
Lokeren has a nature reserve of high biodiversity, practically on its doorstep to the east.
The largest reserve in the region, De Molsbroek is 120 hectares of marsh containing grassland, waterlogged forest, reedbeds and river dunes.
You won’t have to worry about getting wet, as an asphalt multi-use trail curls round and through the reserve.
This offers perfect views, particularly when the sun is low in the sky and catches the water.
The visitor centre on the east side goes into detail on the ecology of De Molsbroek and its dazzling birdlife, and explains how this environment has been moulded by human hands.
There’s also a 24-hr information point for leaflets, an insect garden and a barefoot path.
Lokeren’s city museum, in a Neoclassical building on the Durme’s right bank concentrates on local ways of life in the not too distant past.
Up to the 1970s Lokeren was a world-leading source for the rabbit and hare fur that would be pressed into a felt, a key material for the hat-making industry.
This chapter of the city’s history, now well in the past, is documented at the city museum, going into the many negative consequences, including pollution and soil contamination.
Lokeren was also home to many slaughterhouses, and you can discover the city’s links to meat production at the National Butchers Museum (Nationaal Beenhouwersmuseum) in the same building.
Also inside is a historic bakery and a treasury, preserving the city’s most important artefacts.
At one time there were 47 windmills in and around Lokeren.
The last of these is the Heirbrugmolen, a fine tower mill raised in 1852 but stripped of its machinery in 1940. The tower itself was recognised as a monument in 1979, and then restored and reopened in 2002 after having been purchased by the city a decade earlier.
Heirbrugmolen has been milling flour on breezy days since it reopened, and can be visited on the second and fourth Sunday of the month when you can see the inner-workings in action.
The charming miller’s house beside it has passed through many different owners, but as of 2020 is occupied by Brasserie De Molen, for pancakes, waffles, light bites and full meals.
Facing the Sint-Laurentiuskerk from the west end of the main market square is the stuccoed city hall, which went up in 1761 and has a Louis XV-style, with mansard roof and a curving, helmet-shaped pediment.
This refined feature has two kidney-shaped oculi surrounded by theatrical vegetal mouldings.
Below you can discern Lokeren’s coat of arms and above is a wrought iron astrolabe.
There’s more to the city hall than meets the eye, as in the basement are jail cells, in use right up to 1959 when they became changing rooms for the police station.
Now unoccupied for more than 25 years, this forgotten heritage can be seen on a guided tour, available from the tourist office, which has an information point on the market square.
The kind of park any city would be proud to have can be found across the Durme.
Bospark has a lot going for it, including an open-air display of vintage farming equipment, a herb garden and enclosure for deer, ponies, cows and goats.
The children’s playground is enormous and well looked after, and there’s a cafe with a large terrace close by, open every afternoon except on Tuesdays.
For more intense recreation there’s a kilometre-long fitness trail and facilities for football and basketball.
7. De Liniewegel
This eight-kilometre walking path courses through remote countryside, far from roads and artificial light.
De Liniewegel takes you through a range of habitats in a relatively short distance, and you’ll pass by meadows, old peat cutting pits, ponds, reedbeds, coppiced willows and the fringed of woodland.
The route of the path isn’t incidental as it traces the route of De Linie, an early 18th-century military line of defence created by the French against the Dutch Republic.
8. Park van Beervelde
A few minutes west into the East Flanders countryside there’s a picturesque estate with an English-style landscape, a villa, and various outbuildings.
The current inhabitants are descendant of the founder, Charles de Kerchove de Denterghem (1819-1882), who came into this land by marriage and built a new mansion in place of a dilapidated country house.
This building was replaced again by a new villa after the Second World War, while the romantic, castle-like coach house is a backdrop for parties and events.
If you register in advance you can come for a free walk in the park, and learn about the amount of unseen work that goes into keeping an English landscape looking natural.
The estate opens up fully for biannual “Garden Days”, in October and May, a themed horticultural show with hundreds of stalls, as well as live music and children’s activities.
This “provincial domain” on a historic estate close by in Wachtebeke is the equivalent of an English country park, a big natural space equipped for a whole host of outdoor activities.
The list of things to do at Puyenbroek goes on and on, but there are facilities for golf, indoor and outdoor swimming, mini-golf, pétanque, tennis and fishing.
You can rent a rowboat or pedal boat, or rent a bike to explore dozens of hectares of forest.
On top of all this you’ll find a “traffic park” where kids can ride pedal carts, a vast play village and an animal park keeping historic domestic breeds of horses, sheep, goats and cows.
Puyenbroeck is by no means small, but is on the cycling network and even has a tourist train to help families get around.
10. De Buylaers
There’s a further 20 hectares of nature within a ten minute walk of the city centre.
De Buylaers is right on the left bank of the Durme across the water from the municipal swimming pool and various other sports facilities along the Sportlaan.
What’s interesting about De Buylaers is how these fields look much the same now as they did centuries ago, with flower-rich wet meadows and reedbeds.
To the north the reserve incorporates the forest of the historic Veloren Bos state, where you’ll encounter relics of drifting dunes.
With pristine countryside so close, Lokeren is a city made for cycling.
You’ll be served by Waasland’s vast network of cycle paths, with numbered junctions to help you get your bearings.
There’s a wide choice of themed trails including the Canteclaer route (46km), Ledebeek route (46km) and the 30-kilometre Tour of Urbanus, relating to the beloved comic strip.
And a safe way to get around and discover Waasland’s brewing delights is via Plan Bier.
On the way you can make pit stops at breweries like the Trappist Den Herberg in Waasmunster.
If you need a pair of wheels head for Lokeren’s train station where you’ll find the Fietspunt, the Blue-bike share programme and Mobibikes, a shop and rental service.
12. Boat Trips on the Durme
Another avenue into Lokeren’s green surroundings is the Durme river itself.
To do this, head for Meersland, on the water at Durmelaan, a five-minute walk from the train station.
There you can rent an electric boat for two, four or eight hours, and these hold a maximum of 12 passengers.
You won’t need a licence to skipper one of these vessels; just a short initiation, and will be provided with a map and information booklet.
After that you’ll be free to explore the Durme, the Moervaart canal and the pastoral scenery around them.
If you’re the kind of shopper who needs the social interaction and sense of community you get with a market, then make for the main square on Wednesday mornings.
Apart from a short hiatus when the square was re-laid in the early-2010s the Woensdagmarkt has been trading here since time immemorial.
Come for fruit, vegetables, local cheese, meat, eggs, confectionery all sorts of other regionally produced food, as well as household items, clothing, accessories and pet products.
On a summer’s day you could follow up a little shopping expedition with coffee or something cold on one of the many terraces around the plaza.
14. Lokerse Paardenworsten
Now the idea of sausage made from horsemeat might not appeal to everyone, but this official Belgian Streekproduct (regional product) tells a story about Lokeren.
At the end of the 19th century the city experienced high unemployment and widespread poverty, and so people turned to horsemeat.
This was affordable because of the quantity of draft horses employed at farms, coalmines and the Port of Antwerp, but was also nutritious.
Lokerse Paardenworsten continue to be sold at butchers in the city, and are served at local traditional restaurants.
They come in a stew with some variation of bay, celery, onion, tomatoes and mustard.
More than a ton of these sausages are sold every year at the city festival, which we’ll talk about next.
15. Lokerse Feesten
Every year Lokeren cuts loose for ten days of fun at the beginning of August.
This began as a small-scale party in the mid-1970s but has snowballed into a major event, booking huge international acts and based at two locations, on the Grote Kaai and in the Prinses Josephine Charlottepark nearby.
The roll-calls of international artists to have played Lokerse Feesten is as prestigious as it gets, and includes Snoop Dogg, Neil Young, Patti Smith, The Cure, Chic ft.
Nile Rodgers, Robert Plant, to name just a handful.
That’s to go with famous Belgian acts like 2 Many DJs, dEUS, Hooverphonic and Oscar and the Wolf.