In the rolling hills of the Flemish Ardennes, Oudenaarde is a lovable town on the River Scheldt that was famed until the 18th century for its high-quality tapestries.
Even though the industry died off 300 years ago there are 15 supreme examples of this needlework at the Mou Museum in the 14th-century cloth hall.
This building is attached to a 16th-century Brabantine Gothic town hall, as beautiful as any in Belgium.
Oudenaarde is endowed with a lot of other historic architecture, in its churches, Patrician houses and long defunct monasteries.
The city is also synonymous with the Tour of Flanders, a one-day classic cycle race, hauling the world’s best cyclists up tough slopes paved with cobblestones.
Rising emphatically at the north end of the Markt plaza is one of the finest town halls in the country.
This was built between 1526 and 1537 and has a highly decorative Brabantine Gothic style.
You could lose a few awestruck minutes staring at it from the square.
Every space on the facade has some kind of ornamentation, be it blind tracery or niches with capitals and crocketed pinnacles.
Between those niches, the first and second-floor windows have five lights and pointed arches, while the steep roof has little dormers with golden gables.
Above is the UNESCO inscribed belfry, on six storeys.
And at the very top is a crown, paying tribute to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, surmounted by Oudenaarde’s mythical guardian, Hanske de Krijger (Hans the Warrior), in gold.
On the ground floor is a dignified arcade with pointed arches and highly intricate vegetal capitals.
A rear extension of the town hall is the older, 14th-century cloth hall, a testament to Oudenaarde’s prosperous Medieval textile industry.
This now holds the Mou Museum (more next), while Oudenaarde’s tourist office is on the town hall’s ground floor.
2. Mou Museum
The museum in the cloth hall is not to be missed, for the strength of its collections and its engaging, tactile displays.
The reason you have to go in is to marvel at the 15 sumptuous tapestries, woven in Oudenaarde in the 16th and 17th century.
For hundreds of years, Oudenaarde was also an important hub for silversmithing, and the dazzling Boever-Alligoridès silver collection is spread over three rooms and gives a comprehensive account of this craft across Europe up to the end of the 18th century.
You can also get in touch with the work of Oudenaarde painter Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638), renowned for his boozy tavern scenes, and learn the city’s connection to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, his daughter Margaret of Parma and Louis XIV.
If you approach Oudenaarde from the south, the 88-metre tower of the Sint-Walburgakerk hoves into view before any other landmark.
The tower, crested by a Baroque slate dome, is from the 16th and 17th centuries, and since 1894 has contained Oudenaarde’s 49-bell carillon.
The city’s carilloneur puts on a concert every Sunday from 12:00 to 13:00, but also on Thursdays (10:00-11:00) and on evenings in July and August (20:30-21:30). Most of the body of the church below is from the 15th and 16th century, when the building was redesigned in a Brabant Gothic style, but the chancel is a remnant of the first, 12th-century construction.
Iconoclasm in the 16th century stripped the church of its Medieval decoration.
There are a few damaged grave monuments from before this time, still in situ, but the profuse tapestries, polychrome sculptures and paintings are generally Baroque, from the 17th and 18th centuries.
4. Ronde van Vlaanderen
Spring, normally the start of April, is time for one of the five “Monuments” of profession road cycling.
The Tour of Flanders is a one-day classic, run extensively on gruelling cobblestones and centred on Oudenaarde where the race has finished every year since 2012. The Ronde van Vlaanderen is contested by cobbled classics specialists.
These cyclists possess all-round ability, able to sprint and take on stiff climbs, but also think tactically and be fearless in the face of physical jostling and a difficult road surface.
If you can’t catch the race, you can still set off in search of the most iconic parts of the course.
Among these, in the south of the town, is the 77-metre Koppenberg hill, a draining 600-metre ascent on cobblestones.
5. Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen
This attraction in Oudenaarde tells you all you need to know about this one-of-a-kind race, beginning with a gripping 13-minute film that puts you in the saddle out on the course.
The multimedia exhibition also portrays past winners, lets you feel what’s like to ride on cobbles and test your time on the steep Oude Kwaremont road against two-time winner Peter Van Petegem.
Fans of the race can do a deep dive on its history with a huge archive of images, footage and sound clips.
The walls of the bike-friendly cafe are plastered with cycling memorabilia, like jerseys, posters and water bottles, and there’s a pro shop with trail maps, books and modern and retro gear.
6. Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk (Pamelekerk)
Ambling along the right bank of the Scheldt you’ll come to a wonderful early Gothic church from the 13th century.
Begun in 1234, the Pamelekerk would be completed in just 30 years, which has left it with a uniform Scheldt Gothic style.
All of the hallmarks of this style are present, among them an octagonal tower, ambulatory, triforium, clerestory and the slender, almost Romanesque three-light windows.
Standing by the river you can admire the ornamental corner turrets of the north transept, also dating to the 13th century.
The interior is mostly neo-Gothic , and you can go inside on weekends June through September.
7. Begijnhof Oudenaarde
As with many Flemish cities, Oudenaarde comes with a historic beguinage, a community for lay religious women who had taken vows, but still had financial independence.
This is one of 26 beguinages around Flanders to be UNESCO listed, and has stood at the current location since the 15th century.
The last of Oudenaarde’s beguines passed away in 1960 and you can take a look around during daylight hours.
The entrance to the courtyard is a striking Baroque structure with an image of Saint Roch, invoked against the plague.
The beguines lived in the whitewashed houses dating from the 17th to the early 20th century, while the oldest building is a house from 1500, built for a rector drowned in the Scheldt by the Calvinist Geuzen.
The chapel was destroyed by the iconoclasts in 1566 and has a Gothic Revival design.
8. Provinciaal Archeologisch Museum (PAM)
Ename, a couple of kilometres downriver on the right bank of the Scheldt was an important harbour and trading centre in the High Middle Ages, at the boundary between the Kingdom of France and the Ottonian Holy Roman Empire.
There’s an enthralling archaeological site, which we’ll talk about below, while the discoveries yielded by the site are on display at the provincial archaeological museum in the centre of the village at the 19th-century townhouse, Huis Beernaert.
The exhibitions here have been put together with a lot of love, and no little expertise.
There’s an interactive timeline charting more than a two millennia of history, and you can hear the perspectives of Ename’s many historical inhabitants, from abbots to countesses, from their own mouths.
You can also learn about all of the science and technology that goes into modern archaeology.
The PAM also looks after Ename’s astonishing church, built at the turn of the 11th century in an Ottonian style.
This is one of Belgium’s best examples of Romanesque religious architecture, constructed from blue-black Tournai limestone.
In the early 1990s, 18th-century modifications to the tower’s entrance were peeled back to reveal marvellous Byzantine-style frescos painted 1,000 years ago and long hidden behind the organ.
These are the oldest church frescos to be found anywhere in Benelux.
10. Archeologische Site Ename
Under the same umbrella, the archaeological site is on the right bank of the Scheldt, encompassing eight hectares and equipped with informative panels.
What you’ll see are the foundations of Ename Abbey, a Benedictine monastery established in 1063 and suppressed and demolished during the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.
The abbots here were influential men, as members of the States of Flanders, and would discuss political matters with statesmen in the formal garden in front, as political talk was forbidden within the monastery walls.
Beside the monastery are the remnants of an Ottonian castle raised around 974. Three-dimensional computer reconstructions of the abbey and castle, produced with many hours of research, data analysis and archaeology, are on show in a little pavilion next to the site, open from April to November.
11. Oudenaarde Breweries
Beer has been brewed in Oudenaarde since time immemorial, and among the old breweries still in business is Brouwerij Liefmans, which has a history that can be traced back to the 17th century.
Liefmans, still based near the Scheldt and preserving its historic brewing facilities as a living museum, is renowned for cherry-brewed Kriek-Brut, matured for 18 months.
You can book a tour of Liefmans online.
The story of Brouwerij Roman meanwhile begins in the middle of the 16th century.
This brewery, based about 10 minutes east of Oudenaarde, is loved for its Oud Bruin (Flanders Brown), Adriaen Brouwer (5%). This also comes in a tripel (9%) and “Oaked” (10%), a variety aged in sherry and whiskey barrels.
Brouwerij Roman opens up for tours on weekdays all year, and on Saturdays between March and October.
12. Abdij Maagdendaele
The Cistercian Maagdendaele Abbey was set up in Pamele in 1234 and grew into one of the foremost women’s monasteries in Flanders.
Although the abbey was hit hard by Louis XIV’s wars of expansion and then the French Revolution, the 13th-century basilica is still in situ, along with a refined, L-shaped abbey house, built in the 1660s.
Composed of brick with white sandstone dressings, this building is designed according to the principles of the Cistercian order, with Scheldt Gothic hints.
Above the entrance to the east wing there’s a stunning bas-relief showing Saint Bernard receiving his scapular from Mary.
Today the complex houses the city archives and the Royal Academy of Art (Koninklijke Academie voor Beeldende Kunst).
13. Huis de Lalaing
On the Pamelewijk facing the Scheldt stands a stately patrician house with an 18th-century Rococo facade.
This has some dainty stucco mouldings, particularly around the pair of kidney-shaped windows on the pediment, and on the two corbels below the cornice.
Huis de Lalaing is much older than its exterior, and takes its name from Philip de Lalaing, the city governor and Lord of Schorisse, who lived at this address in the 16th century.
The house could also be the birthplace of Margaret of Parma (1522-1586), illegitimate daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
The property was bought by the city in 1978 and is a multifunctional space, relating to Oudenaarde’s heritage as centre for tapestry production.
Experts here restore fine tapestries and carpets, but also teach weaving skills at workshops and on courses.
Growing in the walled garden through the house’s passageway is a 160-year-old ginkgo tree.
For hundreds of years Oudenaarde was fortified by a system of walls and moats, reworked by Louis XIV’s famed military engineer Vauban in the 17th century.
In the 19th century a parcel of the old defences, incorporating a ravelin, was purchased by the renowned Liberal politician Charles Liedts (1802-1878). He built himself a mansion, ensconced in an English landscape park.
Liedts’ son Amédée bequeathed the estate to Oudenaarde when he passed away in 1907, and the six-hectare space has abundant lawns, tall mature trees, a fountain and modern footbridge across the old moat.
The house dates to 1860, and on the exterior you can still identify cartouches with Liedts’ English motto, “All for Duty”.
15. Recreatiedomein De Donk
On Oudenaarde’s western flank you can walk to a large pond that was excavated in the 1960s for material for the N60 dual carriageway.
But long before that time this setting had been watery, as the site of Medieval fishponds and common pasture for villagers.
Since the 20th century the pond has become a honeypot for sailors, kayakers, windsurfers and anglers.
In 2017 a new cable system opened at the lake for wakeboarding and waterskiing.
Swimming is actually prohibited, but sunbathers flock to the grassy banks on hot days, and there’s a 2.6-kilometre hiking trail on the pond’s perimeter.
Occasionally you’ll get tremendous vistas of the Flemish Ardennes on the path.