From festivals and parades to parties and re-enactments, Belgium — like many countries — is full of cultural events. After living here for a couple of years (and as the result of a bit of research), I’ve put together a list of events I would like to see while I’m here. Some of them I’ve already been to, others are on my list of things to do.
When I posted my photo album on Facebook of my visit to the Kattenstoet in Ieper, many people asked me how I heard about the event. While it’s relatively easy to find much of this information, I figured I would put together a quick post outlining what I’ve done and what I would like to do.Without further ado, here is my (ever-changing) list:
Gratis (free) events
Oiljst Carnaval, Aalst
This is probably the event I’ve been to the most, since Joery is from right outside Aalst and Carnaval is in his blood. It occurs the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, so the date changes on a yearly basis. For me, the highlights are the burning of the doll that happens on Tuesday night (and is the unofficial end of the festival, though most people keep partying until the wee hours of the morning) and the parade, which is Sunday and Monday during the day. There’s a parade on Tuesday as well of the Voil Jeanetten, but I haven’t actually seen that yet. They also have an onion throw where they toss onions from the tower in the market square, but that happens at 2:00 in the afternoon (ish) on Monday, so Joery and I have never actually made it there.
This festival occurs every three years in the city of Ieper (a wonderful city to visit on it’s own). The festival includes a parade that details the history of the cat throughout the world as well as in the city of Ieper, a witch trial (which ends with the witch in flames), and the tossing of cats from the clock tower in the market square. It’s a great day trip, providing the weather is good, though I would caution you to get there about an hour or so before the parade starts and to bring a chair or stool to sit on. There are also tickets you can buy to sit in the bleachers in the market square to watch the parade, but the route is long and as long as you find a place to park your chair you should be golden.
Parade of the Ommengang, Brussels
I have yet to see this parade, but it looks pretty fantastic.
Flower Carpet, Brussels
Every two years, the flower carpet is assembled in the Grand Place in Brussels. I went to see it in 2010, and will probably check it out again this year. In 2010 I just went during the day, checked out the carpet and then spent the rest of the day in the city before heading back to Leuven in the evening. Apparently, in the evening there’s a light show and, on the opening day, there are fireworks, which may be worth planning around. You can also view the carpet from the balcony of the Hotel de Ville (for a small fee, I think). This year the carpet will be there for five days, which is exceptional.
Leuven in Scène, Leuven
Every two years, the city center is transformed into an open air street theatre festival. This year, it’s the last weekend in May. Some of the acts I saw when I went to the festival in 2010 were acrobats dangling in front of the university library, fire eaters, trapeze artists, and a silent theatre act. While not for the crowd-averse (they expect upwards of 100,000 visitors to the relatively small city center), it certainly is worth the trip.
Gentse Feesten (Gent Parties), Ghent
The Genste Feesten is probably the biggest festival in Belgium. It lasts for ten days in July and is a mix of concerts, cultural events, street acts, and stage performances. While the festival is free, there are a number of side festivals that cost money (Polé Polé, Ten Days Off, Boomtown, Gent Jazz Festival, etc.). Visiting Ghent during the ten days of the parties requires some pre-planning. It is easily the biggest event of the year for the city, so hotels and such are probably booked way in advance.
This city festival is marketed as 100% Belgian, 100% free. It features Belgian musicians who perform free concerts in the old market square and the fish market. It’s typically held in the middle of August. In the past it’s featured such artists as Absynthe Minded, Customs, School is Cool, K’s Choice and Intergalactic Lovers. It went through a transitional period a few years ago when the organizers started charging an entrance fee and recruiting internationally-renowned musicians, but it was poorly received and went back to being a free festival.
The Ducasse, Ath
Also known as the parade of the giants, this festival has very religious overtones and the main event is the reenactment of the battle of David and Goliath. It’s one of the few events (if the only) that happens in the Walloon region of Belgium (where French is the official language). Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the Walloon region, so hopefully in the future this post will expand. I have yet to go to this parade, which occurs every year in August. This year there’s a festival that is the same weekend, so I may have to put it off for another year.
Licht Festival, Ghent
Literally, “Light Festival“, this is turning into a yearly exhibition. The first light festival was in 2011 and was such a success (think 200,000 visitors descending on the city during the three days of the exhibition), they decided to keep it going. This year it lasted for four days at the end of January. The exhibitions and route through the city changes from year to year, but there is some continuity: both years projections on the old post office was one of the main exhibitions. The festival does attract a lot of people, though, so it’s best to go on the Thursday or Friday as opposed to Saturday or Sunday. Also, it’s January, so the weather is frigid and, due to the surplus of people, the cafés are packed. So it’s best to plan accordingly, dress warmly, and wander a bit off the beaten path to warm up with a hot chocolate or beer.
Ros Beiaardommegang, Dendermonde
This festival is every ten years (!) and the reasons behind my wanting to go are more personal than touristy. The cities of Dendermonde and Aalst have a rivalry that dates back to the middle ages. Legend has it that the city of Dendermonde hired an artist from Aalst to make the head of the horse of the Ros Beiaard parade. Once he was finished, the head was so beautifully constructed that, in order to prevent the artist from ever creating something that surpassed the beauty of the horse, they poked out his eyes. So I want to see the horse that caused such a ruckus.
I read about this event (which happens every year on Trinity Sunday, this year June 03) in The Bulletin, a magazine for expats in Belgium. The highlights of this festival include a re-enactment of the battle between Saint George and a dragon in the market square. After the dragon is slain, the people cry out, “And the people of Mons shall never perish!” (love it). There’s also a procession of over a thousand people who carry the relics of Saint Waudru throughout the city. Saint Waudru is said to have founded the city in the 7th century. And if you’re in Mons, apparently there’s a little monkey statue on the front of the city hall who brings a year of happiness to all those who pat his head.
Hapje Tapje, Leuven
This is an event for the foodies among you. This one-day event (this year: Sunday, August 5th) is divided into two parts: one revolving around food and the other around beer. It’s organized in cooperation with a variety of restaurants, and the culinary route through the city allows visitors to pick up tasty treats on the cheap. The main events occur on the Oude Markt, the Grote Markt and the Muntstraat (which is a very narrow street lined by restaurants). I went a couple years ago and it was packed, so be prepared to battle through the crowds. More information about this year’s event here.
Zythos Bierfestival, Leuven
I can’t believe when I lived in Leuven I didn’t know about this event, but it’s certainly one for beer lovers (or those of you determined to try as many Belgian beers as possible). Entrance is free, but each beer costs 1.40. There are hundreds of different types of beer to try in a variety of styles (so choose wisely!). I even saw a ‘Cookie Beer’ on their list, which I believe I tried in Brussels and is made with bits of speculoos cookie. It’s a special taste. (Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Neeli!)
Taking place every August, this is another event for food/beer lovers. This four-day event, this year the 16th to 19th of August, is similar to Hapje Tapje. It’s a chance for local restaurants, brewers, specialty shops, and caterers to share samples of their work. Entrance is free, but you pay for each tasting with tokens, priced at 1 euro each. I have yet to check it out, but it sounds delicious!
Top music festivals:
Pukkelpop, in the neighborhood of Hasselt
This three-day festival occurs mid- to late-August every year and is known for it’s variety of alternative music. This year, the headliners will be The Stone Roses, Björk, and the Foo Fighters. Tickets run from 79 euros/day to 155 euros for all three days (not including processing fees). The ticket price does include public transportation to the festival (easiest way is by train) and access to the camping sites. Fun fact: the term “pukkel” in Dutch means “pimple”. So it’s pimple pop. Haha.
Rock Werchter, neighborhood of Leuven
Werchter is a four-day festival at the end of June/beginning of July. Tickets for this year are already sold out, but they cost from 79 euros/day to 195 euros for all four days. Headliners this year include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Hickey Underworld, Florence and the Machine, dEUS, and Black Box Revelation. The ticket price includes transportation to the festival (easiest way is taking a train to the Leuven station and picking up one of the festival buses there), though camping tickets will set you back an extra 18 euros.
Tomorrowland, neighborhood of Boom
Tomorrowland, unlike Pukkelpop and Rock Werchter, is a festival I have yet to experience (tickets this year — all 112,000 of them — sold out in 30 minutes). It’s a hugely popular dance/electronic festival that looks as trippy as it is fun. This year’s festival occurs at the end of July, and tickets were 172.50 euros for all three days or 72.50 euros for one day (they also offered ‘comfort’ passes that ran from 110 euros/day to 242 euros for all three days. ‘Comfort’ appears to be access to the VIP areas). There’s also a campground (appropriately named “Dreamville”), and tickets were 34.50 euros/person.
Now, these are the most expensive festivals (as well as the most popular). There are also a range of smaller, more moderately priced festivals throughout the summer. Ones that come to mind include JosPop, Lokerse Feesten, Cactus Festival, I Love Techno, and 10 Days Off.