Diest is a cosy but underestimated city on the border between Flemish Brabant and Limburg. It’s filled to the brim with protected heritage and the surrounding nature can be explored with a variety of activities. Trot Op! booked a city trip to go and take a look for you.
Diest for me was a bit like my old high school diary. I know it must be lying around someplace, but don’t ask me where. Because let’s be honest here: who of you who wasn’t conceived in its immediate surroundings, can tell me something more or less relevant about the city of Diest. I’ll give you a second to think about this. On paper it doesn’t really look like the most exciting of metropolises. There’s barely 20.000 people living there, and it’s located right in between Leuven and Hasselt: two bigger and more popular tourist destinations. Theoretically it shouldn’t have too much going for it. That proved – a short city trip later – to be quite the misconception. Diest is a lively little town, and it has a surprising lot on offer. Did you know for example that Diest – and not Bruges, which is completely overrun by whole D-Days worth of elderly Brits anyway – has the highest number of protected heritage sites per square metre in the whole of Flanders? The fact that most of the city centre fits on about four football fields doesn’t really matter in this case: hard facts don’t lie. Wander the streets for a while and you’ll see this claim isn’t unfounded. Monumental churches, old fortresses, expertly decorated facades and one of the most beautiful beguinages in the country: you’ll find it all and more in Diest.
What to do in Diest: discover one of Belgium’s hidden treasures
There is of course a reason for a history this rich. In this case – of course – that reason is the Dutch. Diest, together with among others Breda – is one of the official “Orange cities”. These are places with a feudal link to the royal family. Even now, Willem-Alexander is not only King of The Netherlands, but Baron of Diest as well – which of course looks much nicer on his resume. For almost 300 years the city was under Dutch rule, which came with a lot of money and heritage.
“Did you know Diest – and not Bruges – has the highest number of protected heritage sites per square meter in the whole of Flanders?”
There’s a lot to see and do outside the city centre as well. Webbekoms Broek is a beautiful nature reserve right across from the beguinage, for example. Sadly it was flooded with about a meter of water when I wanted to go for a hike, so that obviously didn’t happen – we’re truly having an exceptional summer in Belgium this year. No need to panic: the Merode Forest is close by as well, and wasn’t submerged just yet. This is one of the biggest continuous areas of nature in Flanders, and can be easily explored from Diest. Everyone looking for adventure has a myriad of options to choose from. From mountain biking and horse riding to city golfing and pack rafting: just make a booking and you’re off. We decided on the following five activities.
1. Discover Diest with your phone
Just arrived, didn’t do any research like the lazy bum you are and now you don’t know where to start? No worries, just download the right apps on your phone and you’re good to go. Are you on the citadel? Enjoy the view and then scan the QR-code on top of the stairs to start the Unlock the City game. Want your reality a tad more virtual? Get Augmented Routes from the App Store and start Virtueel Gluren achter Erfgoedmuren. This allows you to get a virtual peek behind the walls of the little beguine houses – sneaky sneaky. For me, Waanhistorische Wandeling was the most fun. Here, a couple of voice actors lead you past the most important sites while they spew over the top lies at you. Half of what they say is not true at all and dad jokes are made by the dozen, but for someone like me who had to follow around some of the most unnervingly boring school teacher guides on the planet for eleven years, it’s quite a welcome change. Had a good laugh.*
*The app is in Dutch though so it might not be for you.
2. All museums in Diests are free
Did the corona crisis ravage your wallet or are you simply a cheapskate? Diest got your back bro! Every museum in the city can be visited completely free of charge. And for a town of this size, there are plenty of them to find. Stadsmuseum De Hofstadt is housed in the city hall cellars, and illustrates the city’s history with a wide array of artefacts. The Saint-Sulpitius church* has a religious art collection of its own. In the citadel you’ll find the Pegasus museum, showcasing the life of the paratroopers who were stationed here (only open on the first Sunday of the month) and the beguinage is home to Zwartzustersmuseum, spilling the beans on the order of nuns who used to live here. We decided to visit Gasthuisapotheekmuseum next to the tourist office. This little place gives a very truthful insight on how an 18th century pharmacy used to look. Two endearingly enthusiastic volunteers – who had to fight for years to protect and open this place – will guide you around, telling story after story. Did you know one of the Dutch princes died here after someone screwed up his enema? Colon went boom. Not the best way to go.
*Sulpitius is the patron saint of people with weird skin conditions by the way. The more you know…
3. Discover hidden spots on your mountain bike
Normally we had planned a standard mountain bike tour, but due to the floods many of the signalled routes were reduced to pools of wet mud. This is why we decided to ask our guide Bert for an alternative. He’d take us to some of the lesser known, photogenic or interesting places around. After stopping on top of the citadel and taking a detour to Park Cerckel, we cycled through and over the military fortifications outside the city centre. Schaffense Poort and the tunnel behind it are the most known part of the vesten, but there are lots of secret spots to discover. From little gates inside the walls where the water flows through and you can literally count the carp swimming below you to decaying bunkers where several clandestine corona parties were stopped last summer. If you want to get to that last spot, you better bring your hiking shoes. You’ll have to take your bike down quite the slippery slope. Bert is a pleasant and flexible guide, who can be contacted through the tourist office or on his instagram @the_real_barry_f.
4. Stay with the beguines
The walled beguinage is without a doubt the most beautiful and authentic part of Diest. Walk through the imposing entrance gate and you’ll be catapulted a couple of hundred years back to the past, strolling over cobbled streets flanked by cute brick or whitewashed little houses. There’s even a nice tavern to be found behind the central church. You can spend the night in several places here as well, and we did just that at B&B Guesthouse@home. This place is run by a very friendly and hospitable couple, renting out an original beguine house behind their own home. There’s a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor and a tv corner and three beds under the roof. Your key takes you through your own entrance gate into your private little garden. The perfect place to have a couple of beers on a hot summer evening – remember those? There are no more beguines to be found though, so you’ll have to bring your own company. www.bbbegijnhof.be
5. Go hiking with a donkey
Het Bolhuis is a biological farm a couple of miles outside of town. Here you can go and borrow an Icelandic horse or a donkey from farmer Kurt, and take a stroll with it in the surrounding forest (you can also take them on four day hikes, but that seemed a bit too much for us). Because our riding skills were limited to going in circles on the local county fair, we decided to opt for option two and were coupled with a female donkey called Venus. Before we could take our new friend for a walk, we got some basic tips from Kurt. If you want to lead a donkey, you have to radiate authority. The animal has to think you are omnipotent and know exactly where to go, so it can follow you without having to doubt your skills. Sounds good in theory, but it turned out slightly different in practice. After ten minutes of hiking, Venus decided it was more fun to graze than to walk, and that was as far as our authority took us. The rest of the trip consisted of asking her nicely to please start moving again. Donkeys are hilarious and surprisingly clever, and will test you as soon as you show a glimpse of insecurity – the same goes for lovers and toddlers by the way. The area around the farm is stunning, and part of a hiking network. It’s almost impossible to get lost, but if you still manage to do it your donkey will probably blindly find the way back home. The only question is whether or not it wants to take you there too. www.bolhuis.be
Been to Diest yourself? What was your favourite spot? Did we miss something? Want to know more about the city and what it has on offer? Surf to the official website here: www.toerismediest.be.
Our Sunday morning breakfast was taken care of by Croq & More. They got us a large breakfast basket that sadly got delivered to our hostess, who then had to bring it to us in her night gown. She got a nice pot of yoghurt out of it though. www.croqnmore.be