There’s an impressive selection of incredible Belgium castles. In fact, Belgium has the greatest castle density of any country – after Wales.
Why so many fortresses? Well, Belgium is a relatively modern country, formed in 1830. During Medieval times, the ‘low countries’ were a series of as many as 17 separate provinces, which existed in varying states of disharmony.
In particular, the county of Flanders (now Northern Belgium) enjoyed particular wealth and prosperity – much to the chagrin of its neighbours. Belgium castles were built to protect land and property – and to consolidate the control over this volatile region.
Of course, many of Belgium’s castles are relatively modern structures, that English speakers might consider to be ‘palaces’. However, there’re still lots of impressive Medieval castles that are easy to reach, thanks to the excellent public transport system.
A tourist-favourite is the impressive, restored bulk of Gravensteen Castle – complete with torture implements. However, Beersel Castle, near Brussels, is a beautiful and more authentic Medieval fortress.
The Fortified Hulk of Bouillon Castle: One of the Most Mighty of the Belgium Castles, Perched Above A Sleepy Town
Sleepy little Bouillon is a quaint little Belgian town, nestling close to the French border. Here, the lazy Semois River sweeps along the valley, forming a sharp, hair-pin bend around a craggy rock precipice.
The combination of this natural moat and the broad, outlying rock is almost too perfect to be true, and one of the most interesting Belgian castles, Bouillon, has stood upon this spot since about AD900.
Initially, Bouillon castle was held in the hands of the Dukes of Ardenne. However, in around 1090, the castle’s most revered inhabitant – Godefroy de Bouillon – famously set off on one of the first Religious Crusades to the Holy Lands.
He mortgaged (and subsequently lost) the castle to pay for his pious – and xenophobic – journey to Jerusalem, initiating the crusading craze which would persist for hundreds of years to come.
The castle remained in continuous use, even in the hands of a new family, and was fortified in the c17th by the famed French military engineer, Vauban. He crafted a series of elaborate ditches and drawbridges to protect the castle entrance (you’ll cross a drawbridge to enter the place today), and constructed tower-bastions and gun-turrets to defend c17th French rule of the district.
Nowadays, the castle is a tremendous hulk of a fortification. You’ll discover deep dungeons, murky old oubliettes, and also a tourist-pleasing torture chamber, complete with grisly implements. Much of the castle is cut into the face of the rock, giving it a damp and spooky underground atmosphere, as old stone steps wind down endless passages.
Bouillon is one of the most dramatic of the Belgium castles, and will undoubtedly fire many children’s imaginations. Before you leave it, don’t forget to climb up the squat Austrian Tower – an impressive vantage point, which affords pretty much perfect views across the entire Semois valley.
Gravensteen Castle, or ‘The Castle of the Counts’: A Fairytale Restoration of a Formidable Belgium Castles
Gravensteen Castle (‘The Castle of Counts’) is on the more touristy side of the Belgium castles. It’s an impressive and photogenic fortress, and somewhat smaller in real life than it may appear in pictures.
To set the scene, the wooden foundations of Gravensteen were built back in the early 1000s, and the first stones were laid in around 1180.
The castle was initially designed as a defensive fortress, and took many design cues from the crusader castles in the old Holy Lands. These included the delicate 24 towers which surround the castle, which would have all been painted in different, bright colours.
Over time, the castle quickly developed from a defensive outpost to a luxury residence for the Counts and nobility of this Belgian region. The castle remained a luxurious residence until the late c17th, but the decline of traditional wealth in light of the Industrial Revolution meant that Gravensteen fell out of noble hands.
In the c18th, things took an extremely surprising turn, as even Gravensteen Castle became swept-up in the then-booming Belgian textile industry. Ghent, the Belgian municipality where the castle lies, was the epicentre of this huge new business.
During this frenzy of industry, the castle fell into the ownership of a notable entrepreneur, Jean-Denis Brismaille.
Brismaille converted the entire fortification into a huge industrial complex of metal foundries and cotton-mills – he even went as far as installing a water-wheel to power the machinery; and built enough housing for fifty working families.
Bizarrely, this meant that the castle had been transformed from a noble seat of Medieval power to an industrial workhouse.
However, one age-old thread linked these two disparate uses: the castle was seen, throughout history, to be a tool used to oppress the poor of Ghent. When Brismaille eventually moved his factories to a larger and more suitable location, he left a battered and ruined old castle in its place – and a site that very few people had any affection for.
However, the sad condition of Gravensteen didn’t persist for too long. In the mid 1800s, the Romantic movement recognised the grandeur and symbolism of the old ruined castle, and set out to restore it to a state of magnificence.
However, the romantic architects didn’t set out just to restore the castle. They sought to rebuild the fortress in an exaggerated, romantic style – creating a vision of storybook perfection, rather than adhering closely to historical accuracy.
As a result, when you explore Gravensteen today, the place can undoubtedly feel a little contrived. Even so, underneath the perfectly-positioned towers and over-ornate windows, there’s the true remnants of an impressive Medieval fortress.
My Favourite Of The Belgium Castles: Medieval Beersel, on the Outskirts of Brussels
Beersel Castle is an attractive little fortress on the outskirts of Brussels, in Belgium. Thanks to the super-efficient Belgian rail system, it’s an easy and popular day-trip from the city, but it’s equally accessible by car, as it’s positioned on the main Brussels-Paris highway.
The castle is an intriguing shape. It consists of three tall, redbrick towers which surround a central cobbled courtyard.
Although the face of the towers are rounded on the outside, their backsides, which face the courtyard, are totally flat. It’s rather like someone took a knife and sliced these towers down the middle – or like they’re intricate props to be used on stage.
The first walls of Beersel went up in around 1280-1300, and the castle was built to protect nearby Brussels from the marauding Flemish.
For that reason, defence was key – and Beersel is full of formidable features. The castle is surrounded by a deep moat (which, today, you’ll have to cross by drawbridge) and phenomenally thick walls.
It’s riddled with arrow-slots and murder-holes; ramparts span the entire courtyard; and each of the three turrets affords extensive, strategic views across the surrounding countryside.
Because of the surrounding, boggy terrain, Beersel castle could only be attacked by forces approaching from the north. This created another strategic advantage for this little fortress, as its strongest defences were oriented northwards, against the oncoming attackers.
Interestingly, in the 1800s, Beersel castle was transformed into a cotton-factory – much like Gravensteen Castle, detailed above.
Despite such an ignominious fate, the castle – like so many others – attracted the attentions of one of the Romantics, Victor Hugo (the author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame), who penned some lines on the decaying grandeur of the place. Happily, the castle didn’t fall into extensive disrepair, and it was transferred to more careful hands from the beginning of the c20th.
For me, Beersel is a favourite among all the Belgium castles, simply because it hasn’t been over-restored or significantly rebuilt over the passage of time.
Although some restoration works have taken place (the castle was sympathetically rebuilt in the c15th after battle damage; and the roofs were retiled in the c18th), the castle remains reasonably ‘authentic’, and is partially ruined on one side.
Beersel preserves a foreboding, ruined atmosphere which makes it a particularly special little example of the great Belgium castles.
Keen to find out more about Castles in Belgium? Castles.nl is an amazing collection of Belgium castles, and every single one has been visited and carefully catalogued by Marko. He’s listed hundreds for your discovery – take a look.