Discover Benelux, Issue 32, August 2016

Page 34

Discover Benelux | Top Things to Do & Places to Visit | Flanders

Unique historical remains TEXT: KOEN GUIKING | PHOTOS: DIEST TOURISM

Throughout history, the small Belgian city of Diest has had to defend itself against intruders. The remains of that turbulent past can still be seen everywhere. This makes it a very interesting place that is absolutely worth a visit. “After Belgium gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, King Willem I of the Netherlands invaded the country three times. The young country was not well equipped to defend itself against attacks from the North, so the Belgian government decided to turn Diest into a fortified city,” says Thea Henderix, head of tourism services in Diest. “A city wall with impressive gates was built, partly on top of the remains of the medieval city walls, and a gunpowder warehouse and citadel were constructed as well. Most of it is still preserved today. That makes Diest very unique.” 34 | Issue 32 | August 2016

Like many other Belgian cities, Diest had started to demolish its citadel in the early years of the 20th century. “It was a time of economic downturn. Breaking obsolete forts down provided people with jobs,” Henderix explains. But when the German army invaded Belgium in World War I, it used the citadel as a base, stopping further destruction. After World War II, Belgium’s first battalion of paratroopers moved in. “When the army left, in 2010, the city council bought the citadel,” says Henderix. It is now accessible to the public; but not without a guide. “You can visit the grounds in the middle without supervision, but to go inside the pentagonshaped fort you need to book a tour via or at the tourist office,” Henderix explains. A guided tour is highly recommended, especially for those interested in war architecture. “The citadel is the only fort in Europe with an intact

Chasseloup-Laubat defence system.” It has an ingenious tunnel system and the cannons are masked, providing the cannon operator with a clear view of the enemy while the enemy cannot see him or shoot him. Other places of historical value in Diest are the Begijnhof – a UNESCO world heritage site, the former refuge house Het Spijker and the Demer River flowing through the city centre. “The river was diverted around the city in the 1960s because it smelt and regularly flooded, but since this year the water flows through the city again, partly regulated by the only Waaiersluis [a special type of sluice] in Belgium.”