Among the European countries I visited, Belgium is my favorite. I will not get tired of visiting this small nation over and over again. For many, Belgium produces the best beer in the world. Actually, the Belgians are the producers of the best beers (take note plural) in the world. As for me, Belgium, especially the Flemish region, is a picture-perfect country. The Flemish cities of Brugge, Ghent, Mechelen, Brussels, Leuven, and Antwerp are perfect locations for the staging of fairy tales and other Medieval fables.
When I think of European fairy tales, I am led back to a princess – locked up in a tower and awaiting her prince to rescue her from the dragon. For many, the tower is an extension of a Medieval castle, which often associated as the symbol of Medieval power and influence.
My visits to Flanders (Brussels and Brugge in 2016; Antwerp, Mechelen, and Ghent in 2018) were also visits to some spectacular towers called the Belfries. Many of the towers I saw are attached to other huge structures. Many of them support the carillon bells, which are played every hour providing a soundscape that brings everyone back in time. I learned from my arts studies class back in college that etymologically, belfries have nothing to do with bells. The word is derived from the Medieval French word berfrei that literally means tower in a fortress (or a castle). Sometimes, it is used to denote the high watchtower of a fortification of the Medieval era.
Today, belfry is used to refer to Gothic, Medieval and early Renaissance architecture dominant in Belgium and Northern France. They were once upon a time symbols of power and influence. Many of them were extensions of Medieval cathedrals such as the belfry in Mechelen (attached to St. Rumbold’s Cathedral), in Ghent (attached to St. Bava’s Cathedral) and in Antwerp (attached to the Cathedral of our Lady). Some are the primary motifs of town or city halls (as in Mechelen, Antwerp, and Brussels). It makes sense that these towers are adjacent to churches and city halls because the Medieval era is the era of the Church’s authority. Once upon a time, the city halls were even owned by the Church.
A number of belfries in Belgium and France are now inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Site collectively called Belfries of Belgium and France. Originally, there were 33 belfries inscribed as WHS in 1999 (originally called the Belfries of Flanders and Wallonia). In 2005, this was extended to another 23 in France and one in Wallonia.
During my travels to Flanders, I was able to explore the following belfries designated as WHS:
The Belfry of Brugge (Brugge)
The Belfry of St. Bava’s Cathedral (Ghent)
The Belfry of Antwerp City Hall (Antwerp)
The Belfry of the Cathedral of our Lady (Antwerp)
The Belfry of St. Rumbold’s Cathedral (Mechelen); and
The Belfry of Mechelen’s City Hall (Mechelen).
The Belfry of Brussel’s City Hall is also worth mentioning here because it is also a WHS. However, its inclusion is not within the designation of The Belfries of Belgium and France but as part of La Grand-Place, Brussels (my commentary/post about it is coming soon).
I have yet to see other belfries – in Leuven, in other Flemish cities, in Wallonia and even in France.
When I do my next visit, perhaps, I will look for Rapunzel or maybe Fiona to ask how life was during the Medieval Era.