There’s something about the countryside that makes one feel normal again. Often, burdened with everyday stresses, we adjust to a life of anxiety and constant go-go-go. Travelling can also be a stress at times, particularly when you’re constantly on the move, wanting to see and do everything in a limited amount of time. If you’ve got an afternoon to spare during a trip to Brussels and feel in need of some fresh air, I recommend visiting Gaasbeek Castle (Kasteel van Gaasbeek) in the Pajottenland countryside.
Why Visit Gaasbeek Castle?
If you’re visiting Brussels, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to day and half-day trips. Belgium is a small country, so other towns and cities (Ghent, Bruges, Antwerp, Liege) are in close proximity. But if you’re looking to get away from the urban environment for several hours, then the countryside just outside of Brussels offers a refreshing alternative and less people to jostle with. Pajottenland is within an hour of the Brussels city centre by public transport. At its heart lies Gaasbeek Castle, whose greenery, sweeping views and history are easily enjoyed during a single afternoon.
How to Get There
To get to Gaasbeek Castle, you’ll need to take metro line 5 to Erasme/Erasmus. A one-way ticket will cost you €2.10. After exiting the metro station, hop on bus route 142 in the direction to Leerbeek. It will cost you €3 one way and you can pay on the bus. Get off after approximately 15 minutes at the Gaasbeek Castle stop (you can ask the driver to tell you when to disembark). If you gaze out your window during the journey you’ll notice how quickly the urban gives way to rural farmland. Keep your eyes peeled for a deer farm to your right as you draw closer to the Castle.
NOTE: If you have a whole day to spare, you can combine your metro trip with a bicycle ride through the lovely countryside. Get off at Erasme/Erasmus and hop on a yellow villo.be bike located just outside the station entrance.
What to Do
Explore the Castle Grounds
Once you reach the Castle entrance, you can choose to either continue along the path straight ahead until you reach the Castle itself, or explore the grounds for a while. The latter is what I did, and to be honest it was the highlight of my time at Gaasbeek. Tree-lined avenues take you past picturesque pastoral landscapes and what I believe was an ostrich farm (you can confirm this if you take binoculars with you – I personally couldn’t get a close enough look).
Smaller trails weave through woods filled with singing birds. You’re likely to pass several people walking their dogs but you’ll definitely get a sense of calm and peacefulness here. During the Autumn when I visited, it was delightful to feel the crunch of crispy Autumn leaves beneath my feet. The grounds are much bigger than they appear (50 hectares to be exact), so you might find yourself wandering for a while. Don’t worry if you feel a little lost – you’ll end up at the Castle eventually! Beneath the turrets of the Castle, you’ll find a lake populated with ducks. On sunny days you might pass some people painting by the water.
It’s not only the grounds that offer gorgeous scenery; more beautiful country views await if you take some time to walk to your left or right of the Castle entrance. You’ll pass by fields of corn, and some friendly sheep and cows. And once you reach the Castle itself, the interior courtyard offers splendid views of the surrounding Pajottenland countryside.
Visit the Castle
Entrance to the Castle itself costs €10 (€8 for students). You’ll get access to the inner courtyard, as well as the interior of the Castle, where you’ll see some incredible tapestries and artworks. Unfortunately, there are no signs inside to tell you what you are looking at and the brochures are not very detailed, so you’ll need to approach the staff working there to ask them about anything you find interesting.
Gaasbeek Castle was built in the thirteenth century, but since then it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. The original fortification was designed by Godfried of Leuven, Lord of Gaasbeek. It was intended to defend the Duchy of Brabant against neighbouring Flanders and Hainaut. Its last owner was the eccentric Marquise Marie Arconati Visconti, who turned the Castle into a museum displaying her art collection. She left Gaasbeek to the Belgian state as she never gave birth to an heir, and it opened as a museum in 1924.
Gaasbeek Castle was displaying an exhibition of artworks by artist Gerolf Van de Perre when I visited. His paintings are based on the French novel Le Grand Meulnes, a tale of romanticism and the transition from childhood to adulthood. One of the Castle’s rooms was playing a film adaptation of the novel, and I popped my head in to see Clémence Poésy (whom I only know as the actress who played Fleur in the Harry Potter films) starring in one of the main roles. Gaasbeek Castle is certainly a relevant backdrop for such a film and its themes; the surroundings are incredibly romantic.
There is one interesting building that I almost missed, had it not been for a helpful guide who pointed it out to me. Built in 1620, it’s one of the oldest parts of the Castle. He tried to describe it to me in a polite way, as “a place where the ladies would take the men.” That’s right, the building pictured below is a 400-year-old brothel!
Where to Grab a Bite
The Graaf van Edmond Brasserie is the best place to stop if you’re after a drink or something to munch. It’s to your left after you enter the grounds, or to your right as you exit. It’s reasonably priced and serves a delicious hot chocolate. I paid a total €14 for a pizza and the warm beverage.
Have you visited Gaasbeek Castle? Do you have any other suggestions for half-day trips from Brussels? Let me know in the comments.