Flanders’ immaterial cultural heritage: always impressive

Belgian Beer battle Flanders

If you say Flanders, you say heritage. Cathedrals and belfries, beguinages (a type of convent commonly found in the Low Countries) and castles. And, of course, The Great Art of our Flemish Masters. But whoever said that history and heritage had to be tangible? Flanders is filled with immaterial and cultural heritage. Anything from brewing beer, growing chicory, clarion calls or a parade with a large wooden horse. Our centuries-old traditions and ditto craftsmanship make us who we are.

Belgian Beer Battle Flanders

Belgian beer culture

Belgium is one of the best places in the world to enjoy beer. For centuries our brewers have performed their alchemy with barley, malt, hop and water to conjure up the most delicious beers. And this is demonstrated both in quality and quantity. Our country boasts no fewer than 1,500 unique beers, with more than 700 different taste profiles. From lager and trappist, from Flanders red ale to the ever-effervescent geuze: the possibilities are limitless.

That delicious barley liquid continues to amaze and inspire. The techniques, passion and experience that gave us such richness will also ensure the future. Today, a new generation of brewers is building further on that Zest, so that our unique relationship with beer will never wither and fade.

Chicory (Belgian endive)

Growing chicory (Belgian endive)

Just as a monk accidentally invented champagne - at least, that’s what tradition tells us - Flanders’ finest first saw the light of day thanks to a fortunate coincidence. Some 200 years ago, a gardener in the Botanical Gardens in Brussels hid a handful of unknown seeds under a thick layer of fertile soil. In the dark and without him knowing it, this act would cause the emergence of an icon: Belgian endive or chicory.

The white gold quickly developed into an essential part of our culinary culture. Whether top star chef or home cook: chicory holds a special place in our hearts. And whatever happens, chicory remains a typically Belgian delicacy. Today, this is the only place in the world where these slightly bitter shoots are grown in the proper way: in the darkness and in rich, fertile soil. A unique technique that results in heavenly flavours.

Shrimp Fishermen

The shrimp fishers of Oostduinkerke

It is a remarkable spectacle on the North Sea. Sturdy carthorses wade through the surf, on their back a horseman attired in bright yellow knee-high boots and ditto rain slickers. Behind them trails a large net. The aim: to collect as many delicious shrimps as possible. The horse fishers of Oostduinkerke have no equal.

This spot on the Flemish coast is the only place in the world where they use this traditional manner of fishing for shrimp. Thanks to this centuries-old custom, they give the world the very finest grey shrimps, a foundation of Flanders’ rich culinary culture.

The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges

The Procession of the Holy Blood in Bruges

Say Bruges, say heritage. And by that we don’t just mean a certain church, monastery or even cathedral. No, virtually the whole city is heritage. UNESCO recognises the entire historic city centre as world heritage. Although you can also find less tangible heritage, such as the Procession of the Holy Blood.

Each year, the unique procession passes through the city on Ascension Day. This historic evocation revolves around the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ. The medieval custom is more than 700 years old, but is still very much alive. Even today, this annual tradition attracts hundreds of volunteers who make this procession into the unforgettable, colourful spectacle it has always been.

Last Post Ceremony

The Last Post under the Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres

During the First World War, we experienced some of the darkest times in our history. The consequences were unprecedented and shape the landscape of our Westhoek, even today. Flanders Fields was one of the most important arenas during the conflict. The many war cemeteries and commemorative monuments in the region remain silent witnesses to that dark period.

In Ypres, a musical commemoration sounds each evening, It takes place under the stately Menin Gate Memorial, in which the names of 55,000 fallen Commonwealth soldiers are engraved. On the dot of 8 pm, come rain or shine, the buglers sound The Last Post. Lest we forget.

The Cat Parade Ypres

Kattenstoet [Procession of the Cats] in Ypres

Ypres is one of the most important places of remembrance for the First World War. Although sometimes it can take on a somewhat lighter tone. Ypres is sometimes called the City of Cats, thanks to its special relationship to those feline friends. Proof of this: the triennial Kattenstoet, an enormous procession dedicated to cats. This phenomenon refers to a historic festival whereby live cats were thrown from a tower. Today, the whole thing is much more animal-friendly.

After a large and colourful procession, rag-doll cats are thrown down from the Belfry. It is the recipe for one of the most successful processions in Flanders. It attracts around 50,000 visitors from home and abroad. This typical Ypres phenomenon also amazes people in the Far East: when the procession is held, around 5,000 Japanese are there to admire this centuries-old tradition.

Ros Beiaard Dendermonde

Bayard – Dendermonde

Once every ten years, everything comes to a stop in the city of Dendermonde: the day of the Bayard Procession. This unique folklore procession passes through the city only once per decade. And when it does happen, the result is a unique folk festival, with floats, acrobats, stilt-walkers, flag spinners and special effects. With as absolute highlight: the dancing and prancing Horse Bayard. This is a gigantic wooden horse with four children on its back: four brothers, born of Dendermonde parents. That refers in turn to the Four Sons of Aymon, main characters in a centuries-old saga.

Bayard is a core element for Dendermonde, but is well known elsewhere. For example, the figure makes an appearance in the city of Mechelen in its own Festive Parade. That is a procession filled with characters from folklore, like those also held in Brussels. But nowhere is it as large as the Bayard in Dendermonde.

Carillon Beiaard SaintRumbolds Tower Mechelen

Carillon culture

Everything’s bigger in Texas? Not where musical instruments are concerned, that’s for sure. The proof: the carillons, typical for Flanders. These enormous chimes consisting of at least 23 metre-tall bells cannot be outdone. Such a carillon is generally erected in a tower and can be played by means of a keyboard. The unique sounds echo for miles around.

So that this intangible piece of culture is not lost, the city of Mechelen promotes it with pride. The internationally famed carillon school keeps the fire burning. Although this musical ace is not the only heritage that bustling Mechelen promotes. And UNESCO has rightly noticed that. From the St Rumbold’s Tower via the Belfry and the Great Beguinage to the Burgundian city palace Hof van Busleyden: Mechelen means beauty wherever you look.

Paper flowers

Paper flowers on the beach

The Flemish coast is a place for entrepreneurs in heart and soul. That starts at an early age on the North Sea beach. Each summer, thousands of children create paper flowers from crepe paper there. These colourful little gems then become merchandise in improvised stands. And only one currency is accepted: the shells you find on the beach.

How this remarkable custom arose is not entirely clear. We do know that this only takes place on the Flemish coast, it all started around 1920 and it has unusual local varieties. Which shells precisely act as currency differs from one coastal resort to another. At the same time, it’s a good tip for on the beach: buy some crepe paper from the shops on the dyke, and your kids can start up their own business!

The list is long, but still far from complete. It proves yet again that Flanders has arisen from culture and heritage, even if this cannot always be expressed in buildings, works of art or historic city centres. All the intangible that Flanders has to offer will undoubtedly also steal your heart.

You may also like these stories