Festivals in Belgium play a significant rôle in the country’s social and cultural life, and they range from small-scale village fetes to enormous national celebrations. Many of them nowadays attract large numbers of visitors from just across the English channel. Belgium, for a relatively small country, has a considerable amount of processions and parades – locally known as ommegangs, ducasses and kermesses – amongst its festivals, most of them having their beginnings in history, religion or folk lore.
As is common in large parts of Europe, Carnival is hugely significant amongst Belgian festivals, most of them reaching their peak at around about Shrove Tuesday each year. The most significant of these carnivals is undoubtedly that taking place in what is probably Belgium’s best-preserved medieval city, Binche, just 34 miles south of Brussels. With its origins traced as far back as the 14th century, Binche Carnival is a noisy, colourful extravaganza featuring the famous Gilles, strangely costumed characters with elaborate masks and hugely ornate headgear. Anther well-known carnival takes place in Aalst whilst there are more traditionally religious processions in Bruges and Hasselt.
Other important festival dates in the national calendar include July 21st – Independence Day when the country separated from the Netherlands – and November 15th – Dynasty Day – which is a celebration of the king’s birthday rather than a homage to padded shoulders and an American soap opera.
Like many countries, Belgium has its share of almost totally inexplicable local festivals. For example, the town of Ypres has its Cat Festival on the second Sunday in May each year. Apparently, over a thousand years ago the Count of Flanders ordered the people of the city to throw several cats from his castle tower to show they were no longer pagans. Thankfully for cat lovers, stuffed toys are now substituted for the real thing and there is then a ‘cat-related’ procession through the streets!
The small picturesque town of Dinant on the River Meuse, in August, has its own Regatta of Bathtubs, with lots of home made craft cavorting on the water. The origins of this festival, alas, can be traced as far back as the local Tourist Board offices, looking for a new way to attract visitors.
Brussels, naturally, has a large number of festivals throughout the year to cater for both the local inhabitants and the large number of visitors the city attracts. The Brussels Summer Festival, a predominantly music event, takes place over 10 days in August; Boterhammen in Het Park is a free music festival at the end of the same month; the Beer Weekend is held the first week in September; and the Klarafestival of Classical Music, with more than 300 concerts and similar events, is at the beginning of September.
The city of Ghent hosts two of the country’s most internationally acclaimed festivals – the International Festival of Flanders, with well over 500 separate concerts, and the Ghent Jazz Festival, each July. Lovers of classical music will also find plenty to enjoy in the Hainaut Festival which is held around the end of September and beginning of October.
Belgium’s largest and most popular pop music festival is Pukkelpop, which takes place over three days in August near the town of Hasselt. Attracting nearly 200,000 music fans and some prominent performers, ticket holders have the bonus of free train transport to and from any railway station in Belgium, so Eurostar passengers can easily travel the 45 miles from the capital to the festival.
With such easy access, it is little surprise that more and more visitors decide to go across the channel to visit some of the truly excellent festivals in Belgium; they offer wonderful opportunities of enjoying this tremendously welcoming country.