Scherpenheuvel-Zichem is to the northeast of the province of Flemish Brabant, about 50 km from the heart of Brussels. And for centuries, it’s been Belgium’s most popular pilgrimage site. But it’s especially in May that pilgrims from all over the globe flock to this little town to light candles and pray. Have you been yet?
1. Belgium’s most famous basilica
Anyone visiting Scherpenheuvel-Zichem can spot it from miles away – the Basilica of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel. Its gigantic dome is crowned with a lustrous scattering of 298 gilt stars. Not only is Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel Belgium’s most famous basilica, it’s also its oldest domed church, dating back to 1627.
The basilica and square are designed as a heptagram, symbolic of Mary’s seven sorrows and seven joys. And from mid-March through mid-November, the basilica is ringed by cheerful stalls selling statues, icons, art, candles, knick-knacks, and candy. You might also hear a melody or two from the carillon if you’re lucky.
2. 900 years of history
Another sacred, historic site in Scherpenheuvel-Zichem is Averbode Abbey. Norbertine monks have called this area home for over 900 years. Visitors are welcome to explore the courtyard and part of the abbey church all week long. For the curious among us looking for a sneak peek behind closed abbey walls, there’s a guided tour every Sunday at 3 pm. To experience and enjoy Averbode’s unique products, e.g. craft beer, artisanal cheese, and abbey bread, drop by the experience centre and café – Het Moment.
3. Ice cream and a stroll
Tucked behind Averbode Abbey, you’ll find a beautiful forest and richly textured, colourful heathland. You’ll come across this nature reserve’s very best spots on the Norbertine Walk (9.3 km). What’s more, your walk involves a stroll down Ice Cream Lane [de Lekdreef]: a car-free street lined with ice cream carts during the summer. Plunk down on one of the lane’s benches and enjoy an ice cream in nature’s good company. (It’s also a great spot for people-watching!)
For the walk, just follow the nodes: 100 – 85 – 86 – 75 – 274 – 76 – 87 – 90 – 100 – 98 – 107 – 384 – 144 – 286 – 104 – 91 – 96 – 100
Tip: Those red & white roadside signs should be a familiar sight. It’s an ingenious – but simple! –navigation system for hiking enthusiasts. You can use the nodes to chart your own walk. Just use this tool.
4. Ernest Claes’ stomping grounds
One of Belgium’s most famous authors is Ernest Claes. Claes was born in Scherpenheuvel-Zichem in 1885, and you can still explore where he spent his early years today. To visit his home learn more here. It’s your chance to discover more about his life and what life was like in rural Belgium at the end of the 19th century. The Demerbroeken Nature Reserve, just behind his home, was a persistent source of inspiration for his novels. It’s hardly a surprise then that so many wonderful walks and bike rides start from the museum. Plan to encounter marshes, meadows, and bird-watching huts on your walk or ride.
5. Gravel grind your way through Hageland
Up for a challenge? Meet the Dwars door het Hageland Gravel Route! This bike ride is 75 km long and involves some heavy endurance climbs (500 altimeters). Cycle the mud runs of the Demerbroeken and plunge through the woods of Averbode on this route. Plus, there are the obligatory sights, e.g. the medieval Maagdentoren in Zichem, the Citadel of Diest, and the Vlooyberg Tower. Boredom? That’s not the word you’re looking for.
6. Medieval watchtower
Back in the day (the Middle Ages), Zichem found itself at the crossroads of the Duchy of Brabant and the County of Loon. And that made its safeguarding priority number one. Consequently, one Reinier II van Schoonvorst commissioned the construction of a watchtower, the Maagdentoren. This colossal stone and brickwork structure appeared on the banks of the Demer River in the 14th century. A few years ago, the tower was beautifully restored. Now you can climb all the way to the top for a stunning vista of the Demer River Valley. With a clear sky, you can even see up to 30 kilometres out.
7. Kidtastic walk
The streets and town life of Zichem often served as a backdrop for Ernest Claes’ books. His young adult bestseller, De Witte, is a great example. A new 3-km kidtastic loop trail, ‘Explore Zichem with De Witte’ (Dutch: ‘Met De Witte door Zichem’), crosses several spots featured in the tale. Starting from Zichem Station, you and the kids are in for plenty of fun and games.
8. More information
8.1. How to get there
Getting to Scherpenheuvel-Zichem by train is quick and easy. The city has two train stations, one in Zichem and one in Testelt. Going by bus? Route 35 from Leuven to Hasselt will get you there. Monday through Friday, you can catch a train going your way from either destination on the hour. Visit the SNCB website to plan your trip.
8.2. Good eats
- For chic, book a table at Michelin-star restaurant Colette – De Vijvers with an enchanted view of the pond and waterfront terrace dining.
- Bar Cesar – for trendy dining on next to Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel. The restaurant is only opened on weekends and holidays, so keep that in mind when planning your visit.
- Want to go local? De Heerlyckheid café’s menu features regional dishes made with local produce.
8.3. Places to stay
- Mon Dieu – a cosy bed and breakfast in a renovated 1950s mansion.
- Glamp&Dine – sweet dreams in a posh tent, preceded by a gourmet dinner.
The tourist’s go-to for a trip to Scherpenheuvel-Zichem is their website. For more walks and bike trips in the area, check out Flemish Brabant Tourism or subscribe to their monthly English newsletter.