An Historical ‘Wow’

By alison - July 31, 2006 (Updated: November 28, 2014)

In Canada, architecture that is over a hundred years old is considered … well, really old.

If a building reaches this ‘landmark’ age, you can rest assured that someone will slap an informative plaque and/or interpretive sign on the wall and it will henceforth be governed by a million rules about what can and cannot be done to it.

I had wandered through some old Canadian buildings in the past, but now I realise I had no concept of what old really was. Here in Belgium, my everyday route takes me past buildings that are older than my country.

There are several farmhouses in my community that are well over a century old, to say nothing of the imposing manor houses that, in my country, would be historic sites. But here in Belgium, they are just the family home.

While walking through the crowds at Grand Place, it can be difficult to imagine what this square was like in its heyday. If you take away the tourists, pubs and lace shops, however, you can begin to imagine a lively marketplace that the inhabitants of Brussels have been bustling through for centuries.

There have been several occasions since my arrival here in Europe that the sheer age of a place has astounded me: visiting a Roman aqueduct in southern France, standing in Piazza San Marco in Venice or wandering through castles in Ireland. But despite visiting many historic sites in Belgium, I hadn’t yet had one of those ‘wow’ moments — until recently.

During the recent hot weather, we decided to beat the heat of Brussels by heading to the Ardennes in search of shade. We didn’t find much shade, but we did stumble upon a place that was much cooler (literally and figuratively) than the blistering sun.

Like most of our discoveries in Belgium, this one was completely accidental. Before our expedition on 21 July, we had no idea that Franchimont Castle existed. But exist it does, standing proudly despite its deteriorating state.

The castle began its existence in the 11th century, (something unheard of in my former home), in the province of Liége. Less than half of the original structure remains, but an archaeological dig is ongoing and restoration is in progress.

There is a small museum on the site that displays some of the artefacts found in the ruins as well as drawings of the castle in different periods of history.

While picking my way through the ruins and trying to imagine what the castle looked like in its heyday, the history of the place began to sink in.

As I stood in the doorway, I thought about all of the people who had entered through these gates — not as tourists, but as inhabitants, soldiers, clergy, servants and trades-people.

I thought of all of the events that this building has survived — the many battles and attacks made on the fortress itself, two world wars and a serious fire. In fact, it is a miracle that there is anything left of the castle at all.

Even though the castle walls are crumbling, it remains majestic. The lives of people who lived and worked within its walls have been transitory, but the castle remains to tell their story.

As I stood before the remaining walls I wondered what will be left of our lifetime, how future generations will imagine us and what will be written on our interpretive signs?

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Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
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