Look up to see freedom
Belfries of Belgium
In Europe during the Middle Ages, it was all about symbols. The communities that had become larger and more influential – towns and cities – needed to show this through their infrastructure and architecture.
In some regions, it was done with castles – a sign that a powerful feudal lord controlled the city.
In other regions, it was with the bell towers – a sign that the Church was almighty and its rules were the ones to be obeyed.
In the Flanders and Wallonia regions of what is now Belgium, things were a bit different. The towns and cities created symbols that represented freedom. They were the belfries of Belgium.
What are belfries?
The belfries are easy to spot but, to see them, you need to look up. It’s not just so you can fit their scale entirely within your view – it’s also a physical sign of deference. The belfries are large towers in central public areas. They are often decorated ornately with images of the regions culture and history. And they are something the citizens were proud of at the time.
I said they represented ‘freedom’ and during the Middle Ages they did, in a way. Having a belfry in a town or city showed that it was controlled by a council, rather than by a lord or the church. Of course, the council was not democratic in the way we think of them today and it was still only the wealthy who could have any influence… but it was a big shift in governance for the era. For the first time, decisions were being made by local people.
The belfries themselves were more than just symbolic, though. They also had practical uses. The towers held the city’s bells, the treasures were kept there, as were council documents. Councils would normally meet inside their belfries and they were often also used as watch towers, prisons, or other defensive roles.
These days, some of the towers are independent, rising up from the street on their own. Some of them are incorporated into churches (an interesting statement on the relationship between civics and religion). But most are attached to town halls. This is no great surprise because this is what they basically evolved into. The town hall or council building of today is the belfry of the Middle Ages.
Where are the belfries?
It’s easy to find a belfry in Belgium these days because there are a lot of them spread across the country (in Flanders and Wallonia, at least). UNESCO has created a World Heritage Site that protects 33 of them. I’ve put them all on the map below, so you can see where they are:
It’s worth noting that there are another 23 belfries in northern France that are also part of the World Heritage Site but I haven’t put them on this map.
Head to one of the main cities that you would naturally visit as a tourist – Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, for example – and you’ll be able to see at least one belfry. But they are also visible in smaller towns that you might normally just pass through on a train or bypass on a highway. Sometimes a mission to see a belfry can take you to a charming and unexpected stop.
I did a bit of a mixture on my travels through Belgium. When I was in large cities that I was going to visit anyway, I would seek out the belfries that are part of the World Heritage Site listing. But a couple of times I also just jumped off the train halfway between a journey to explore somewhere I hadn’t heard of and see the belfry.
Here are six different belfries that I saw. They will give you a sense of how different each one can be, as well as some of the similar elements you’ll find.
The Belfry of Ghent
The tower in Ghent is one of the tallest belfries in Belgium, with a height of 91 metres. Construction started on it in 1313 but it’s changed a lot over the centuries.
The Belfry of Bruges
It’s right in the centre of the city and is one of the symbols of Bruges. It is 83 metres high and you can climb up to the top for a fee.
Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp
Antwerp has two belfries that are on the World Heritage. One of them is the main tower of the city’s primary Catholic church, the Cathedral of Our Lady.
City Hall Antwerp
The other belfry in Antwerp is part of the City Hall. As you can see, it is not nearly as tall as some of the others. Height was important but so was practicality.
Mechelen City Hall
The small city of Mechelen also has two belfries. One of them is on the main market square and is part of what is now the City Hall but was once a ‘cloth hall’.
St Rumbold’s Cathedral Mechelen
The belfry of this cathedral is rather imposing and is 97 metres high. It is a slightly strange shape because it has a flat top. There are stairs inside that you can climb up to the top.
The belfries of Belgium tell an interesting story about the development of this part of Europe, when a form of local government emerged to challenge the established authority of the church and feudal lords. But they also give us an insight in the changing architecture and design styles of a period from about the 11th century until the 19th century.
Seeing one of them is nice. Seeing a few is better. But the more of them you see, the more you’re able to appreciate the symbols and what they really stand for.