Tourist at Home – Heritage Doors Open Day 2021

On Sunday the 12th of September, there was an ‘Openmonumentendag’ or Open Doors Day for heritage buildings in Flanders, and I decided to go visit a place I’ve been wanting to visit in my own city of Mechelen. I contacted my sister and she decided to join me, together with her boyfriend and 3 children. Her kids are still very young, the oldest is almost 4 and the youngest was born this June, so we needed to decide on ‘kid-friendly’ places, i.e. places where you could easily pass with a stroller.

I will use this post as the start of a small series I plan to do, to introduce you to my hometown, the historical city of Mechelen in Belgium. I’ve recently started an ‘ambassador’ course organised by the city, which will increase my knowledge about nearly everything my beautiful city has to offer — and you KNOW I plan to write some blogposts about them as well!

But back to the heritage sites. Since we started in the afternoon, we could only really visit one place. We did go to some others, but one really got ours and the kids’ attentions. That one was the Walem Fort. I will share some pictures I took with you, alongside a short introduction to the place and its historical relevance. I will also hyperlink you to their website (in Dutch) if you want to visit it yourself someday.


The Walem Fort

Fort van Walem | Fortengordels
Aerial view, courtesy of Fortengordels (https://www.fortengordels.be/forten/fort-van-walem)

The brick fort of Walem was built in the last decades of the 19th century, directly South of the town of Walem, North of Mechelen, as part of a belt of forts surrounding the city of Antwerp. Around the turn of the 20th century it was fortified with concrete.
As you can see on the aerial view above, the fort is built on a trapezoid-shaped island with a large moat surrounding it. Later on, infantry barracks were built inside the fort as well, nearing the First World War.

The fort withstood the German army in 1914 for 5 whole days, during which it was severely damaged. This is also the main reason it’s no longer free to visit, due to the hazard of collapses. You can however still contact Natuurpunt in Flanders to schedule a guided tour, presumably very similar to the one I got, which took just about an hour.

Today, the fort is a recognised nature reserve, maintained by Natuurpunt. The fort itself isn’t freely accessible anymore, but the walking route on the outside of the moat, is open to the public.
The fort itself is clearly important as cultural heritage, but the main reason it is protected, is due to this status as nature reserve. Forts are excellent hibernation spaces for bats, and a lot of the forts around Antwerp now serve as sleeping grounds for tons of bat species. The Walem Fort is no different. The interior is dark and cool, yet doesn’t freeze over during winter.
Over a hundred bats are said to hibernate in this fort on a yearly basis, from a handful of different bat species. During our visit we spotted 2 or 3, with one in flight, startled by the mass of visitors (poor thing). ‘Sadly’ I wasn’t able to photograph the bats, but I wouldn’t want to disturb them any more than necessary either way. A lot of accommodation has been done so that the bat habitat is as optimal as possible, for example closing off doors and windows so the inside can keep nice and dark. Bats thrive in dark and humid environments. The windows with the sandbags piled up is an example of one accommodation for bats, according to the site of Natuurpunt. When I visited, I personally thought it was a defensive measure left over from the War a century ago (or recreated, obviously). I guess either explanation could be true?

Next to these hibernating bats, the reserve hosts a number of other interesting flora and fauna. There are – apparently – some rare mosses, and a species of dragonfly you don’t see anywhere else in Flanders. The area is a perfect breeding ground for tons of plants and animal species, since humans rarely enter the terrain due to the dangers of the ruined fort.

I wasn’t the only one who was very excited to visit the fort. My oldest nephew, who you can see in the pictures alongside his dad and sister, was also pleased with the experience. He wanted to see it all, sometimes running off on his own, as young children tend to do.
His excitement was infectious and I believe that this is a fun place to take the kids – as long as you clearly follow the local rules AND keep an eye on your kids due to the obvious dangers. The dark tunnels and creepy hallways and rooms had their desired effect on the imagination of the young ones.
We did had a bit of trouble with the stroller at times, fitting it in between the hallways and especially outside. The ground clearly isn’t paved over, so the floor was quite uneven and at times the elevation was quite tasking. We managed to pull through though, so the struggle wasn’t too bad. My youngest nephew (3 months old) didn’t seem to mind too much, since he mostly slept during the walk.

On site there is also a small cafetaria and the option to buy a book about Walem during the Great War, for a fair price. Also an exhibition on those who perished during the attacks in 1914 really left its impression on me. I don’t know if this exhibition is temporary or permanent, neither did I take any pictures there. The oldest one just ran off to go see it, and I didn’t have time to grab my camera running after him. Both his parents were busy, so I had to step in.


Thank you for reading this post! I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed visiting this place.
I will see you in the next post!

Dieter



For those of you who don’t know, I also have an Instagram (@DVanhammee) where I upload on a more frequent basis than here — I’m currently learning how to handle a camera and photo editing, so I’ll be uploading some of my favourite pics on there.
You can also follow me on Twitter (@DVanhammee), where you will get a notification everytime I post either on this blog or on my Instagram. Lastly, I’ll share the QR code for my Linktree, which has a few more options of pages to visit for stuff I do – or try to do – on a semi-regular basis, such as my other Instagram pages or my short stories.



Sources used (in Dutch):
– Fortengordels (https://www.fortengordels.be/forten/fort-van-walem)
– Natuurpunt (https://www.natuurpunt.be/natuurgebied/fort-van-walem & https://www.natuurpunt.be/pagina/fort-van-walem)
– Mechels Rivierengebied (https://www.mechelsrivierengebied.be/index.php/natuurgebieden/natuurgebieden-mechelen/fort-van-walem/66-fort-van-walem)

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