In this new 10-part series I’m going to take you to ten lesser-known places in Belgium. It won’t be about the ‘big four’ – Bruges, Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp – but about smaller cities away from the crowds, yet definitely well worth a visit. This series will run for five weeks, with a new blog post every Tuesday and Friday.
The small but beautiful city of Lier is located in Belgium’s northernmost province, Dutch-speaking Antwerp, and has a population of just under 35,000 people. It’s relatively unspoiled by tourism and has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. The area was inhabited during Roman times, grew into a town and later became a city when the Duke of Brabant granted city rights in 1212. Cloth making and the cattle market were the main economic activities of the city.
There are many monuments and highlights include two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a clock tower, churches, a beautiful beguinage and great architecture. It used to be the home city of Felix Timmermans, a Flemish author and painter.
Town Hall and Belfry
The construction of the town hall started in 1740. It was built on the main market square in a beautiful Rococo style. The belfry Tower stands against the town hall. Belfries used to be symbols of wealth and power of cities in the lowlands (the most well-known one is the belfry of Bruges). The Lier belfry dates from 1369, a time when the city became prosperous. Now the tower is what remains of the former cloth hall, the symbol of economic expansion in medieval times. The belfry of Lier is one of the 33 Belgian belfries on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
The Meat Hall
Also located on the market square, the meat hall lies right next to the belfry. The original building dates from 1480, but it was rebuilt in 1920, in a neogothic style. Recently it has become the cultural center of Lier.
The Zimmer Tower
The Zimmer Tower stands on the square bearing the same name, Zimmerplein (‘Zimmer Square’). It used to be part of the original 14th-century fortified city walls. The main feature of this tower is the Jubilee Clock, which was added in 1930. This amazing astronomical clock was designed by Lier clockmaker Louis Zimmer. It houses 13 faces, respectively showing the Greenwich Mean Time, lunar cycle, the signs of the Zodiac, solar cycle, the seven days of the week, the globe with the meridians, the twelve months of the year, the eternal dates, the four seasons, the tidal waves in Lier, the age and the phases of the moon.
You can visit the tower and see the cogwheels of the clock at work. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering and was shown at the World Fair in New York in 1939.
On the other side of the Zimmerplein stands the Prisoner’s Gate. It dates from 1375 and was originally a gate of the city wall. The gate was used as a prison from mid-16th century up until 1930.
Saint Gummarus Church
This most impressive church in Brabantine gothic style was built in 1378, to replace the former Romanesque church that had stood on this site since 1000. It’s definitely one of the highlights of a visit to Lier. The tower stands 80 meters tall, the choir and fabulous stained glass windows date from the 16th century. The inside of the building is just awesome. There’s no other word to describe it.
Saint Peter’s Chapel
The Saint Peter’s Chapel lies behind the Saint Gummarus Church and is much smaller. Yet it is one of the most important religious buildings in the city. It is the oldest remaining building in Lier, built sometime around 1225 as a part of a bigger Romanesque church. This church was constructed to replace an older wooden church that was built at the same spot by Saint Gummarus in 764. After the much larger Saint Gummarus Church was finished, a part of the Romanesque church was demolished. Nowadays the nave and transept remain.
House ‘Het Fortuin’
‘The Fortune’ House is one of the most eye-catching buildings in the city center of Lier. It’s a gorgeous 17-18th-century building with white walls, a red roof and green windows. It used to be a place where grain and wheat were stored, a storage place for coal, a lemonade factory, a workshop and a restaurant. Unfortunately the building is presently unoccupied and for sale.
Arguably the greatest attraction is the 13th-century Beguinage, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lier. It is an incredibly quaint place and one of the largest and most beautiful beguinages in Belgium.
Beguinages were founded in most of the larger towns in the Low Countries during the times of the crusades. Lots of women had lost their men and wanted to live in protected communities. Because the vast majority of those women did not want to join monasteries, where they would have to take vows, they invented a system of beguinages. Here the beguines lived like nuns or sisters, but without being tied down by vows for the rest of their lives. Normally a beguinage consists of small houses on cobble stone streets, which together formed a small, sometimes even self-sufficient, city within a city.
Beguinages are nice and quiet places, great for a relaxing walk. The beguinage of Lier has 162 houses, 11 streets and a beautiful church in the middle.
All over the city, but especially near the market square, you can see exceptional architecture. There are some great architectural sights to be seen, in particular alongside the canal that cuts the city center in half.
Fun fact: In 1496 Lier was the setting of one of the most important marriages in European history. Philip the Handsome married Joanna of Castile, thus joining the respective Austrian and Spanish empires. Their son, Charles V, was born in Ghent and would later become the ruler of both empires, including the Spanish territories in the Americas, which under his rule were conquered by Cortés and Pizarro. It was one of the largest empires in history, nicknamed ‘the empire on which the sun never sets’.
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Lier. You can get the app right here!