Aalst (Alost in French; pop. 77,000) is a small city on the River Dendre, between Brussels and Ghent. It is renowed for its Gothic architecture and its carnival (in February).
First cited in 840 as a dependency of the Abbey of Lobbes, Aalst developed as a town in the middle of the 12th century. It prospered as a trading post on the road between Bruges and Cologne in Germany. In fact, Aalst even became the capital of the Flemish part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the city has preserved the combined coat of arms of both Flanders and the First Reich to this day.
Burnt to the ground in 1360, Aalst was soon rebuilt. Its famous belfry was completed in the Gothic style in 1460. This was the town's golden age. Local townsman Dirk Martens (1446-1534) became the first printer of the Southern Netherlands, publishing Christopher Colombus's writings on the New World as soon as 1493 (i.e. just upon his return from his first voyage).
Aalst was taken by France in the War of Devolution (1667–68) and was held by the French from 1667 to 1706.
In 1893, Father Aldolf Daens (1839-1907), a local priest appalled by the condition of the workers, founded the Christene Volkspartij (Christian Folk's Party) and was elected at the Parliament, starting the democratisation and radicalisation of the Catholic party.
The main reason to visit Aalst is for its splendid town square. It boasts the oldest town hall (13th century) in the Low Countries. The adjacent belfry, equipped with a carillon of no less than 52 bells, is one of Belgium's most handsome. The old town hall now serves as the deputy mayor's office, while the actual town hall is a 19th century edifice with a rococo facade in its inner court.
Other notable buildings include the Old Hospital (15th century) and the Gothic-style St. Martin's Collegiate Church (built in 1480), which boasts a painting by Rubens ("Saint Rochus beseeching Christ to terminate the Plague at Aalst"). The Municipal Museum has displays about local history and folklore, including carnival masks.
How to get there
Aalst can easily be reached by train from Brussels (30min) or Ghent (25min).
By car, take the E40 (A10) running between Brussels and Ostend, via Ghent and Bruges.
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