Genk is one of those Belgian cities that you might think you've got pegged down – but which turns out to be quite capable of throwing you curve-balls. Long known as a grimy coal-mining backwater, in the quarter of a century since its coal-boom ended Genk has remade itself. And as the youngest of Belgium's cities (only granted that status in 2000) it has taken to the task enthusiastically. It has re-embraced its abandoned coalmines as innovative cultural icons. It flies its diverse, multi-ethnic immigrant population as a flag of vibrancy. And it makes the most of its prime location, right on the doorsteps of the Hoge Kempen National Park – reminding visitors that this is a surprisingly green city. In fact, with its meandering park-filled suburbs, marshland nature reserves and garden-city design, Genk has well earned the moniker of 'The Green City'.
The 'city' is actually made up of several pit villages, which grew up around the coalmines that sunk their shafts here at the start of the 20th-century. Up until that point it had been a tiny town in a sparsely populated heathland. But from then until the 1960's, Genk became a magnet for coal-miners from the four corners of Europe. That boom-town growth has left Genk spread across the plains and low ridges, north of the Albert Canal, in a somewhat rambling fashion. And it can sometimes seem difficult to place where, exactly, the centre of this Limburg city actually is.
Better not to try. Instead you'll find Genk's heart in the spectacularly fiery Saint Martin Procession; in the coal-mine towers now turned into neon-lit cultural centres; or in the exuberant celebration of ethnic cultures that number Pole, Turk and Italian alongside Flem and Walloon. That international mix also makes for little extra interest in the local food-and-beer-scene. And, in a city recently voted the 'friendliest city in Europe', you'll be sure to make a few new friends along the way to the bar.
It wouldn't be unfair to say that not very much happened in Genk for its first few thousand years. Up until that day in August 1901, when the drillbit hit the first seams of the 'black stuff', Genk was the kind of place history went out of its way to avoid. The reason is simple – and also geological. Genk lies on the margins of the Kempen (or Campine in French), a plateau of sandstones that were simply not very fertile. Making a living on the thin sandy soils here was hard, so few settled down, and history got on being busy elsewhere.
Abbeys and artists
Which isn't to say that nothing at all happened. There is evidence that ancient peoples lived around here as long as 7,000 years ago. First the Celts, and then the Germans, scratched a living from the acidic soils, felling the woods, and creating heather-filled heathlands that suited hardy cattle and goats. But the Romans avoided the place. The name Genk actually comes from the German 'ganna', which itself may have come from the Celtic 'gennus', which means noble.
It was first scribed into the history books as Geneche, when the area was passed over to the Abbey of Rolduc in 1108. It was the abbeys that held sway around the Kempen, not the nobles, especially while Genk was part of the County of Loon. Then, 1365 saw the Bishopric of Liege take over the Loon's lands, but nothing much really changed in Genk. Life still revolved around herding the cattle, and growing enough grain to feed the people's twin hungers – bread and beer. Mills were central to life here, and local landowners controlled them so they could control the beer – and thereby the people.
During the 19th-century things began to change. The natural beauty of the Kempen began to attract writers and painters. Artists like Neel Doff and Emile Van Doren brought its sweeping colours and lingering vistas to life on the canvas. Genk even became something of an artists village for a while. Then the 20th-century arrived, and everything in Genk was turned on its head.
The black gold boom
The coal that André Dumont discovered 1600 feet beneath Genk (and nearby villages) wasn't just fortunate for him – it was well-timed for Belgium. The coal fields around places like Liege had started to falter. So the deposits under Genk were 'black gold', as far as the continued industrialisation of the country was concerned. The big problem was that there was no skilled labour locally able to wrest the stuff from the ground.
So the gates were opened to Genk's first wave of mining migrants. From a population of 2,000, the small villages around Genk swelled to tens of thousands in the decades after the First World War – pulling in miners from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary and Italy. After the Second World War, it was from Greece, Spain, Turkey and Morocco that the workers arrived. Today there are reckoned to be 15,000 Italians, 6,000 Turkish, and a thousand Greeks among the 85 nationalities that call Genk home.
Those migrants may remain, but the coal has long since gone. It started failing in the 1970's and by 1988 the last coal mine had closed. Genk kept going by trading on its industrial workforce – thanks to the Albert Canal and Ford Motor Company, who have a huge works here. But that factory is to close soon, so Genk is already looking to new horizons – rediscovering its natural beauty, its fascinating industrial past and the wonderfully diverse window it opens onto a hotch-potch of international cultures.
Getting There & Getting About
Genk maybe in one of the less well-known parts of Belgium, but it is actually quite close to important road-links in the east of the country. The E314 runs right through Genk, connecting it both to Brussels and (eventually) to Aachen and Cologne. The E313 runs close by too, through nearby Hasselt, rushing between Antwerp and Liege. That places this young city close to 5 major airports – including Brussels, Liege, Maastricht-Aachen, Antwerp, and Cologne-Bonn. So if you're coming in by car or plane, you shouldn't find it too hard to reach Genk.
Coming in by train, from those airports, isn't terribly quick, though. There are no major intercity trains that connect directly here, so once you Liege (from the south) or reach Leuven (from the west) you'll have to switch onto the slower local routes. But the local train network is good for getting around the local district and suburbs. Compared to Hasselt – its twin-city to the west – Genk's bus coverage isn't quite as dense or regular, and the fares not as cheap.
Add to that the fact that many of Genk's attractions are scattered around, or outside, the city, and you maybe tempted to bring or hire a car. But the bike option works well here, with the local council having invested heavily in cycle paths recently. There are now 280km of cycle lanes around the city, and you can pick up 'Blue-bikes' – bicycles for hire – from racks at all of Genk's railway stations.
Genk actually has a good gaggle of hotels and other accommodation, with options for most budget and tastes. It does surprisingly well at the top end of the scale, with three 4-star hotels – the M-hotel, the aptly-named Carbon hotel, and the Hotel Stiemerheide, with its adjoining golf-course. These are all well-equipped, relatively modern hotels, with excellent facilities. There's also veritable a thicket of 3-star hotels to be found close by too – especially adjacent to the main Europalaan drag – with seven to choose from.
The city also hosts a solid phalanx of B&B accommodation, and many reckon it can thank the number and quality of overnight stays to KRC Genk, the local footballing heroes. In the top 5 of Belgian's football teams, their recent successful European Championship campaign certainly helped put the 'No Vacancy' signs up around the town – and is still a fixed feature of conversation in the bars.
Because of its mixture of suburbs, parks and nature reserves – not to mention the closeness of Hoge Kempen National Park – campers get plenty of choice in Genk. There are in-town facilities like Chiroheem St.-Gerolf and Jeugdheem De Ring, as well as those in some of the more rural parts of town – like 't Soete Dal. You can also camp, or stay in large shared-dormitories, at the Bokrijk Open-air Museum. And if you'd like to get up close to natural splendour of the Kempen, but with four-start facilities, try the Jocomo camping site, on the road to Lanaken.
For the Love of Beer
Genk isn't a place particularly well-known for its Belgian beer-heritage. Perhaps, as a mining town, it was always too busy slaking its thirst for the stuff, rather than perfecting the art of making it. What you will find in Genk is true-grit Belgian beer cafés, with few of the pretensions sometimes found on other cities. And you certainly won't be crowded-out by tourists (perish the thought). Genk's brown cafés are for drinking beer, drowning sorrows, and watching football.
You also won't find too many places touting their vast range speciality beers either – more likely you'll find standards like La Houffed, Duvel, Karmeliet or Leffe on tap. The one pilsner you'll find everywhere is the Alkan-Maes Cristal (4.7% ABV), Limburg's house beer. This quality pilsner was once brewed locally (but not since it was snapped up Carlsberg/Heineken), and is so ubiquitous it has even given Genk KRC's stadium its name. Good as an accompaniment to a match – but certainly not worth travelling all the way to Genk for.
So if you're looking for quality brewing experiences, you'll need to hop on a bus out of town. Nearby Hasselt has a few micro-breweries up its sleeve, and there's also the De Dool Brewery, which is housed in Ter Dolen castle a few miles to the north. Ter Dolen is one place ticks all the boxes of the beer-tourist – a brewery to tour, a castle to ogle, and a fine bevy of beers to sup. And you shouldn't miss out on the most authentic of beer tours available, locally, at the Bokrijk Open Air Museum. This living history museum has brought-to-life the pleasures (and hard graft) of a 17th-century brewery. Grab a roervorken (stirring fork) and get working that mash.
Food & Gastronomy
Eating out in a town like Genk is something of journey around the globe's cuisine hotspots. Italian bistros and Turkish kebab-houses vie with Greek restaurants to bring you the tastes of the world. And that's without counting the purveyors of French and Flemish gastronomic delights. That smörgåsbord of options – enough to make bigger Belgian metropolises blush – is of course down to Genk's uniquely cosmopolitan make-up. Italians make up the largest community here, and naturally have the biggest presence on the Genk restaurant scene – there are over a dozen scattered around the city. They range from pizzeria’s and pasta-houses to up-market brasseries serving a mix of fine Italian and French cuisine.
The Greeks aren't far behind, with around 8 establishments in Genk. One stand-out example is El Greco (named after the famed 16th-century artist) run by a second-generation Greek couple. Sopme might say it comes across just like the typical Greek – flamboyant on the outside, traditional on the inside. It comes complete with neon-lit temple signage, flaming open kitchen, and a menu straight out of the owner's mother's cookbook.
Also look out for Turkish restaurants like the Polat or the Anatolia, serving up Turkish dessert delights like asure, lokum and baklava. Of course, you'll also find many restaurants serving the typical Limburg favourites in Genk. And if you're feeling adventurous, dishes like zoervleis (a sweet-and-sour horsemeat stew) and balkenbrij (a spicy blood-pudding) may hit the spot. If not, delectable desserts like vlaai (Limburg's renowned marmalade-filled pie) simply can't be left on the plate when you find yourself Genk-ways.
Shopping & Markets
Shopping in the Genk is something of a pick-and-mix affair, with several different shopping centres and streets scattered throughout this rambling city – each with their own character. You could sum it up, though, as a retail experience with a very modern and contemporary feel. In fact, Genk's central market square – Genk-Centre – didn't even exist until a few years ago. It's here that you'll find many of Genk's cafés and restaurants and day-to-day shops, alongside some of its cultural attractions. Seasonal fairs, like the Christmas Market are held here too, as are regular markets on Thursdays, and mammoth 1,000 stall Sunday flea markets, in the summer months.
Then there are three main shopping streets from Genk's original 'pit-villages' – the Vennestraat, the Stalenstraat and the Hoevenzavellaan. In these streets you'll find the somewhat bland shopping experience of the city-centre replaced by a little of Genk's famous local colour. Vennestraat lies right next to the reclaimed Winterslagse slag heap, and includes Genk's landmark C-mine – the coal-mine turned cultural centre. It also has a weekly fresh-produce market, where you might be surprised by a heady mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Limburg foodstuffs.
The Stalenstraat, a mile or so north, has a jangling mix of large department stores, specialist retail outfits and local market stalls, whereas the Hoevenzavellaan has a cluster of Genk's multi-cultural restaurants among its shops. And as you might expect, Genk is big on covered shopping centres, having three such 'mega-malls' – imaginatively entitled Shopping 1, Shopping 2 and Shopping 3. Big brands, big department stores and retail giants are the staples in all of them, presented in the bold and imaginative manner that's the hallmark of modern-day Genk.
Sightseeing & Culture
One thing you'll notice in Genk (by its absence) is that busy medieval competition between town-hall belfry and church, for domination over the sky (something found in most other Belgian cities). No, it's not cathedral spires or belforts towering over this suburb-city, but mining leftovers. Several of the old colliery towers, buildings and slag tips have been retained, and imaginatively reused.
Of course the modern-day 'temple' of Genk could be considered the Cristal football stadium of KRC Genk. Just around the corner, though, it does have its very own mining-cathedral – the Zwartberg – built in 1939. Dour, dark and heavy on the outside, its windows are made of translucent crystal, lighting up its interior – and giving it the name of the 'church of the seven thousand sparkling crystals'.
And the religious buildings of interest don't stop there. There is a Ukrainian Catholic church, a five-domed Ukrainian Orthodox church, a Moroccan mosque in Winterslag, an elegantly-spired Turkish mosque in Sledderlo – and not forgetting the town-centre St. Martinus church, a modern affair built after the war left the original gothic church (dating back 500 years) in ruins. You'll be hard-pressed to find a better whirlwind tour of religious architecture in such a small space.
With mining being such a fundamental part of the Genk story, it'd be rude not to visit a monument to the town's former industry. And the truth is, you'll be hard-pressed to escape them – Genk is literally littered with colliery towers and spoil tips. But far from being tedious or ugly, the city has gone a long way to making this industrial landscape a fascinating and – dare we say it – attractive attraction.
Perhaps the most ambitious is the C-Mine, a cultural site built around the massive buildings and towers of the Winterslag mine. A wonderful blend of cutting-edge architecture and industrial heritage, the huge preserved vaults of the machine building and power plant are well worth the gaping at. But this complex also has a tourist visitor centre, an artistic 'factory', a theatre, comedy workshops, cinema multiplex and venues for performances varying from jazz to synthpop.
Further out of town, Genk opens out into some liberating landscapes, and one of its best-known museums make great use of that space. The Bokrijk Open Air Museum has gathered over 100 historical buildings – from across the last 3 centuries of Flanders and Wallonian history – and breathed new life into them, through actors role-play. You might come across the preacher sermonising from the church pulpit or a farmer busy in the fields, or smell the inviting aroma of bread being baked in the restored bakery.
The other museum worth visiting is the Emile Van Doren Municipal Museum, dedicated to one of the many artists who came here in the 19th-century. They visited to catch the magical light of the surrounding Kempen heathland and pine forest, but Emile Van Doren was one of those that stayed. The museum is located in the house where he settled, and is still laid as it would have been in the artist's lifetime.
Activities & Entertainment
Genk is nothing if not an active city. As a modern town in the throes of remaking itself culturally, it is well-endowed with theatres and venues to entertain, parks and nature reserves to cycle and walk, and clubs and bars to let you hair down – and many an excuse for a party. Genk seems to have an event or festival for every week, partly down to each of city's 85 nationalities wanting to party in their own inimical style.
The biggest event of the year, though, is probably the Sint Martinus Parade, which happens on the first Saturday in November each year. Once a mainly religious medieval procession for the town's patron saint, it has taken on a life of its own. The town's coal-miners added their own twists along the way, and it is now a fiery spectacle. The streetlights are turned off, and the roads lit by flaming torches, as the whole city, brass-bands in tow, heads to Evenementenplein. Here, bonfires are lit, fireworks are let off – as well as a plenty of steam.
On the other side of the year, in May, Genk comes alive with a brighter, whiter parade to celebrate May Day. The parade is called the 'O-Parade' with costumes designed to inspire that spring-time sense of amazement. There is also a market, the planting of a maypole and (of course) plenty more fireworks. Other events include an Ash Wednesday carnival, and a musically-focussed New Year celebration. There's more music at Genk's acclaimed Motives Festival, in November – when the 'new sounds of jazz' are on display – while the summer sees the Parkies evening concerts series in the town's parks.
Summer is also one of the best times to head out of Genk, and hit the paths and tracks of the Hoge Kempen Park, which is right on the city's doorstep. That's when the moorlands are a blaze of colour, as the heather paints the land purple. Genk is recognised as one of the 5 gateways to this natural wonderland, and its Kattevennen park is where the gate first opens. Here you'll find a domed planetarium, a sports-centre (offering riding and climbing lessons) and a miniature golf-course in a pretty parkland setting.
B2B & Conferencing
Genk is just starting to pull its weight on the meeting and B2B scene. It has the advantage of being a city at the crossroads between Germany, Belgium and Holland – as well as being a modern city with a strong industrial and business culture. It can also sell itself as something of a stand-out location, compared to many other Flanders' cities, with its coal-mining story and vibrant multi-cultural attitude.
And Genk has the conferencing facilities to back-up its unusual attractions. For larger events, there is a newly-built conferencing centre of the Limburghal, located in the middle of town close to the rail station. This has modern facilities, with two halls – one of 2,000 square metres, the other of 4,000 – which can handle up to 8,000 people, combined. Genk also has many business-class hotels, equipped with a variety of meeting rooms, and is therefore well able to support medium and small groups.
For those looking to add a raft of incentives to their event, Genk can also help here too. As the gateway to the Kempen, with its heathland walks and pine forests, a whole world of outdoors opportunities can be explored. And for those inclined towards an interest in sports, the Cristal stadium provides a perfect backdrop for corporate events.
The local Genk MICE (Meeting, Incentives, Conference, Events) offices are totally focussed on helping businesses to realise their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas. They can advise on the logistical side of organising meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations in Genk. They may even be able to help you finding out the availability of venues, or to help get you discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.