Come to St. Truiden, and you'll quickly fathom that this is a town where the fruit is king. Evidence of that love of fruitiness is to be found all around around this abbey-city of 40,000. And it almost swims in the blossom of its surrounding orchards, in spring at least.
Pear and apples, cherries and strawberries have been the making of this city over the last two centuries. You'll find them in its food, markets, preserves, spirits and (of course) its beers.
St. Truiden lies in the Haspengouw, which is reckoned to be the largest fruit-growing region in Western Europe. And the reason for its famed fruitiness lies can be found beneath your feet. This southern Limburg province has clay-rich and water-logged soils, which turn out to be ready-made for the nurturing of those orchards.
'Vochtig' (or moist) is the Dutch word for it – the right word to use, of course, as this being Flanders, the local 'bink' naturally speak Dutch. They do so, however, in that flat accent known as 'Sintruins', one of the many west Limburg Truierlands dialects.
Surprisingly, though, the city is actually pretty close to the French Walloon border. And for much of its past it lay under the influence of the French city of Metz, whose Bishop held sway here in medieval times.
Its most famous landmarks – the triple towers of abbey, church and town-hall – also owe their presence to those times, back when Flanders' boom industries were saints-bones, and sheep. And for those partial to saintly medieval stories, St. Truiden is home one of the most intriguing – that of Christina the Astonishing, Limburg's famed death-defying peasant.
Of course, the Romans were here first, well before the sheep and saints. But the town didn't really get started until the arrival of its namesake – and saint-to-be – Trudo. He was a local Frankish nobleman who became sanctified after his death. His tomb became the site of many miracles, around 700 AD. So the abbey he founded quickly became a place of pilgrimage.
The present Abbey dates back to the 11th-century, and though St. Trudo's relics are no longer there, it is still something of a draw to visitors. As those early medieval pilgrims poured in, so too did the Abbey's wealth – and St. Truiden grew in size and importance.
Stone fortifications were built and the town took part in the great boom in the Flemish cloth trade of the 13th- and 14th-centuries, all under the protection of the Bishopric of Liege.
The guilds built the city's magnificent town hall, and gained a symbolic staff – known as a perron – which showed that they ruled over the city's affairs. It couldn't last of course. The Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, arrived in Limburg in 1467, and proceeded to conquer its rebellious cities – St Truiden included.
The city failed to flourish after that, and then lost its walls in 1675. The Abbey remained an important part of the town's life, however, right up until 1792.
That's when the revolutionary French swept across Limburg. With their strong anticlerical views, they were none too happy about the Abbot in the city's midst. They scared him and his monks away, and then plundered the Abbey.
But after the loss of its Abbey, help came along in the shape of a pear. Rather a lot of pears, in fact. St. Truiden became a growing centre of fruit production in the 19th-century, supplying cities across Flanders. That helped restore the city to a semblance of prosperity after its long decline. And although the wars of the 20th-century left their mark – the Germans passed through the town twice – compared to other Belgian cities, St. Truiden was left relatively unscathed.
More damaging was the terrible fire of 1975, which destroyed many of the Abbey's buildings. But one of its two towers still stands proud.
And the 'abdijtoren' is still the best place to head first, to get the widest view – and a proper measure – of the little orchard city of 'fruity St.Tru'.
Getting There & Getting About
Caught between Leuven and Liege, St. Truiden is close to the main roads that slice through Limburg towards the Ardennes. Come by road from the Channel coast ports, and the E40 is your friend. The A10 section of the E40 will get you to Brussels, then the A3/E40 takes-over as you strike out to Liege.
About half-way along, take a left at the junction that comes off at Tienen, and follow the R27 into St. Truiden. Brussels Airport is the obvious entry point from air, with both it and St. Truiden being on the same side of the capital.
From the airport you can also catch the train to St. Truiden, changing at Leuven to get the local line that weaves in from Tienen. The local trains run into St. Truiden every hour. The bus is also a good option, particularly when coming from Brussels.
Once you're in St. Truiden, you'll find this small, pretty town is small enough to be pretty walkable. Even better, it's eminently cycle-able too.
Because its surrounding idyllic countryside is so inviting, numerous cycle routes into and around the town have been developed – so you can get around entirely on two wheels, if that takes your fancy.
It may be a small town, but St. Truiden has a fairly decent range of accommodation, especially on the B&B front. And especially in the surrounding orchards, where many-a-fruit-farm has opened its doors to guests for a bit of extra income. Even better, if you're the sort to roll into town in your camper van, and want to stay close to its history, St. Truiden has it covered.
There's an area set aside just for camper vans in the city centre, on the Speelhoflaan. But if you haven't brought your own roof with you, and still want to keep the budget low, there are two youth hostels to choose from.
De Tochtgenoot is close to the centre of town, while the Bautershof is a couple of miles south-east of the town proper. The St. Truiden area is also well-furnished with excellent B&B's and holiday-houses. But many are in the villages and orchards surrounding the town, rather than the town itself.
For The Love Of Beer
Belgian Limburg, like the Limburg on the Dutch side of the border, came very close to losing its beer heritage. For long decades, after the war, it was mediocre pilsner that was king across the region, with the diverse beers of small-scale breweries an endangered species.
But over the last decade, the craft breweries of Limburg pulled themselves up by the bootstraps – with St. Truiden doing much of the hefting.
It has not one, but two, rather special breweries making the waves in Limburg's brewing tubs. First up is the Kerkom Brewery, to be found on the southern edge of St. Truiden, next to the airport.
Today it has a full roster of brews – eight regulars in total – but it wasn't always like that. In the 1980's there was just one top-fermented blond to sup on. But since 1997, with the passing of the baton to brew-master Marc Limet, there's been a slow ascent back to Kerkom's glory days (the brewery has been here since 1874).
Now you can choose from the three Binks – the Bink Blond, Bink Brown (both 5.5% ABV) and the Blossom Bink (7.1% ABV) – which are all named after the nickname for locals of St. Truiden, 'bink' .
The Blossom Bink is a spring-time beer, brewed to time with St. Truiden’s orchard-blossom festivities. It has local honey and local pear syrup added, to give it a rounded sweetness to its already malt-rich fruitiness.
Alternatively you could wade into the heavyweights ales, with their Adelarthra Double (7% ABV), or the Kerckomse and Adelardus Triples (both 9% ABV).
The Adelardus pairings are rather interesting, going left-field by throwing in a special blend of local herbs – the gruut – to create a unique soft spicy-ness. And with the awesome Winterkoninkske Grand Cru, you start hitting 'beer-wine' territory, its dark chocolate-sherry bomb topping 13% ABV.
Just west of St. Truiden is another fine local brewer, only recently on the scene – Brouwerij Wilderen. They may only offer a modest three beers (a blond, a triple and a kriek), but this farmhouse brewery makes up for that with boundless enthusiasm, and a bold imagination.
Not content with their state-of-the-art brewery, pumping out three well-liked brews, they've now added a distillery into the mix. This not only pumps out an excellent Dutch gin (genever), it also distills the Wilderen's Kanunnik Triple, to create what they call 'Eau-de-Bièère'.
This 32-proof spirit, tinged with that beer's fine herbal notes, is certainly not to be sniffed at. And lurking further back in the cellars you'll see casks of single-malt whisky, maturing in aged-oak casks – bought from none-other than Jack Daniels. The brewery also has a café for supping, and a shop for buying, with some eclectic products on offer. Wilderen hop-cheese anyone?
Food & Gastronomy
You'll be hard-pressed (see what we did there..) to avoid a fruity angle to the foodstuffs and drinks of St. Truiden. So don't try. Just embrace (and imbibe) it. Apart from the undoubted pleasures of a crisp Jona Gold, fresh off of the apple-tree, plenty of other uses have been found for the local apples, pears and cherries.
For one, the local 'bink' reckon they produce one of the finest Maastricht strops to be found – outside of Maastricht, of course. This sticky dark-brown syrup is made from pear and apple-juice, boiled down to its essence. Absolutely gorgeous on waffles.
It is the same reduced fruit-juice that's used to sweeten local beers – or add a softening note to the genevers and gins. Then there's the juices, the jams, the preserves and the dried versions of all that bountiful harvest.
Not to mention the million-and-one ways that fruits are folded in pies and puddings, cakes and pastries. Though, the most famous Limburg desert of all – the Limburgse vlaai – often doesn't have anything remotely local about its fruits. It's a delicious pastry case filled with tangy orange marmalade, and signature dish for the region, as well as St. Truiden. The town itself casts its horizons quite widely on the gastronomic scene. There are Italians and Greeks, fast-food bars and snack-bars, grill-houses and steak-houses. But there is also a decent smattering of restaurants serving hearty Limburg and Flemish dishes.
In those more authentic of establishments, look out for Konijn-in-bier (a rabbit served in a fine Lambic), or a warming tête de veaux (a beefy tomato and mushroom stew).
Another favourite is zorvleis, a sour marinated horse-meat that is steeped (naturally) in a sticky apple-syrup, and which goes great with fries.
Though most traditional dishes here will be accompanied by a choice selection of fresh vegetables, a real treat has to be – when in-season – that queen of vegetables, a shock of fresh green asparagus spears.
Shopping & Markets
You might not think you'd come to St. Truiden for the shopping, but this is a town determined to bring the retail hordes in. There are Open Sundays every season (which is a pretty big deal in Belgium), a three-day long summer fair (the 'Fair du Soleil') when the streets are lined with open air stalls.
And then with May comes the Ladies City Day. This is a city-wide event for ladies-who-shop, with the market square taken over by stalls ready to serve a feminine clientèle – which can number up to 15,000.
Of course, away from all these in-your-face retail sales pitches, St Truiden quietly gets on with its core mission – selling the best of the fertile harvest of the Haspengouw, just as it has for centuries. The wide-open plaza of the Grote Markt is in fact the second-biggest market square in Belgium. All the better to squeeze more fruit in, naturally.
Saturday is the regular market day, with 240 stalls spread across the Grote Markt, as well as the Groenmarkt, Trudoplein and Franciscan Squares. The harvest-time market is held in September, and is one of the biggest events on the St Truiden calendar.
This is when everyone comes to taste and smell, judge and get creative with the city's apple and pear bounty. But there are also special markets held for antiques and bric-a-brac, as well as those held to celebrate (and naturally sell) Spring and Christmas.
Sightseeing & Culture
St. Truiden's Grote Markt isn't just one of the biggest in Belgium. It is also home to a famous towering triplet that, between them, dominate the town's skyline – the three towers of the town hall, the church and the abbey. The Abbey tower is the oldest, and tallest, hitting 36 metres, but the other two aren't far behind.
What's surprising to learn, though, is that this Abbey tower once reached an impressive 66 metres in height, thanks to a spire that sat atop the tower. That was sadly destroyed in a great fire in 1975.
The Abbey can be traced back to the monastery set up by St. Trudo in 655 AD, but the tower you see today was one of two, and dates back to the heyday of the Abbey, in the 11th-century. That's when St. Trudo's bones were really pulling in the pilgrims. It was a huge abbey, originally built in a solid Romanesque-style by Abbot Adelardus. But now only the west tower remains. The shape of the old abbey has, however, been marked out by tall iron poles, which help give you a feel for the size of the place.
From the newly-built viewing platform perched on top of the Abbey tower, most of St. Truiden rolls away beneath you. The first buildings to catch your eye are the Belfry of the Town Hall, and the neo-Gothic spire of Our Lady Church.
The Belfry dates back to the 14th-century, and was built as part of the town's Cloth Hall. In the 18th-century, a bigger town hall complex was added, and the Belfry was raised to its current height. Diplomatically, they kept it below the height of the-then church tower.
Our Lady Church itself is something of a hotch-potch – it started out as a Romanesque 11th-century church, then underwent a Gothic make-over in the 15th-century, when its first tower was built. Inside, it went through a Baroque phase, and then in the 19th-century, when fashion had swung back to the Gothic, the tower was finally rebuilt as a neo-Gothic marvel.
As well as housing a number of beautifully-painted wooden-statues, its Treasury contains many of the relics from the St. Trudo Abbey – including the bones of St. Trudo himself.
And if you haven't quite had your fill of religious artefacts, St. Truiden has plenty more – most remarkably at the town's Beguinage. The square of residential buildings for the beguins is interesting, if nothing special.
But at the centre of the square is the Begijnhofkerk, the place of worship for the beguins living here. And in that are a series of amazing 14th-century pillar paintings, mostly concerned with the martyrdom of St. Agnes – and showing scenes at turns brutal, dramatic and bizarre.
To delve more deeply the history of the Abbey, check out the Museum Vlaamse Minderbroeders. It is not only packed with treasures from the Abbey, telling the story of its Franciscan monks, it also has a wonderful Baroque facade.
And you can see the typically brilliant genius of a St. Truiden 'bink' at work in the Festraets Museum, dedicated to the madcap inventions of Kamiel Festraets.
This local artist-cum-inventor fashioned his uniquely astonishing (and huge) interpretations of medieval contraptions – an astronomical clock, a planetarium and a tidal simulator – earlier in the 20th-century, right here, in St. Truiden.
Activities & Entertainment
You don't come to St. Truiden for its night club scene, or its stunning entertainment facilities. What you do get here, in the capital of the Haspengouw, is a town that is the epitome of a 'market town', Limburg-style. Here, there is no clear boundary between the Limburg hills, the rolling orchards with their pretty villages, or the town's history-laden centre. It's the kind of place that insists that you get out and explore, and experience, the whole lot of it.
Which is for the best, as the city is criss-crossed by cycle-tracks that weave their way out into the countryside. They can whisk you to its fruit-farms and castles, meadows and hamlets.
There are many themed-routes to explore too, like the Fruit Blossom Route, recommended for the best views in spring, or the Trudo Route which takes in the local breweries. Mountain bikes are also available for hire, as are electric bikes – great if you want to go further on less puff.
A lot more puff is needed on the hot-air balloon tours of the area by a local company, but none of your own. Ballooning is a great way to take-in the full-blossoming spectacle of Haspengouw, in springtime.
St. Truiden has many activities connected to this, making April the most special month on its events calendar. During April you can find a Blossom Lounge, with a spectacular view, aided and assisted by a bar serving local beverages.
There are also romantic night-time walks, set in candle-bedecked fruit trees, through the blossoming month. And there are organised picnic packages, where you're given a picnic and a map – leaving the rest up to you.
MICE, B2B & Conferencing
St. Truiden isn't really the place to come to for the hosting of the largest of conferences and exhibitions. The purpose-built, fat floorspace venues needed just aren't to be found in the town, or in the surrounding area. What can be found are a number of rural hotels, castles and retreats which have set-up their own conferencing rooms and infrastructure.
Marry them up to a beautiful countryside, and a history-laden town, and you have most of the ingredients for a successful small-scale event.
The local St. Truiden MICE offices are totally focussed on helping businesses to realise their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas, both here in Haspengouw, and across the wider Limburg region. They can advise on the logistical side of organising meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations.
They may even be able to help you with enquiries on the availability of venues, or to help get you discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.