It is still early as I stand in front of a monumental building in the Dwaalgebied of Tilburg. ‘Hostel Roots’ adorns the facade of the former bank in Art Nouveau style. Inside, not only is the owner Koen waiting to check me in, but I can also hear Italian and English all around. People are playing billiards, drinking coffee and laughing. This place evokes memories of faraway journeys, filled with memorable meetings with the locals, travellers and everything in between. But I am not on a faraway journey, I am on the road for two days in, what is to me, unknown Tilburg.
Why is the city unknown to me? No idea. Because Tilburg, it soon appears, is surprising on all kinds of levels. It is a city that visitors go to for highlights like the Museum De Pont, the mysterious Doloris Meta Maze and nearby tourist attractions such as theme park Efteling and Safaripark Beekse Bergen, and then they end up staying for longer or coming back again to see something else. It is the city’s raw edge that makes it interesting, the students define the atmosphere and the quirky entrepreneurs in the restaurants, shops, hostels, hotels and parks make you embrace Tilburg.
In Tilburg, things happen in their own unique way. I go along with it and decide, in contrast to the concept of a city break, to completely skip the shopping centre. After all, that’s not the place to go in Tilburg. From Hostel Roots, where besides the shared dorms, you can also book lovely hotel rooms, I go out on the road armed with a map and tips from the team. The hostel is located in the Dwaalgebied, part of the inner city between the centre and the station. Many starting businesses have established themselves in the narrow streets filled with squares and gardens, which means you can find great concept stores and lovely hospitality venues, such as Nieuwland for a tasty breakfast or Pig & Rye for a nice drink. I fall for an acai bowl from Mr Morris, which I eat in the courtyard garden. Another nice idea if the weather is nice: the garden of Stadscafé Spaarbank.
You can entertain yourself for an entire afternoon in the Dwaalgebied, but I jump on a public transport bike and set course for the other side of the railway track. Here, there are two top museums: De Pont (contemporary art) and the Textile Museum. I have to make a choice, so I opt for the latter. Tilburg is traditionally a genuine textile city and this museum, located in a former textile factory, presents Tilburg’s history. In addition, you get a unique look at the manufacturing process and discover the art of textile production.
During a walk through the impressive building, the stories of Tilburg textile workers come to life via audio. Here, they used to work extremely hard, day in and day out, in the industry that made this city great. And today too, people are still working hard – artists, students from the Design Academy Eindhoven and other creators who experiment and innovate in the field of textiles. You can even see them at work in the TextielLab, it’s a unique experience!
I continue my voyage of discovery through Tilburg and cycle towards the centre but not without taking a look at the Spoorzone. A place that breathed new life into Tilburg in its own unique way. Nowadays, it’s teeming with lively pavement cafes and colourful street art. I first pop into LocHal, originally a locomotive hall and now perhaps the most impressive library in the Netherlands, where the immense space filled with industrial elements reminds you of the past. I stop by at the neighbour’s, RAW, for a tasty drinks platter, while I get out my map of Tilburg again. From here, I can go to the Spoorpark the place that, certainly on a sunny day, is filled with life and includes a city campsite, plenty of sporting options, a charming T-Huis (restaurant/cafe) and the well-known Kempentoren (tower). It is more than worth a visit, but just like people from Tilburg, I do it a bit differently and cycle the other way.
There is another exceptional park in Tilburg, after all. Landschapspark Moerenburg is in the east of the city, and it is what you would call a hidden gem. The road to get there is not a chore either because halfway along awaits the Piushaven, where you can take a lovely stroll over the quay, get into a canoe or sample the good life at one of the many pavement cafes. Tip: Stadsbrouwerij013, where you drink your beer on a boat!
From here, it’s only a short distance to the Moerenburg. Throw all your assumptions about parks out of the window because Tilburg has given this park a meaning of its own. Here, an abundance of plant life is combined with industry. Here, sheep graze alongside a sewage pumping station and you can admire iron artworks right next to a historic farm. Follow the signs for a unique walking route through the area, with the iron contours of Huize Moerenburg as the eye-catcher.
I end my day at one of Tilburg’s icons: Doloris. It’s something that has been on my bucket list for some time, and it is reason in itself to come to Tilburg. Doloris Meta Maze is the largest artificial labyrinth in the world. An experience you cannot predict beforehand and one that defies description afterwards. I start this madcap adventure wearing a blindfold and with a pounding heart. It is an adventure that eventually takes one and a half hours, because try and find the exit to this labyrinth. But in fact, you wouldn’t want to do it any faster because steps, corridors, ladders, slides and countless doors take you climbing, crawling, marvelling – and occasionally swearing – through a jumble of spaces filled with art and illusion.
It is an experience after which you have to literally catch your breath. And you do that one floor up, at Doloris’ Rooftop, with a cocktail (or two), a table filled with delicious street food from across the globe and a view over the city. Have I already mentioned how surprising Tilburg is?
The next day, I leave the city and visit a place less than a 20-minute ride away that is right up Tilburg’s alley. After a day of cultural activities in the city, Landgoed De Utrecht is the perfect place for a bit of variety during a visit to Tilburg and surrounding area. In fact, this place proves that you can also experience art in the countryside. The estate is near Esbeek, where the Andreas Schotel walking route is mapped out and which starts and ends at the eponymous museum.
The Rotterdam artist visited Landgoed De Utrecht for the first time in 1919 and he instantly fell in love with the Brabant landscape. It was a source of inspiration for him, and he established himself in a small wooden hut in the woods near Esbeek. You can now admire his work and that of the artists he inspired along the 10-metre walking route. It provides a unique and sometimes bizarre cultural experience in a beautiful landscape. The route takes me over the Rovertsche Heide, a heathland, where I spot deer on the Slikkenberg, and I take a moment to stop at the quiet fens.
The countryside manages to outdo itself once again and that at only a 10-minute ride from the end of the walking route. I hobble along the gravel road towards De Flaes, where D’n Flaestoren (watch tower) looms up in a spectacular landscape. The exceptional construction offers you a view that stretches to Belgium, with only the silent countryside of the Brabant Campine region on the horizon. Countless walking and cycling routes have been mapped out. I will have to come back for them. So, here I promise myself the same thing as I did to the owner of Hostel Roots, the librarian at LocHal and the waitress at Doloris: I’ll be back.