I’ve been collecting a whole lot of great memories in Brabant this summer and already shared four stories about my adventures close to home. From the Pilgrims' Route to the Kampina nature reserve to the Van Gogh Cycle Route near Nuenen and from Land van Cuijk to the heart of the Biesbosch. What was missing was the far west. For this last edition of Backpacking in Brabant, I explored the Brabantse Wal – the Brabant Ridge – a unique Natura 2000 area which boasts forts, panoramas and nature areas that I had never seen before.
While many readers may believe a 20-metre height difference in the landscape is nothing special, it is anything but common in the lowlands, and offers an almost-unique opportunity: enjoying panoramic views of the Dutch landscape. The Brabantse Wal is wedged between the Dutch province of Zeeland and the Belgian border. Here, the upland sandy grounds turn into polders of marine clay soil. One element that stands out is the steilrand, a steep ridge that meanders from the northern municipality of Steenbergen all the way to the Belgian border – passing the towns of Bergen op Zoom, Woensdrecht, Hoogerheide and Ossendrecht. I cycled along this route for two days, making frequent stops, before I arrived at my destination, nature reserve Kalmthoutse Heide heath.
I first got to know Bergen op Zoom exactly a year ago. In one day I strolled through the cosy streets in the centre, climbed the 183 steps of 'De Peperbus' and enjoyed a memorable lunch at Hemmingway, located in Hotel de Draak - the oldest hotel in the Netherlands. That day was too short to explore the area and that's why I decided to return. I mounted my bicycle in the centre and followed a numbered junction route that led me straight through the green outskirts.
Within minutes I was surrounded by the woods of the Lievensberg estate. An area with plenty to do and see. There is a treetop adventure forest, a barefoot trail and the fun Frankenfruit pick-your-own fruit orchard run by the Franken family. The area offers a wealth of vegetables and fruit grown by the many local farmers. Cycling along the farmhouses, you will see vending machines stocked with strawberries and farm shops selling fresh produce – including, if you’re lucky enough to be here during the right time of year, the famous local asparagus. And you’ll find no better place to dig into your tasty loot than the surprisingly beautiful park Bergse Heide, just a few kilometres away.
Just a short time later I arrived at an iconic sight along the Brabantse Wal: Fortress de Roovere. While I had seen many photos of the structure, they had not done it justice. Fortress de Roovere is one of the largest fortresses on the West Brabant Water defense line. The Pompejus watchtower immediately caught my attention, not only because of its 25-metre height, but also because the tower is a work of art in itself. After scaling the tower another local attraction revealed itself: the Moses Bridge. This so-called trench bridge allows visitors to literally pass through the water without getting their feet wet.
Fortress de Roovere was the northernmost point of my cycle trip. From here I slowly made my way south. Slowly, because Bergen op Zoom has another asset that I missed during my previous visit: the Binnenschelde canal. With the sun high in the sky I cycled along the waterfront to the boulevard, where supremely summery scenes awaited me. Windsurfers and sailors zipped by on the recreational lake, while the people on the beach were enjoying their holiday with a drink in front of the cafes and restaurants. With my feet in the sand I enjoyed some lunch at Het Strandhuys before I continued my journey.
From Bergen op Zoom it was less than half an hour to my final destination of the day, but the Brabantse Wal is full of pretty sights. I was never on my bike for more than fifteen minutes, because there was always something worth seeing to stop for. First of all, the Kraaijenberg visitor's centre, with an observation tower and views over the Markiezaats lake. From here you can clearly see that some parts of the landscape are higher than others.
Not much further I passed another of the local eye-catchers: Mattemburgh Estate. It’s not only the stately manor house that is impressive but also the estate around it. Here you will find what might be the most beautiful formal garden in the Netherlands, with freely accessible footpaths along ponds, statues, and surprising scenes. A visit to the elegant gardens can also be combined with a visit to the oldest woodland reserve in the Netherlands. You can wander around for hours on the estate but I soon continued on my way to Woensdrecht. Following the numbered bicycle junctions you will automatically come across a sign indicating the viewpoint at the Fortuinstraat. This is one of the highest points of the steilrand which gives people a beautiful view over the polders.
Cycling via Hoogerheide heath I arrived at my destination for that day at the end of the afternoon: Nature Gate and Hotel De Volksabdij in Ossendrecht. It meant not only spending the night in a unique historical building, but also in amazingly beautiful surroundings. I was now in the far southwest of Brabant, a region that was completely unknown to me before. Buildings are scarce here and I was surrounded by woods everywhere. The abbey’s full name is Volksabdij Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Duinen (People’s Abbey Our Lady of the Dunes), and it is located on the edge of Kalmthoutse Heide heath, which I was going to explore on foot the next day. From my abbey room I had a view of the woods where a handful of short routes have been mapped out that are ideal for an evening walk.
The next morning, when I sat down for breakfast in the adjacent restaurant De Blauwe Pauw (The Blue Peacock), the garden was full of cyclists and walkers who were enthusiastically studying maps for a new day in these green surroundings. I joined them just as enthusiastically, with a big map of Kalmthoutse Heide heath in front of me. The natural park is located partly on Dutch and partly on Belgian territory and covers more than 60 km2. Scattered throughout the area are 25 hiking trails and walking routes, ranging from 1.7 to 24 kilometres in length.
The park is known for its varied landscape with forests, fens, heathlands and dunes. I opted for the TOP Scenic Route Kalmthoutse Heide heath: the most varied route through the area, so that I could see a bit of everything. And it soon became clear that this route is recommended for a reason. With its 6 kilometres the hike was very do-able, even on a hot day such as the one I had chosen, but even though it was quite short, the route showed me the most beautiful parts of the nature reserve. One moment I was photographing mushrooms and blackberries between tall trees, and a few minutes later I was up to my ankles in drifting sand. Where the dunes turn into fens, for a moment it felt as if I wasn’t standing on the border between the Netherlands and Belgium, but in the middle of the African savannah - only the zebras and giraffes were missing.
The walking route is marked by red signs with an ant and starts and ends at pancake restaurant De Heusche Bollaert, located 25 minutes by bike from De Volksabdij. After the walk I spent some time there, savouring the lovely experience I just had. Another piece of Brabant that I did not know, but to which I will certainly return.
Isn’t backpacking something you only do in faraway lands? No, absolutely not! Put on your backpack and discover how lovely and surprising North Brabant can be. Naline, Stop and Stare travel magazine, has been out on the road and shared her experiences with us. Curious? Then read on right now.