Brabant as a backpacker destination? Very much so, because without our beloved journeys to faraway places, we need to come up with our dose of adventure in a different way this summer. In the next few weeks I’ll show you how you can do that close to home. I will be going in search of experiences in the province during a few two day trips – trips that are feasible, affordable and unusual. In part 1: The Pilgrims’ Path and the Oisterwijk countryside. Backpack on and off we go!
It was early in June 2018 when I met a Dutchman in a tiny village on the northern coast of Spain. We were both on the Camino de Santiago: the iconic pilgrims’ route to Santiago de Compostella; I had set off a couple of weeks earlier from the French border. We walked together for a while and I asked him where he had started. “In ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where I come from”, was his answer. Now, almost two years ago to the day, I am standing at his starting point: St. John’s Cathedral in the centre of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Ahead of me, a journey not of 3000, but about 30 kilometres, which will take me back to that unique Camino, but which above all will introduce me to an unfamiliar part of Brabant.
The Dutch version of the Camino is the two-part long distance footpath (LAW7) between Amsterdam and Maastricht, the second part of which has ‘s-Hertogenbosch as its starting point. That’s how I came to be standing in the early morning in my walking boots at the doors of St. John’s Cathedral. I had a quick look inside ‘s-Hertogenbosch’s pride and joy and then went in search of the first signs to point me on my way. Within a couple of minutes from the old city walls and bastions, I was walking among the poppies in the Bossche Broek nature reserve. Joggers and people walking their dogs greeted me on either side, until I had finally left the city behind me and only a few walkers remained.
The Pilgrims’Path (Pelgrimspad) is well marked with red and white stripes. Be aware that this route is not exactly the same as the official Camino route, which can be recognised by blue markings with a yellow shell or arrow. In contrast to the Camino, the Pilgrims’ Path takes you past a number of sights in the area, and that makes the walk even more enjoyable.
Where the two routes split beyond ‘s-Hertogenbosch, I followed the red and white markers and soon arrived at Fort Isabella. I had read about this spot between ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Vught online before leaving as I had never heard of it, and it seems I wasn’t the only one. I became even more curious about it because Fort Isabella was built in the 17th century as part of the Southern Water Defence Line (Zuiderwaterlinie) , and transformed in the 20th century into a military barracks, since when it has had any number of uses. The area is currently undergoing large-scale development as a so called ‘outer town’ with a wide range of creative enterprises and craft workshops.
The first thing I saw inside the gates was the large terrace of the Pannûkoek pancake restaurant and Osteria Ciao Bella; perfect for a break from your walk. And the best thing of all; everything here tells its own story. Mijnske from Ciao Bella told me, for example, that the restaurant is housed in the mess of the former barracks. On her recommendation I walked around the grounds, led by the aroma of Pure Flavors coffee roasters and eventually temptation gave way to a light lunch at the Brabantsche Worstenbroodjes sausage roll bakery. If, like me you are fascinated by the stories behind Fort Isabella, you can download the free Knooppunt Vught app and purchase the Regiment Wielrijders route for 1 euro. You can then experience the history of the grounds in a unique way by augmented reality.
It was time to continue my journey, which took me through the changing countryside of Vught Lunetten but also, indeed, past the Camp Vught National Monument and the Place of Execution (Fusilladeplaats). As I walked past it I could see nothing but open countryside on the horizon. This stage of the Pilgrims’ Path actually ends 19 kilometres further on in Haaren, but I walked along part of the second stage towards the Kampina for an overnight stay. This large nature reserve takes its name from the Roman ‘Campina’ meaning wild grounds. By Dutch standards, the countryside here is indeed wild, or maybe lush is a better description. Small streams meander through the Kampina and deer, Icelandic horses and wild cattle roam freely. If you are really lucky, you may come across a red deer. The woods were hiding the wild animals from me on that day, but this is without doubt one of the most beautiful walking areas I know.
Thankfully today’s last few kilometres were the most beautiful, but they were most certainly the most strenuous. My body was clearly no longer the one that had covered such considerable distances two years ago. I flopped down onto one of the many benches in the woods because there was a souvenir in my backpack that I brought with me from ‘s-Hertogenbosch; a Bossche Bol, a cream-filled chocolate pastry ball from Bakkerij Royal. Not just any Bossche Bol, because here they make them in smaller variations. That’s just as well, as they also have different flavours. I chose the impossibly delicious caramel and sea salt Bossche Bol, but there were others in the shop window, including summer fruits and white chocolate with raspberry!
I left the Pilgrims’ Path in the Kampina and turned off towards my accommodation. Although the centre of Oisterwijk was close by, I was surrounded by silence and nature when I saw the grounds of the brand new Kampinastaete appear, with Charlotte the owner walking towards me, greeting me with ”Welcome, how nice you are here”. With a single glance I could only agree. How nice to be here. Spaciously located in grounds filled with ferns, water lilies and wild flowers, the cottages seem to have been plucked out of a fairy tale. I was taken to my cosy but luxurious accommodation, complete with a comfortable bedstead, bathroom, and a patio with decking and lounge chairs. Sleeping in the middle of nature does not have to mean going back to basics, as Kampinastaete proved. Charlotte, who grew up in this very spot and ran the neighbouring Boscafé for twelve years, transformed the outdated campsite in these grounds into the tasteful natural paradise that it now is.
The best part of sleeping in the middle of nature for me is going to bed and getting up with the sun. So just before it got dark I tucked myself into bed to the sound of rustling birds and the patter of rain on the roof. I woke up the next morning as nature awoke and had a delicious breakfast on my patio, which is served from the Boscafé to all guests. How wonderful it would be to stay here for a couple of days, going for walks, but also enjoying a good book and a glass of wine. I’ll have to do that another time because now I was going to resume my walking tour to the centre of Oisterwijk. Not directly, but through part of the Verrassende Vennenroute through the Oisterwijk forest and fens that Charlotte pointed out for me on a map.
This turned out to be a beautiful route. The area is not large, but has a large variety of woods, fens and heathland. I took a couple of photos that others might assume were taken in the Amazon. Indeed, backpacking in Brabant is really not that bad. Moreover, you’ll find many lovely places to relax here, with charming woodland restaurants and an unusual open air theatre where I stopped and took a break. At the Natuurmonumenten (Nature Conservation) Visitor Centre you will find the route map I used for my trip, but also countless other walking and cycling routes through this area. After about ten kilometres, zigzagging through woods and fens, the centre of Oisterwijk came into view.
It is a centre with ambiance, full of good restaurants, small boutiques and chique fashion shops. I walked a bit further, because the great attraction in Oisterwijk, the Leerfrabriek (Leather Factory), is just next to the station: What was once Europe’s biggest leather factory is now a creative bastion with space for all types of entrepreneurs. On the first Tuesday of the month, you can take a guided tour through the building to discover the past and the present. If you can’t be there on a Tuesday, be sure to visit the Bij Robèrt bakery and shop owned by Robèrt van Beckhoven, master pastry maker and baker, and on the jury of Heel Holland Bakt, the Dutch TV version of ‘The Great British Bake Off’. A long corridor leads to the shop. It’s no punishment at all if you have to wait in the queue, as you can look through the windows and into the bakery, where Robèrt and his colleagues are busy making the most delicious treats.
With something tasty for on the way I walked to Oisterwijk station, where I realised that those first few metres from St. John’s Cathedral seemed like at least a week ago. With a wealth of new experiences and inspiration, my first Brabant adventure came to an end, and as far as I am concerned, the second one cannot begin quickly enough.
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.