With the Netherlands shut down for Covid concerns, we decided to take a “safe” getaway with the boys. This was actually one of our fairly last-minute Christmas presents to them. We booked our stay for just after the New Year, picking this castle spot because: 1) I wanted to stay in a castle, 2) It was in Belgium, thus tours and restaurants not shut down, 3) It showed a large garden and forest area that I knew the boys would enjoy running around, and 4) Did I mention it was a castle??
Due to a tiny little crisis called “I lost my passport in Valencia,” I had to spend the evening/morning prior in Amsterdam to apply for a replacement. Then, I hopped onto the train and met the boys in Dordrecht (oldest chartered city of South Holland), remembered everything was closed so we couldn’t do too much (plus it was super cold and rainy), grabbed some grocery store take-out to eat in the car, and drove to Belgium!
Y’all even in the overcast, wintery climate, this castle stood out as soon as we got through the gates. Can you imagine? The property is HUGE, though apparently smaller than it was generations ago. Each time someone in the family dies, parts of the estate is divided and most of the family members sell their portion so the overall family estate slowly gets smaller. More on that later.
We arrived and were greeted by Agnes who is a sort of all in one person. She cleans, she cooks, she takes care of guests, she takes care of the owner and his family when he’s on site. She and her husband care for the grounds. We learned that Henry, the current owner, took over the property after his father’s death about 8 years ago. In the last year he turned part of the castle into an Airbnb rental, which is how we found it. You can rent up to 4 bedrooms in the castle. Let me tell you – you should come rent these rooms. I hope I get to come back one day.
We lucked out on our first night and the restaurant just outside the castle gates was open. I had low expectations because the castle feels fairly remote. I mean there are places around, but it is like a tiny town. This restaurant, Grand Cafe Het Koetshuis Ooidonk, was delicious! Maybe even one of the best meals we’ve had since moving to Europe (and perhaps even before). The ambiance is cozy, modern, and what I would call luxury casual. Like you didn’t have to dress up, but you could tell the food and wine would be top notch. We chatted quite a bit with the server and later with the chef/owner. The building is owned by Henry, our castle host, along with many other places in the neighboring area. They seemed to have nothing but love for the family (or if not, they do a good job of faking it).
Our first morning, we slept in a bit (yay!) and then walked over to breakfast prepared by Agnes. The boys were in heaven because she’d procured croissants, chocolate milk, and chocolate cereal for them. I was in heaven because she’d made an entire pot of perfect coffee, and I could sit and drink it while it was still warm. Is there anything better?
Later that day, we met Henry for a tour of the rest of the castle. We were staying in a section of the castle with two large bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a large foyer area. On the other end of the castle, we also had access to the main (massive) kitchen, living room area, and a dining room where we had breakfast. Henry and his family stay in the separated towers (the most original/untouched parts of the castle grounds), sleeping in one and eating/playing/“living” in the other. Henry’s office is also in “our” part of the castle.
There were a couple of prior castles on the same site that were destroyed, by war and by idiotic religious reasons. Stepping in to rebuild the castle after the previous owner Phillipe II de Montmorency-Nivele was beheaded and the castle destroyed, was Martin della Faille (a merchant from Antwerp). Finally in 1864, Henri t’ Kint de Rodenbeke bought the property. Now, Henry, the current Count t’ Kint de Rodenbeke, is the sixth generation owning and operating the property. Henry said he’s known since he was a boy that he wanted to take over the castle when his father passed and that is what happened.
In the generations since the family has owned the castle, there have been some renovations and also an amassing of incredible royal and historical memorabilia. There are entire bedrooms set up (but not used) in “empire” or other historic styles (it differed from bedroom to bedroom). We also saw a vast dining room that I think could seat 40 or more people. We ventured into a “living room” that was practically a museum, though Henry promised it was used often by the family. It was filled with art, small and large furniture pieces from centuries ago, and old artifacts.
There were several rooms, bedrooms, hallways, etc that were more or less like museum rooms with paintings of famous royals or family members, furniture from centuries ago that Henry could name the origin – beds, chairs, tables that were hundreds of years old. His knowledge of history and of the artifacts in the house was impressive. If you stay here, I recommend asking for the tour.
Aside from the beautiful interior, we fully enjoyed the grounds of the castle, even in the cold/damp weather. There are nature paths, there’s private forest, there are manmade ponds (even a moat around the castle), and the castle gardens that are open to the public some days of the week. I enjoyed exploring there, but I bet it is stunning in the spring/summer.
Side trip to Ghent
On our first day there, we had tentative plans to venture to Ghent that morning but nothing specific on the agenda. In a moment of frustration with the boys who were playing too rough in the bathroom while I was trying to get ready, I asked (ordered) them to look up things to do in Ghent. Caleb found the Gravensteen or Castle of Counts, which Josh reviewed quickly online and determined it was a good idea. We booked tickets and drove to Ghent.
We’ve been to Ghent before but not for very long. In fact, it was at the end of such a long tour day of other sites that I barely remember going with our family 4 years ago and sadly maybe one photo. I am also fairly sure I went in undergrad during a quick Maymester program but if you know me you know I have the memory of a goldfish and, well, just don’t remember it at all. Anyway, Ghent is great! And I’m blogging about it now so that I may never forget it.
It is picturesque, but as Henry (our host) says, it is a lived in city. It isn’t so historically protected that it looks untouched from centuries ago. But they did a good job of keeping its charm, while growing as a city… at least what we saw of it. In the pouring rain. Mostly on this day we saw the Gravensteen castle and Ghent from the top of it. We also checked out the plaza where executions were held in medieval times, and also where the markets (like fish market) took place. One thing I read said that the plaza lights are now connected to the hospital maternity ward. When a child is born in Ghent the lamp lights slowly illuminate, turning the plaza into a place of “birth” rather than the “death” it was remembered for before.
The Gravensteen castle is super medieval and a tour-only castle (not one to sleep in). The tour is really well organized, especially if you take advantage of the free audio guide, which we did. The audio guide was done by a local comic, which made the tour really fun to listen to – even the kids were cracking up at the comments and sound effects. You get a good understanding of why castle life wasn’t exactly idyllic, how fireplaces came about, why the castle was built in the way it was, and even how the commoners celebrated the king’s health by witnessing what came out of the castle toilets into the river (bleh!). It took a little over an hour and you could pop into a little area for drinks/food afterwards, which we did. I recommend this tour (but buy your tix in advance!).
I did make Josh and the boys walk the long way back to the car so that we could cross the Sint Michaelsbruug (bridge) and get some photos that I read were some of the best to get while in Ghent.
A Side Trip to Brugge
After a relaxing chill morning our second day in Ooidonk, we decided to venture to Brugge to attempt to see the rest of the light tour we’d tried to see back in December and to grab dinner. We went by way of Ghent so that we could check out a playground Mason had found online that looked fun. Not really notable, but interesting enough to get out some energy, we spent a while there then drove to Brugge. By the time we arrived it was dark (which happens by 5pm in winter). We were able to start the tour and then deviated a little ways in for dinner. Sadly the boys lost steam while waiting on dinner and we weren’t able to see the rest of the tour. We did, however, see a little bit more of the city and found some tasty mussels in town.
Brugge is so picturesque. If you get anywhere near it in Europe you have to go. They’ve maintained this historic style/architecture that is so charming and, especially at the holidays, so festive.
For a getaway and unique experience, this trip was perfect. We were just far enough removed from the large cities to not be in the crowds, but close enough for quick visits. The grounds were perfect for the boys to play and there was a lot of space for us to chill out and relax. I even went for a run around the surrounding areas; it was so peaceful and beautiful. I fully recommend you give this place a try.