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Visiting Watou and its Medieval Sint-Bavokerk: a somewhat surreal village at the extremity of Belgium

Updated on March 4, 2016
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
The Sint-Bavokerk, in Watou, Belgium
The Sint-Bavokerk, in Watou, Belgium | Source
Map location of Poperinge, West Flanders
Map location of Poperinge, West Flanders | Source

A border and a past that loom large

This place has some slightly surreal vibrations to it. Watou is in the heart of Flanders, but on the periphery of Belgium: the border with France is a few hundred metres from the centre of the village, and traditionally the area beyond the border has counted as Flanders, and was even Dutch-speaking, also.

The hub of Watou's built environment for centuries has been its Sint-Bavokerk, which dates mainly from the 12th and 16th centuries. Its centrally-placed spired tower with a distinct, many sided style dates from the 19th century. One of the building's special architectural features lies in its nave with side aisles of the same size, forming what is known as a hall church (Dutch: hallekerk ). This lay-out was common in church-building in Flanders; it also occurs in other parts of France and Belgium (1).

Features of the interior of the church building include a series of pillars and some centuries' old, ornately carved tombs.

What struck me about this quiet border village was that, whether temporarily or permanently, some ultra-modern-looking sculptures were being displayed in the vicinity of the centuries-old hall church, the lines of greatly differing style in silent juxtaposition with one another.

The village is a centre for a regular International Gregorian Festival of Watou (Dutch: Internationaal Gregoriaans Festival van Watou ), which attracts participants from afar, who come to perpetuate interest in this 1500-year old style of chant. Interestingly, while the ecclesiastical character of the Gregorian chant has traditionally been strong, it has in recent years been popularized by some singing groups which have no particular religious affiliation.

In the late 19th century, because of what they felt was increasing secularist harassment, monks from nearby France, crossed the border at Watou and set up a brewery there. (At the time, France under the Third Republic was in the throes of church-state conflict which led to the separation of church and state at the beginning of the 20th century.) This brewing business brought a certain prosperity to the village. For various reasons, one supposes, brewing petered out at Watou in the 1930s but after World War Two it was back with a vengeance...under new management. Still, a nearby Trappist monastery was also into beer in a big way...until the Abbot lost — or gained? — his vocation. (In some ways, one might say that the Franco-Belgian border near Watou is an invisible Beer Curtain.)

Another psycho-territorial leitmotif to the setting of this quiet and somewhat isolated village close to the Franco-Belgian border is that the immediate area saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War One.

Watou forms part of the municipality of Poperinge, in the province of West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen ), in Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest ).

July 5, 2012


(1) In France and French-speaking parts of Belgium this type of church building is known as une Église-Halle .; it occurs in other parts of Europe also.

Also worth seeing

Partly within Watou municipality itself and partly outside it, the hamlet of Abele, Belgium / Abeele, France has a 19th century church designed by Charles Leroy.

Oostkappel , Belgium / Oost-Cappel , France (distance: 9.3 kilometres); this border village, bilingual by custom if not officially, stands in two jurisdictions; it has a small church building with a spire.

Ieper (distance: 21 kilometres); known traditionally in English as Ypres, World War One is remembered here in many ways, including at the Menen Gate and at a museum in the Cloth Hall.


How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels (distance: 155 kilometres) is the nearest large airport to Watou . The Belgian railroad company NMBS/SNCB maintains a service between Brussels and Poperinge. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

For your visit, these items may be of interest


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    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 5 years ago

      Heather Jacobs: You will find that issues of brewing, distilling, abstinence and, in the past, Prohibition even, have worked somewhat differently from one country to another: even within a country, such as Canada, the experience among mainly Protestant areas and mainly R. Catholic areas has been historically different. Yes, the different Flemish dialects, being a form of what is known as Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands — ABN (literally: General Refined Dutch), have many similarities to English, but it still takes effort and time to gain fluency and mastery of the pronunciation; I hope you will be encouraged in your efforts. Thank-you for your comment.

    • Heather Jacobs profile image

      Heather Jacobs 5 years ago

      Interesting hub! I think it is so interesting to see towns where monks have breweries and the like. I was in Antwerp a couple of months ago and I thought it was so cute. It’s also amazing how similar Flemish is to English! Interesting and voted up!