Wijngaardberg literally means “vineyard mountain” although we are talking of Flanders here, so don’t expect a mountain, just a hill. Nevertheless, it contains some inclines to stretch your calf muscles. And at the top – an acrophobia-inducing, oxygen-deficient 72 metres (!) above sea level – you will get some lovely views of the surrounding countryside.
The Wijngaardberg is an example of the petrified sandbanks of this area of Flemish Brabant called the Hageland. Millions of years ago, sea covered the whole of this region, reaching the vicinity of what is now Diest. When the water receded it left sandbanks behind – the Hageland hills. These sandbanks contained large quantities of iron, and exposure to the air caused this iron to oxidize (rust) and the sand dunes to petrify (harden into rock). When the area was civilized, the resulting iron sandstone was dug up and used for building. It can still be seen in old buildings and churches. An example is St. Martin’s church in Wezemaal. On the Wijngaardberg you can find the remains of three abandoned ironstone quarries.
Viniculture on its slopes
The Wijngaardberg is an excellent location for growing grapes as it enjoys a favourable microclimate. The southern flank of the hill can be up to five degrees warmer than the northern flank. This came to the notice of the locals as far back as the late Middle Ages when there was a small vineyard here. From 1814, on the initiative of a certain Mr J.F. Audoor, a relatively large-scale vineyard of 34 hectares was planted. At that time it was the northernmost vineyard in Europe. Even today, the Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay, all varieties of grape more normally associated with more southern climes, are grown here where the vines get sufficient light and warmth.
The wine wall
However, Mr Audoor and his associates were well aware of the chilling effect of the north wind on their young vines. To protect the vineyards on the Wijngaardberg, a “wine wall” was constructed. In its prime it extended over 1.5 kilometers along the crest of the Wijngaardberg. Not surprisingly, it’s made of loosely stacked iron sandstone. It was 1.7 m wide and in some places as high as 2 meters. You can still see remnants of this wall on the walk.
Visit Wezemaal, the “wine village”
Not surprisingly, Wezemaal has developed a bit of a reputation as a “wine village”. The old town hall has been converted into the Hageland Wine Visitors’ Centre. Admission is free, and you can find information on the history and current wine-growing activities of Wezemaal and Wijngaardberg. You can also taste and buy local wine there.
You won’t miss this on your walk! In 1926, on the site of the former Wezemaal windmill, the parishioners of Wezemaal erected an impressive monumental sculpture of someone you might recognize who is about to give a blessing or do a high dive off the podium.
St. Martin’s Church, Wezemaal
You might like to take some time to look around the village of Wezemaal. The most prominent building is St. Martin’s Church. The chancel and sacristy date back to the 13th century, the south transept to the 14th century, and the tower to the 15th century. A new sacristy was added in the 18th century. The church was built entirely of iron sandstone, and the tower of white sandstone.
It has a rich collection of art treasures and may be visited on request. It is a large church for such a small parish, because Wezemaal was once a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims came to pay tribute to St. Job and drew water from St. Job’s well. Wezemaal is the oldest known place and the first parish church in the Low Countries where a devotion to St. Job developed.
In the village you will pass by the 17th century Norbertine parsonage, built in 1624 (yes, largely from iron sandstone) and surrounded by a moat.
How to access Wezemaal
Wezemaal has its own railway station, although this will add 1.8 km (each way) to your walk. (The railway station is at the end of Langestraat, top-left of the map below). By car it’s just off the E314 at junction 21. You can park in the village at this free car park, which is also right next to the starting point of the walk.
Here’s a map of the route which you can download (right click and save) and print, or you can get it along with the GPX coordinates from RouteYou. It’s well signposted; simply follow the junctions 6>62>63>65>74>64>61>6.
The whole route is 7.5 km. It’s not suitable for children’s buggies or wheelchairs, but older children will probably enjoy it.
An extension for a halfway snack
If you want to extend the walk, one possibility is to extend it slightly. When you reach junction 74, go a little further to junction 71 and then towards junction 7, heading towards the distant windmill.
Just before no. 7 you will come across the Moedermeule, which is a brasserie attached to a windmill. It’s the perfect place for a break halfway along the route. Check out their website for opening hours and menu. You can then return via junction 71 to 64 and you are back on the original walk.
At the end of your walk (if you have not already eaten at the Moedermeule) you may have walked up an appetite. I can heartily recommend Brasserie Boeres next-door to St. Martin’s church. I have eaten there and enjoyed the food and the ambience.
However, it’s not open on Sundays, which is a nuisance as that’s the main hiking day for a lot of folk. A couple of alternatives are the Kleine Byt opposite the Wine Visitors Center, and Cafe QV on Tussenhagenweg 1, both of which are open on Sundays.
I hope you enjoy your walk around Wezemaal and up on the Wijngaardberg.
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