Inside the Castle with a Belgian Count With so much buzz about Her Majesty Queen's Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebrations to mark her 60 years on the throne of England, it's easy to forget about the monarchs, nobility, lords, ladies, dukes, counts, earls and the like in other parts of the world. [caption id="attachment_10341" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Castle Ooidonk on Lys River, Belgium (Photo: Doug O'Neill)"] [/caption] Recently, while travelling in Belgium, a group of us were invited for an afternoon visit with a bonafide Count, Earl Juan t' Kint de Roodenbeke, whose family have long resided at Ooidonk Castle, which is just east of the village of Bachte-Maria-Leerne, a few kilometers south west of Ghent. [caption id="attachment_10333" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="Count Juan t'Kint de Roodenbeke (Photo: Doug O'Neill)"] [/caption] It's not everyday you visit a castle which is still occupied by the owner. The castle has a spotted history. It was caught in the midst of conflicts between various warring cities during the 14th and 15 centuries and then endured the raucous religious wars of the 16th century. Demolished, burned, torn asunder, at times pillaged, the medieval castle was rebuilt in 1595 with the notable crow-step gables and chimneys which so often remind visitors of castles in the Loire, France. The castle was brought into the modern age in 1870 (with minimal tampering to its Renaissance elements) and it's been open to the public since 1958. The castle is brimming with paintings of European monarchs, furniture that wouldn't be out of place in Versailles, lots of silver and – just like any home – there are endless family portraits and photographs. Click here for an aerial view of the castle. The gardens are lovely but not overly manicured. The rose gardens were just being prepped during our visit and I got the sense that this was a home -- not a museum piece. The surrounding land is still a working farm. A couple of sturdy Belgian horses greet you at the end of the lane, and don't be surprised if you see herons skirting over the castle moat and nearby lake. I was surprised to learn that the castle is twinned with Duns Castle, Berwickshire, Scotland. [caption id="attachment_10332" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="One of the Guard's Tower of Castle Ooidonk (Photo: Doug O'Neill)"] [/caption] What really resonated with me about the visit to Castle Ooidonk parallels my impression about the Belgians, especially those I met in Flanders: they're unpretentious. Even in the stylish quarters of Ghent and Brussels, people seemed approachable. They're the perfect blend of Parisian style (even while riding bicycles along the canals) with - dare I say it- Canadian modesty. Such ingredients make for a perfect time when you're wandering around medieval Bruges or the chi-chi shops of Bruxelles. It's no wonder I felt so welcomed when visiting the count and invited into his family home. [caption id="attachment_10335" align="aligncenter" width="360" caption="Elaborate furnishings of the castle date back hundreds of years (Photo: Doug O'Neill)"] [/caption]
Like many castles throughout Europe and the United Kingdom, the inhabitants have opened their doors to visitors to generate money (you have to pay the heating bill!) but Count Roodenbeke firmly believes he and his family are custodians of history, that they are the keepers of an important cultural treasure. He also maintains of tradition of opening his doors to the locals for festivals and flower shows. Apparently the castle is 'the' happening place at Hallowe'en. Count Roodenbeke proudly speaks of his family's connections to royals and cultural leaders, but like anyone else he's a family man. One of his sons works in IT in the United States. But his successor, the eldest, has been chosen, so you can expect the castle to put out the welcoming mat for another generation at least.
You can visit Castle Ooidonk throughout most of the year. For more travel information, check out the robust Visit Flanders web site.