Aalst's origins can be traced back to the Roman Age: archaeological finds suggest that at least the area around today's city was populated at the time. Aalst was first mentioned in official documents as a fortress in 870 AD. Over the course of the centuries, the city became wealthy by growing hops, and beer from Aalst still enjoys an outstanding reputation to this day. This is also reflected in Podge's five-day beer tour, which is focused on Aalst city center and takes visitors on a whirlwind tour around Belgium's breweries.
As a result of the French occupation between 1667 and 1706, the city's textile industry also experienced a boom and that is one of the reasons why it endures to this day. Not only clothing is manufactured, but also the necessary machinery. The growing prosperity of the city also produced a number of architectural places of interest that continue to attract tourists. Following a major fire, which destroyed the town hall and large parts of the city in 1360, Aalst was rebuilt and a new Gothic bell tower was built next to the town hall. With its 52-bell carillon, the tower is the oldest in Belgium and is a UNESCO World Heritage site together with the Schepenhuis - the old town hall.
Ironically, the fire marked the start of the city's economic heyday, dominated by the powerful guild of weavers. In 1473, Dirk Martens opened the first printing house in the southern Netherlands and published books by various contemporary authors, including Christopher Columbus. Work began on the "incomplete" late Gothic St. Martin's Church in 1480. Planned as a cathedral for the region of Aalst and based on Amiens Cathedral, it would never be fully built due to a lack of money. Nonetheless, the church is still worth a visit: Peter Paul Rubens' Saint Roch as Patron of Plague Victims, which he is reported to have painted in just eight days, can be found there. Another anecdote related to the painting involves an American who wanted to buy it and offered to pay for St. Martin's Church to be completed - an offer that the city turned down.
As already mentioned, hop growing contributed to the city's prosperity as well as the textile industry. In addition, onions were also grown in the area around the city, particularly in the 19th century, and sold at the onion market that was famous beyond the region itself. It is perhaps not really surprising that the citizens of Aalst were mockingly referred to as "onions" - particularly in the carnival-related feud with the neighboring city of Dendermonde. It turned out, however, that the people of Aalst not only bore their nickname with good grace, but also grew fond of it - at one carnival procession in 1890, they depicted their city in the shape of an onion.
Onions clearly play a key role in Aalst's carnival: The old bell tower is the venue for the "onion throwing" tradition, which involves the carnival prince and members of the festival committee throwing onion-sized candy into the crowd - including the main prize: a golden onion, which is specially designed each year for the carnival. The big carnival procession is held on Sunday, complete with themed floats. Two days later, on Shrove Tuesday, it is time for the Voil Jeannetten - men dressed as women. This tradition dates back to the time when the poorer classes couldn't afford a costume and instead donned their wives' worn-out clothes. The celebrations end in the evening with the "burning of the puppet." Despite some controversies in recent years, Aalst Carnival is included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
We have put together a list of what else the city has to offer besides its carnival, beer, and incomplete churches:
Restaurant: Kelderman (www.visrestaurant-kelderman.be)
Kelderman is a Michelin-starred restaurant that serves excellent fish dishes with crayfish, turbot, sea bass, and more besides in a cozy atmosphere, complete with an extensive selection of wines and aperitifs. With two separate rooms, the restaurant is also the ideal place to combine a meeting with an exquisite lunch.
Restaurant: De Frigo (www.defrigo.be)
Those who prefer meat specialties to seafood will feel at home at De Frigo. Housed in a former butcher's shop and largely retaining its ambience from 1910, De Frigo serves a wide selection of rib-eye steaks from various regions as well as steak tartare and horse fillets.
Restaurant: Mozart (www.mozart-resto.be)
It is not known whether Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a fan of select meat dishes. Besides stocking a wide selection of beer and aperitifs, the Mozart serves homemade spare ribs based on various recipes, T-bone steaks, and lamb cutlets in a refined atmosphere on the site of Aalst Abbey.
Bar: De Geniepegen Drauk (degeniepegendrauk.business.site)
De Geniepegen Drauk features an 1970s-chic sofa atmosphere and serves old-school and fashionable cocktails and a wide selection of beer from regional breweries - conviviality and live performing artists included. It is the perfect meeting place for young and old to unwind after a stressful day.
Bar: 't Apostelken (www.apostelken.be)
Guests will find a bar and beer museum in one at 't Apostelken. The snacks range from simple Toast Hawaii to spaghetti bolognese and cheese croquettes, while beer lovers can choose from 250 different kinds. A committed collector has also curated more than 5,000 (still full) beer bottles from all over the world. These can be admired in the adjoining beer museum.
Hotel: Keizershof (www.keizershof-hotel.com/nl)
Four-star comfort in the heart of Aalst - including excellent public transport links. Guests can relax in the sauna or exercise in the fitness room. The Keizershof also has an underground parking garage. A large hotel bar and several conference rooms complete the range of facilities.
Hot spot: Utopia (utopia.aalst.be)
Utopia is not just an imagined place of perfection, but also already a reality in Aalst for lovers of discerning literature. The "best library in Flanders and Brussels" features modern furniture and a clean, modern design. It is the ideal place to relax and embark on a literary tour of discovery.
Hot spot: Netwerk Contemporary Art Centre
Netwerk Contemporary Art Centre in a former tobacco factory is regarded as one of the best and most active art institutions in eastern Flanders. It puts on a wide range of exhibitions, lectures on various art subjects, and concerts, making it the ideal place for tourists who are interested in contemporary art.