Beer & Bike: Van Gogh in the Borinage

One of the most remarkable centers of national life is to be found in the coal-mining districts known as “le Borinage,” which signifies the place of boring. Here is to be found a state of society that does not exist in any other part of the country…

Belgium by Demetrius C. Boulger (1913)

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word remarkable as “unusual or special and therefore surprising and worth mentioning”4. This has such a light and fluffy connotation that today it would probably not be the first adjective to describe something of a heinous nature. But in the early 20th century, it is clear the word was used more literally. It is definitely worth mentioning. The Borinage region of Belgium lies immediately south of the city of Mons, the capital city of the Province of Hainault. Visiting this area today, one of the features that immediately stands out are the forested hills which seem to randomly spring up from the ground and give an otherwise flat landscape the impression of natural beauty. However, what nature is covering up are reminders of the remarkable exploitation and neglect suffered by a large population of Belgians starting from the 18th century until the early 20th.

Near Mons are the great mounds of slag which were begun in the earliest times and look today not unlike the pyramids of Egypt. Whatever the origin of the mining industry in Belgium, there is nothing idyllic about the conditions there in modern times.

The Spell of Belgium by Isabel Anderson (1915)
One of the many mounds of slag called “Terrils”

These mounds, called “Terrils”, at one time would have been just exposed earth; debris dug up in the pursuit of coal. Today they are covered in trees and vegetation, showing off the power of nature’s resourcefulness and healing capabilities. At its peak, there were more than 100,000 miners, known as Borains, working in the greater than 100 mines2 of the Borinage. The mines were owned by joint-stock companies1 and were able to operate autonomously, justified by the Belgian government for the purpose of developing the “national industry”1. The miners were therefore left to the whims of the profit-driven owners who forced them to work long hours underground for little pay. In order for families to survive, children were expected to stop their education and start participating in the work.

…boys and girls, as soon as they have physical strength, which is supposed to be at twelve years of age, are taken on the mining establishment and employed above ground.

Belgium by Demetrius C. Boulger (1913)
Another terril behind some houses

The impact that this abuse had over the generations was notable. The following are excerpts from three different authors in the early 1900’s:

This severe toil, ill nourishment and its consequences, has resulted in a race of dwarfed, semi-imbecile beings, terrible to look upon.

Belgium Old & New by George Wharton Edwards (1920)

Among these it seems as if there had sprung up a fresh race of dwarfs, men under four feet eight inches, women shorter still, and children who look as if they never will reach even this height. They are stunted and emaciated, and they are easily distinguishable from the rest of the population…

Belgium by Demetrius C. Boulger (1913)

Owing to their former long hours, which have been somewhat shortened in late years, the present generation is dwarfish, the men often under five feet and the women still less.

The Spell of Belgium by Isabel Anderson (1915)

This ill nourishment was compounded by a rampant abuse of alcohol including a strong genever-like concoction called “Shnick”. All of the aforementioned authors noted such:

Most of them cannot read or write, and they have little pleasure save what comes from beer.

The Spell of Belgium by Isabel Anderson (1915)

The present writer found these people fairly steeped in ignorance, and their degradation supplemented by the drunkenness of the men… There are two classes of drunkards, beer (faro) drinkers, and gin drinkers.

Belgium Old & New by George Wharton Edwards (1920)

The only amusement known to these people is to drink and get drunk.

Belgium by Demetrius C. Boulger (1913)

The Belgian government was aware of what was going on and, as elluded to by Ms. Anderson in 1915 above, made some feeble gestures in 1892 to convince the mining companies to increase wages and reduce the working hours underground1. But otherwise they continued to prefer not to interfere. In 1934, a silent documentary was made by Belgian filmmakers depicting a crisis that followed a strike in 1933 that led to the eviction of mining workers.

This was the world into which a young Vincent Van Gogh arrived in 1878 to begin a preaching mission for the next two years. He himself wrote years before the aforementioned authors about his impressions of the Borinage.

…everything around looks dreary and desolate. Most of the miners are thin and pale from fever; they looked tired and emaciated, weatherbeaten and aged before their time.

Van Gogh quote in The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (2006)

Van Gogh’s attempts to become a preacher were not successful, but the blessing to history was that Van Gogh started to turn more and more to his art. His time in the Borinage had a lasting impact and it would inspire his famous Potato Eaters painting which he made after moving back to the Netherlands.

However, while some members of the mining community appreciated Vincent’s efforts to help them, others thought he was a lunatic. Children threw things at him as he walked down the street. Added to his odd behavior, Vincent did not have the essential skill for a preacher — he could not speak in public.

The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (2006)

Coal mining ceased in the 1960’s and today the Borinage continues to occupy its humble corner of Belgium, free from the tyranny of the coal mining companies. I don’t have a feel for the present state of mind of the region, but it is an amazing place to take a bike ride to explore this remarkable area. Along the way this ride will highlight four breweries as well as two houses that were lived in by Van Gogh during his time there. In total, it is one of my favorite Beer & Bike rides in all of Belgium.

Ride Details

I have done two versions of this ride, one clockwise and one counter-clockwise. What I present in the link would be the definitive ride in my opinion which is in a clockwise direction and saves the breweries for the latter half of the ride. The terrain on these Wallonian rides can vary and it is better suited for a bike with some suspension and thicker tires. Farm roads often are quite rutted or made with very knobby cobblestone. The main dilemma for timing of this ride is that Brasserie du Borinage is open only on Fridays and Sundays, whereas the Maison Van Gogh is not open on Sundays. So for the weekend pilgrim, it is necessary to choose. I did both of my rides on Saturdays so having a beer at Brasserie du Borinage still eludes me.

Starting/Ending PointParking Lot in Cuesmes
Distance61.8km
Komoot LinkVan Gogh Ride

It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey

Note: The photos in this section are presented in order as best as possible going the clockwise direction, but please keep in mind that they can be from the perspective of the opposite direction as I am using photos from both of my rides.

Coming from the Cuesmes parking lot, it is only a short distance to the first Maison Van Gogh.

Maison Van Gogh (Cuesmes)

Vincent lived here from August 1879 to October 1880. Today it is a museum. The beer in the photo can be purchased at the Abbaye des Rocs brewery shop.

After the Maison Van Gogh, this ride swings around the base of the Terril de L’Heribus. Should one feel so inclined, it is possible to hike to the top.

Terril de L’Heribus

From here the ride heads in a southerly direction towards the French border passing by some beautiful field views whose character in my recent ride (July 2022) was much different than back in June 2021, possibly due to a particularly hot Summer in 2022.

Crossing over into France, one comes across a lonely obelisk monument along a road passing thru a windswept plain.

Monument to the Battle of Malplaquet

This battle took place in 1709 as part of the War of Spanish Succession from 1701-1714. France supported the succession of Spain’s Charles II with Philip V. However, seemingly the rest of Europe aside from France and Spain was in favor of future Holy Roman Emperor, Austria’s Charles VI. This battle was a key moment in the defense of France.

Several farm and backroads later, one arrives at the first and perhaps most quaint brewery on the ride.

Brasserie de Blaugies (Restaurant Le Fourquet)

This cozy restaurant and brewery is located in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Be warned that while the restaurant is open on Saturday and Sunday, they close between 14:30 and 18:00. Bottles (as shown) are available for sale in 75 cl only.

Brasserie de Blaugies

It is then another steady diet of farm and backroads. When you aren’t fighting the rutted, muddy dirt roads or the cobblestones, it is easy to get absorbed in the peaceful tranquility of this area.

Dirt road full of ruts and mud puddles
Nasty cobblestone
More cobblestone

The hard terrain ends at the small village of Montignies-sur-Roc where we arrive at the 2nd brewery.

Brasserie de L’Abbaye des Rocs

The small brewery shop sits at the back of the house. It feels at first like you are trespassing, but eventually your presence will attract someone’s attention, usually the dogs inside the house. Here is the place to buy the Van Gogh beer from the feature photo as well as other beers that they brew including the Montagnarde 1979. Cash only.

Brasserie de L’Abbaye des Rocs

The ride then continues west and takes a turn north in the cute village of Quievrain.

Place aux épices 7382

In Quievrain, there was this very nice shop of local products including their own special beer, but during my July 2022 ride, it looked like the shop might be permanently closed down. Hopefully not a victim of Covid. The most recent comment out of 89 comments in Google Maps as I write was submitted in January 2022.

Place aux épice 7382 (June 2021 photo)
Quievrain

After Quievrain, the route is easily the most pleasant of the entire ride.

A very nice bike path
More great field views

The ride reaches the city of Dour and there it is necessary to follow some busy roads for a kilometer or two, but the reward is great.

Brasserie Deseveaux

This is one of my favorite breweries that I have come across on my bike rides. It is in a very old historic farm with a spacious courtyard which is great place to take a break and have a beer. Besides their own beers, Deseveaux also has resumed the brewing of the Saint-Ghislain beers which were out of production when the abbey brewery was destroyed in the early 20th century3.

Brasserie Devereaux (entrance)
Brasserie Devereaux (interior courtyard)
Brasserie Devereaux shop
Sarazēn Triple
Abbaye de Saint-Ghislain Blonde

Not far away in the town of Boussu is the most elusive of the breweries on this ride.

Brasserie du Borinage

Brasserie du Borinage (not open on Saturdays)
Brasserie du Borinage La Baraque at home

The ride then goes off road in the vicinity of the Marcasse mine. Note that this path was barely managable for my hybrid 28mm tires. It is more of a mountain bike or footpath.

Near the Marcasse mine

Marcasse Mine and Van Gogh Mural

It is known that Van Gogh once entered this 700m deep mine. There is a mural memorializing the event.

Marcasse Mural
Terril Marcasse

Not far from Marcasse is Van Gogh’s other Maison.

Maison Van Gogh (Petit Wasmes)

Van Gogh lived in this house for a few months from 1878-1879.

Maison Van Gogh

From here the ride heads back to the starting point with some nice views along the way.

Final Words

No country exists without its dark underbelly of history which causes it shame. Belgium sure has its share like any other. This ride is a reminder of how human we are. That the people we idolize are also human. While we snap photos of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam or buy the postcard in the gift shop, let us not forget the torment that he must have felt living amongst these emaciated and exploited people, entering the dark and poisonous mines, but never finding the right words to say, questioning his existence and feeling like a failure. We may have a lot to complain about these days, but they suffer in comparison to the Borinage in the late 1800’s. But that still doesn’t prevent me from complaining about why the heck Brasserie du Borinage isn’t open on Saturdays.

M.G.G.P.

References

  1. Belgium by Demetrius C. Boulger (1913)
  2. The Spell of Belgium by Isabel Anderson (1915)
  3. https://abbayesaintghislain.be
  4. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/remarkable

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