Wortel - UNESCO Colonies of Benevolence (Flanders - Belgium)

This article first appeared in My Travelogue by Bhushavali

ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDE TO VISIT
WORTEL UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE

When UNESCO added Spa and Wortel to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Belgium list in 2021, I knew I had to visit Wortel, since I had already visited Spa. It was definitely a bit challenging to reach here depending on public transport, but anyways I managed to visit Wortel recently, and here's all about it.

Wortel Kempens Landschap UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Kolonie Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Kempens Landschap UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Prison
Wortel Prison

Bonte Beestenboel Farm Wortel Kempens Landschap

WHAT ARE COLONIES OF BENEVOLENCE?
In the 1800s, this entire region, whatever is today the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium, were the same country, the United Kingdom of Netherlands. William I, had just proclaimed himself the king in 1815 after Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated in Waterloo. Unfortunately, the country was suffering from poverty, and King William I came up with a very novel idea of the time - Colonies (not to be confused with colonization!). He founded the Society of Colonies and under the leadership of his son, Prince Fredrick, the Colonies of Benevolence in the Netherlands began to be set up. Between 1815 and 1820, all the 7 colonies were functional.
The idea was simple - to take an undeveloped area or inhospitable land and get the poor people to develop it, find a livelihood, and live there. Their children got free education. There were farms, churches, small hospitals and prisons too! For the country - an area gets developed for almost free (except for investments) and for the poor people, they have a place to live with amenities for free. It changed the lives of very many people and the landscape of these regions changed forever, thanks to the countless hours of hard work of the vagrants (homeless beggars).
These Colonies of Benevolence were either a Free Colony or an Unfree Colony. The Free Colony was mostly of elderly people, and disabled people and they lived in farmhouses and worked by themselves. They could even get back to normal life outside the colony. However the Unfree Colony was more like a community living of the poorest of the poor people - vagrants & beggars (who were considered criminals) etc, who were forcefully sent here, made to live in barracks/dorms and made to work collectively. 
Colonies of Benevolence in Belgium were not really segregated when Belgium was formed in 1830. The Govt. of Belgium wasn't really interested in the colonies and they still continued to be under the Dutch Royals. Finally, in 1993, after the Vagrancy Act was repealed and the concept of colonies was dismantled. 

HOW MANY COLONIES OF BENEVOLENCE ARE THERE & WHERE ARE THEY?
There are 7 Colonies of Benevolence in all - 5 are in the Netherlands (Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord, Veenhuizen, Willemsoord & Omerschans)  and 2 are in Belgium (Wortel & Merksplas). Of these 7, 4 (Frederiksoord, Wilhelminaoord, Wortel and Veenhuizen) were awarded the UNESCO World Heritage status in 2021. 
Also Read: UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands - Canal ring area of Amsterdam; Van Nellefabriek; Mill Network at Kinderdijk-Elshout; Waddensea; Rietveld Schroderhuis; Dutch Water Defence Lines (Pampus Eiland, Muiderslot)
The 2 Colonies of Benevolence in Belgium are usually denoted together as Kolonie 5-7 because Wortel was the 5th colony to be founded and Merksplas was the 7th & last colony to be founded. Quite amusingly, Wortel was a Free Colony and Merksplas was an Unfree Colony!

Wortel Kolonie Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Kolonie Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Kolonie Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Bonte Beestenboel Farm Wortel Kempens Landschap Hoogstraten

Bonte Beestenboel Farm Wortel Kempens Landschap Hoogstraten

Wortel Kolonie Map UNESCO Colonies of Benevolence

THINGS TO DO IN WORTEL COLONY OF BENEVOLENCE
Unfortunately, I didn't get to visit the visitors center of the Merksplas colony and I was only left with what I had already known about the colonies thanks to the official website of Kolonie 5-7. Unlike Merksplas, which was a penal colony, Wortel was a free colony. 
To begin with, it was interesting to see the perfectly laid streets and the houses on the way to the colony. These are all twin-duplex houses that all would have been occupied by the guards and staff of the colony once upon a time! Now, these are social housing and private homes. They are not for tourists to visit (though I wish they had maintained just 1 house as it would have been earlier, like in Bois du Luc coal mine where a coal worker's house has been maintained as is). 
The 2nd thing I spotted in Wortel Colony is the Prison! It was established when the colony was established, but now, it is still an active prison! It has a high fence, police everywhere and visitors of inmates, etc, and it is not for tourists to visit.
The next stop was the Casino! Well, not a functional one as of now. It was the barracks once and then a recreational center for the colony people (that's when it got the name, Casino). Currently, it houses the NGO Widar, which cares for people with mental difficulties who live & work here as a community. This isn't for the general public to visit as well.
The first place that I could enter is the Bonte Beestenboel, a children's farm which is located inside what was originally the farmland of the vagrants. It was absolutely awesome that I really felt bad that it is not easy/quick to reach here from Brussels, for Atyudarini to spend a week or so there! It is a residential farm school where educational farm activities happen where you can go for a vacation camp or through your child's school! It was a typical charming farm with cows, goats, sheep, rabbits, and more.
Yet another place here is the Deklaspster Natuurpunt Markvallei, a visitors center of Natuupunt, an NGO that protects nature in Flanders. I was a bit confused here because it looked more like a cafe! Well, it is actually a cafe plus an information point. I picked up a walking map here and headed out and started walking on the hiking path.
My first stop on the route was the Bootjeshaven, which literally means boat harbor. The lake here is rich in peat and the vagrants extracted it for fuel, further deepening it! It was such a beautiful, peaceful place. Natuur en Bos has put some picnic benches here making this the very perfect picnic spot. We sat there to have our picnic as 2 swans came by to say hello. It would have been nice in sunny weather, but the dark clouds added such a dramatic effect to our trip! It was so incredibly beautiful...
We walked further ahead to spot some horses and hear some woodpeckers. On our way back, we saw the farmers working in the agricultural lands, and further ahead is the Wortel Cemetery, the final resting place of the vagrants who lived & died here. We walked further ahead to reach the bus stop and back home. 

Where is Wortel Colony (on Google Maps)Kempens Landschap - Wortel-kolonie
Wortel Colony of Benevolence timings: 24x7
Wortel Deklaspster Natuurpunt Markvallei bezoekerscentrum timings: Tue-Sat 1:00PM to 5:00PM; Sun - 10:00AM to 6:00PM

Wortel UNESCO World Heritage Site Colonies of Benevolence

Wortel UNESCO World Heritage Site Colonies of Benevolence

Wortel UNESCO World Heritage Site Colonies of Benevolence

Newly inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Properties in Belgium 2021

Newly inscribed UNESCO World Heritage Properties in Belgium 2021

THINGS TO DO IN MERKSPLAS COLONY OF BENEVOLENCE
Unfortunately, I didn't get to visit the Merksplas colony, I can only give you information about it, but not my personal experience!
The most important of the things to do in Merksplas is to visit the Visitors center of Kolonie 5-7. This gives an overview of what the colonies were about. 
There are of course the prison, school, and chapel which were once built & used by the vagrants. The prison is still an active prison and a part of it is also the center for illegal immigrants. Quite amusingly there is a Prison museum here which is actually open for visits with a guided tour! There are houses of the guards and agricultural lands here too, similar to Wortel. 
A unique thing here is, since Merksplas was an unfree colony, a moat was built all around the colony to prevent the vagrants from escaping! However, it was never finished completely. The moat is still existing and it is a good idea to walk alongside it. There are a couple of water bodies in this area, one of which was historically used as a clay pit which was used to make the bricks with which the colonists built everything here! 
There are quite a few farm buildings on the Large Farm (Grote Hoeve) here including an open hay barn, regular stables & cowsheds, a quarantine stable, potato cellars, etc. Some of these have been converted to other purposes today, including the visitors center itself! The Small Farm (Kleine Boerderij) here was originally the training center for the vagrants in farming. Today it's an arboretum and botanical garden open for the general public to visit. There's a bar here as well.
Let's see I might get my act together and visit the area again just for Merksplas, or I might not! Let's see. If you visit, let me know in the comments. 

Where is Merksplas Colony (on Google Maps)Merksplas-kolonie Bezoekerscentrum
Merksplas Colony of Benevolence timings: 24 x 7
Merksplas Colony Visitors Centre timings: Tue to Sun - 10:00AM to 10:00PM
Where is Merksplas Prison Museum (on Google Maps)Gevangenismuseum Vzw
Merksplas Prison Museum timings: Open from Mar to Nov only - Sat & Sun - 1:00PM to 6:00PM
Merksplas Prison Museum tickets: €7 (request booking via official website of Gevangenismuseum)
Where is Merksplas Kleine Boerderij (Small Farm) (on Google Maps)? Arboretum Merksplas
Merksplas Kleine Boerderij timings: Wed & Sat - 1:00PM to 5:00PM; Sun - 10:00AM to 5:00PM
Merksplas Kleine Boerderij tickets: €5 (to pay at the door)

Deklaspster Natuurpunt Markvallei Wortel Natuur en Bos

Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO World Heriage Sites in Flanders Belgium

Deklaspster Natuurpunt Markvallei Wortel Natuur en Bos

Agricultural farms in Wortel UNESCO Sites in Flanders

Cemetery of Vagrants in Wortel UNESCO Sites in Flanders

Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO World Heriage Sites in Flanders Belgium

HOW TO REACH WORTEL COLONY & MERKSPLAS COLONY
The nearest city to Wortel & Merksplas is Turnhout. Merksplas is located about 7km from Turnhout (10 mins ride away by car or 30 mins by bike) and Wortel is another 7km away (another 10 mins ride by car or 30 mins by bike). 

HOW TO REACH WORTEL COLONY & MERKSPLAS COLONY BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The nearest railway station to Wortel & Merksplas colonies is Turnhout. You'll have to take a DeLijn bus from Turnhout to the colonies. The frequency of the buses is approximately once every hour. 

How to reach Merksplas by bus:
The nearest bus stop to Merksplas colony is Merksplas Kolonie. From Turnhout, the DeLijn bus route 432 towards Rijkevorsel & Brecht goes via Merksplas Kolonie and the journey time is approximately 25 mins. 

How to reach Wortel by bus:
The nearest bus stop to Wortel colony are Wortel Kolonieweg and Wortel Dorp. From Turnhout, the DeLijn bus routes 430 towards Meerseldreef goes via Wortel and the journey time is approximately 20 mins. 
The DeLijn bus route 430, takes the alternative route via Merksplas Kolonie just twice a day (16:33 & 17:41) which, if you take, you can directly go from Merksplas Kolonie to Wortel Kolonieweg. 

If you entirely depend on public transport, you'll have to keep a tab on your watch so as to not miss a bus or be ready to walk a lot, if you want to see both the colonies. First, take a bus from Turnhout to Merksplas Dorp (because this is where the visitors center is). The DeLijn bus route 432 leaves from Turnhout railway station at 10:07, 11:07, 12:07, etc. and reaches Merksplas kolonie in 25 minutes. After visiting Merksplas, take the same bus in the opposite direction at 12:34, 13:34, 14:34 etc., till Merkspas Dorp (5 mins journey) or walk this 3km. Wait for about 20 minutes and take the DeLijn Bus route 430 (at 13:01, 14:01, 15:01 etc) and head to Wortel Kolonieweg (or take the direct bus if you can catch one of those 2 buses mentioned above). To return back to Turnhout, take the DeLijn Bus route 430 in the opposite direction once every hour (16:50, 17:50, 18:50 etc). Go to the official DeLijn website the day before your visit and check these bus routes to avoid any surprises like road closures or works!

BOOKMARK THIS ARTICLE / PIN IT

Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium Wortel Colonies of Benevolence UNESCO Belgium

Bhushavali

An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 78 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of Sept 2020. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands

10 comments:

  1. Dear Bushavali, thanks for this informative post about the colonies of benevolence in Belgium. I was actually considering a visit, as they became UNESCO sites and are not far away from Germany. But I was wondering what there is actually to see. Judging from your pictures and your post, it pays to read up as much as possible before going there. Maybe I can fit in a visit this summer.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have never heard about Wortel. But after reading this post I can understand why it was added to the UNESCO list. The Colonies of Benevolence were interesting to learn more about. And to know there are 7 between the Netherlands and Belgium. Fun to see such an variety of spots - casino, prison, farms and residences.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I hadn't before come across Colonies of Benevolence so was absolutely fascinating to find out what these are, and then more about Wortel specifically. How interesting to explore the history and the street plan and houses that were occupied by staff and guards and the old casino. And the peaceful boat harbour sounds lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I hadn't before come across Colonies of Benevolence so was absolutely fascinating to find out what these are, and then more about Wortel specifically. How interesting to explore the history and the street plan and houses that were occupied by staff and guards and the old casino. And the peaceful boat harbour sounds lovely.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is so interesting to me. In theory, the idea of giving a place to the poor where they could live and work makes good sense. Although, the unfree colonies for beggars and migrants does make me feel sad for them. I'm glad you were able to tour these unique UNESCO colonies and share your findings with us. Otherwise, I might not never know about this fascinating piece of history!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I have very limited knowledge with the history and Belgium so I find this interesting. Knowing the history makes me appreciate the place more. Thank you for this guide and the tips. We hope to have the opportunity to visit Wortel in the future.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Such interesting history, I’m amazed it continued until 1993. It sounds as though you were really impressed with Bonte Beestenboel in Wortel and it would be a great place for families to visit. It is too bad you were not able to visit Merksplas and compare a free to unfree colony. Interesting that the moat was never finished, must not have been too worried about people escaping

    ReplyDelete
  8. This was such a great learning experience reading your blog. With limited knowledge of Belgium it was really nice to understand about these UNESCO colonies. How nice that the poor are given an opportunity to rebuild their lives.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for such an informative post. I was never aware of the Colonies of Benevolence in Belgium. It is great to know that this is UNESCO-listed. I am intrigued by the calm boat harbour. Also, it is good to know how there are so many different sites to see in one place.

    ReplyDelete
  10. What a fascinating article. I had no idea Wortel was part of a colonies and that the ending of this was so recent, Nor did I realise how these were formed. Such a rich history, it's made me realise there is more to the Netherlands and Belgium than I presumed.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for visiting...! Why not leave a comment.? And tell your friends..!!!
By commenting you accept to our GDPR Policy.