Van Gogh and Hieronymus Bosch were what first drew me to visit Brabant, both were born and grew up here. You can follow in the footsteps of both Van Gogh and Hieronymus Bosch in Brabant. Design and creativity still abound in Brabant. What I found was a mix of cute historic towns, vibrant post industrial towns and beguiling countryside. My first visit to the region was on a family holiday with the Cultural Teens and the second a press trip to Dutch Design Week.
Why you need to visit Brabant
Actually you need to visit Noord Brabant but as I can’t find an east, west or south Brabant and Brabant is how I think of it, that’s what I’m calling it. We found that Brabant offered the perfect mix of art, urban buzz and rural peace that the Cultural Wednesday family look for in a holiday.
‘s-Hertogenbosch or Den Bosch
First things first. No need to worry about how to pronounce ‘s-Hertogenbosch everyone calls it Den Bosch (say den bos).
Now we’ve got the name straight why visit Den Bosch? It is chocolate box pretty. Has a top notch Cathedral and a pair of excellent museums. Hieronymus Bosch was born here and you can visit his house. Canals, of course there are canals, we are in The Netherlands but here they go under buildings. But best of all is the Bossche Bol, a chocolate confection unique to Den Bosch
St John’s Cathedral
Sint Janskathedraal (as it will say on all the signs) is reckoned to be the finest Gothic cathedral in The Netherlands. Before you go inside take a good look at the exterior: it is a riot of carving, including an angel on a mobile phone. Pilgrims have been drawn to a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary in St John’s Cathedral since the 14th century. People still flock to see her. Zoete Lieve Vrouw or Sweet Dear Lady is made of oak, holds an apple in one hand and Jesus in the other. Her chapel is a place of great peace. If you are feeling energetic you can climb the tower.
- Sint Janskathedraal, Torenstraat 16
- Open: Daily 9am – 5pm (restricted access during services)
Het Noordbrabants Museum
The Noordbrabants Museum is everything you can want in a museum. It is housed in a grand old building, has an exciting extension and a top notch collection of art. Van Gogh was born just down the road and the museum has a fine collection his early works depicting the Brabant countryside. Elsewhere you’ll find Breughel the Younger and some stunning modern work. The displays on Brabant history are fascinating, you come away with a real feel for prosperity of the city and the tides of history that have washed over the region.
- Noordbrabants Museum, Verwersstraat 41, ‘s-Hertogenbosch
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult €17 (€2 cheaper if you book online)
Design Museum Den Bosch
Housed in the same building as the Noordbrabants Museum, the Design Museum celebrates making and design. Design and Brabant are intertwined. Historically the region has been rich in textiles and later industrial design with the behemoth Phillips based in Eindhoven. Even if you don’t visit the museum find time for the shop which is excellent.
- Design Museum Den Bosch, De Mortel 4, ‘s-Hertogenbosch
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
- Admission: Adult €12
Hieronymus Bosch and Den Bosch
Hieronymus Bosch, or Jheronimus as he is known here, was born in Den Bosch and lived here all his life (hmmm I wonder where he got his name from). He grew up in his father’s house overlooking the market square and then moved just a few hundred yards to the other side of the square. Sadly none of his paintings remain in his home town but you can visit his home.
Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre
I confess that I did wonder if visiting the Hieronymus Bosch Art Centre was worth it. On display are reproductions of his most famous work. Why did I want to see reproductions when I’ve seen most of them in the flesh over the years? Mr CW was keen and so we visited. Mr CW was right. First of all the reproductions are very, very good. Next you can get really close to them. Far closer than at, say, the Prado. Not only near, but with the Garden of Earthly Delights you can actually open and close the wings of triptych, something which only very few people have ever done with the original. You also see all the work in one place. Even better you can catch a lift to the top of the tower for views over the Brabant countryside.
- Jheronimus Bosch Art Centre, Postbus 1380, ’s-Hertogenbosch
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5.30pm
- Admission: Adults €10, combined ticket with House of Bosch €15
The House of Bosch
The House of Bosch is the house in which Hieronymus grew up and learnt to paint. His father, Antonius van Aken, also a painter bought the house when Hieronymus was about 12. His workshop was also in the building. Nowadays you can walk up the staircase that the young Hieronymus would have climbed. In the rooms you are treated to a state of the art immersive experience. Each room is different and tells the story of Hieronymus. Make sure that you say you are English and have an English slot or else the commentary will be in Dutch.
- Het Huis van Bosch,Markt 29, ‘s-Hertogenbosch
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 10am – 4pm
- Admission: Adult €10 combined ticket with Hieronymus Bosch Centre €15
Of course there are canals, we are in The Netherlands. The canals of Den Bosch are a bit different though. The river Binnendieze and interconnecting canals curve hidden between and under buildings. Taking a boat tour of the canals is the best way to experience them. I love a boat tour, a chance to sit down and see something at the same time.
- Binnendieze Boat Tours
- Duration about 50 minutes
- Price: €10 adults
A whole section about cake? Yes. Before I had even stepped foot in Den Bosch people had said that if I only did one thing in the city then eating a Bossche Bol was it. Not the Cathedral or the Noordbrabants Museum but eat a cake. It was described to me a like a profiterole. In that it is made of pastry, filled with cream and covered with chocolate, yes it is. In the fact that it is the size of a tennis ball not so much. Anyway they are delicious. I would recommend them as a treat with tea or coffee rather than a dessert as they are enormous. Original and best of the all the Bossche Bol are made by Jan de Groot opposite the train station and also sold in many other places.
Where to Stay in ‘s-Hertogenbosch
We stayed in ‘t Keershuys right in the centre of ‘s-Hertongenbosch, we had a loft-style family room right at the top of the hotel that felt like a suite. For a completely different experience (and an afternoon chocolate buffet) the Movenpick Hotel is the outskirts of town.
Where to Eat in ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Head to the Korte Putstraat which is lined with restaurants and reckoned to be one of the prettiest restaurant streets in Europe, this is where we sat and ate our Bossche Bol. For dinner we at in the bistro at ‘t Keershuys and Nom Nom. If you are eating out on a Friday or Saturday be sure to book.
Eindhoven is a place that crackles with energy. It is home to Dutch Design Week, the biggest showcase of design in Northern Europe. Industrial buildings are being repurposed. Inventive street art adorns the walls. Best of all, there is a singing lift.
When I was growing up, all the lightbulbs and quite a lot of the TV’s came from Eindhoven. Phillips had its headquarters and manufacturing here. In the mid 80s both moved away. Eindhoven was left with a legacy of industrial buildings and a population rich in the skills of industrial design.
Van Abbe Museum
Home to the singing lift. Actually home to a rather impressive collection of contemporary art and design. Founded in the 1930s by Henri van Abbe, a local cigar manufacturer, it has works by Picasso, Mondrian and Kandinsky. Every room made me smile. At one point you walk through a Mondrian work and emerge in a new room. Then there is the Martin Creed singing lift (have I mentioned the lift?). I could happily spend all day in the lift.
- Van Abbe Museum, Stratumsedijk 2, Eindhoven
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm
- Admission: Adults €13
Strijp-S used to be only for Phillips employees. Factories, offices and general industrial paraphernalia were here. Now it is a thriving new quarter of Eindhoven, open to all. New buildings are going up, old ones are being restored. There are interesting shops, cool cafés and great restaurants.
Piet Hein Eek
Piet Hein Eek is a design star. He has been upcycling since the dawn of the 90s and creates furniture, well useful stuff generally, out of waste. Strijp-R the former ceramic factory of Phillips is now home to Piet Eek Hein’s workshop, café, shop and even hotel. I can vouch for the café’s excellence. It is a little way out of town, but definitely walking distance.
Dutch Design Week
Every year at the end of October the design world congregates in Eindhoven. Everywhere you look innovative solutions are on show. Some are beautiful. Others timely and much needed. What caught my eye was a way of recycling bricks and concrete, until now if you knock down a building it goes into landfill: with this technology it can become a new building.
Eindhoven Street Art
Eindhoven has a wealth of underpasses and bridges whose walls have been enlivened with street art. Hire a bike and take yourself on a tour. Street art changes all the time so for the latest information take a look at this map on Street Art Cities.
Where to Stay in Eindhoven
Housed in a former Phillips building, where lightbulbs were made and tested. Rooms have high ceilings and a pared back industrial aesthetic paired with fabulous wallpaper and curtains. When I stayed the clientele was an eclectic mix of people attending Dutch Design Week and Arsenal supporters here for a Europa league match. Close to the station, design district and the Van Abbe.
One for design aficionados housed in the Piet Hein Eek complex of workshops, shops and places to eat. Small hotel, just 13 rooms, but beautifully designed. On the edge of town, maybe best if you have a car.
Another one for design buffs, but this time walking distance to the station. Kazerne is housed in a former barracks and now a design showcase, restaurant and small hotel.
Where to Eat in Eindhoven
For peak post industrial chic you need to eat or at least drink a cocktail at Radio Royaal which is housed in the old engine room of Phillips. I had an excellent lunch at Kazerne in the heart of old Eindhoven. For a blend of nineteenth century fancy plasterwork and twenty-first century street art head to Thomas which morphs into a club on some evenings.
DID YOU KNOW?
PSV Eindhoven is one of the best football teams in Europe, but did you that PSV stands for Phillips Sport Vereniging (Phillips Sport Association) because it started life as the football team for Phillips employees.
Tilburg is made for me. Things I love: textiles, trains and industrial history (did you know that I used to be a costumed guide in an industrial museum?). Tilburg has all these things in abundance, it used to be an important textile and train manufacturing centre. Now both industries have moved on, regeneration is happening at a pace, there are museums, cafe’s alongside space for new businesses. Make time to visit the Friandries chocolate shop for chocolates that look like artworks.
Be still my beating heart, a textile museum. I love textiles. This though is a museum with a difference. Yes it tells the story of Tilburg and textiles, but it also is helping with the future of textiles. It has workshops where people work away at new generation fibres. Designers design beautiful new things. There is a weaving machine that weaves the in-house designed table cloths and tea towels on sale in the gift shop. I need to return to do the design your own sock or scarf activity. You create your design and then it is made in front of your very eyes. Make sure not to miss the shop, which is packed with many covetable textiles.
De Pont Museum
The De Pont Museum is housed in another former textile mill. The distinctive saw tooth roof lets in masses of natural light, the better to see the fine collection of contemporary art including Anish Kapoor and Bill Viola.
- Museum De Pont, Wilhelminapark, Tilburg
- Open: Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 5pm Thursday until 9pm
- Admission: Adult €16, Free Thursday 5pm-9pm
Behind the train station is an area that used to be devoted to making trains, repairing trains and shunting trains. Now some of the buildings are being repurposed and others built. It is compelling mix of old and new. Just the kind of place that I like to wander. You will find restaurants housed in old railway carriages, workshops and a foodhall in the old turning sheds (always my favourite part of the Brio train set).
I wouldn’t usually recommend a visit to a public library on Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays. Great places though they are. LocHal is different. Yes there are books, all in Dutch of course. LocHal is housed in a former train factory and has reinvented the public library for the 21st century. There is a café, places to sit and work. Lots and lots of power points. Sometimes you need a place to work for an hour or so when you are out and about.
Where to stay in Tilburg
I stayed in the Mercure Hotel which is central with comfortable rooms and an excellent breakfast. Parking is available in the neighbouring multi-storey carpark.
Tilburg’s tiniest and most sustainable hotel is the Roots Tiny House just for two. Roots Tiny House is a low emissions building made from recyclable materials. You will be self catering and right in the heart of the Spoorzone.
Where to Eat in Tilburg
You are spoilt for choice for cute cafés in Tilburg. Both the Textile Museum and De Pont have excellent examples of the museum cafe. (If I ever go on Mastermind my specialist topic would be the museum cafe.) LocHal offers a bookish pitstop. Eetbar de Wagon in the Spoorzone offers the opportunity to dine in a 1930’s railway carriage. Right next door to the train station and housed in the old railway turntable is Central Station Gourmet Market, a foodhall with a wide variety of food on offer. For views over the Spoorzone head to Doloris Rooftop Bar.
The Cultural Teens are both studying Politics and love history. When we read about Baarle Nassau we had to visit. Well when you visit Baarle Nassau you can’t help but visit Baarle Hertog too. Look at a map of Baarle Nassau and it looks spotted. There are 22 small patches of Belgium, entirely surrounded by The Netherlands within the town. The proper name for these patches is exclaves. As you walk around the city the border is marked with white crosses on the pavement. You can spot when you are in Belgium because there are lots of firework shops, the sale of fireworks is restricted in The Netherlands. Some houses are in both countries.
Why are the exclaves in Baarle Nassau and Baarle Hertog?
Historically the border between Belgium and The Netherlands has been fluid. When Belgium was being created in the 1830’s the one place that a boarder could not be agreed was Baarle Nassau and Baarle Hertog. In the end the Treaty of Maastricht settled on 26 exclaves. There are 22 Belgian exclaves (Baarle Hertog) within the Dutch Baarle Nassau and over the border in Belgium are four patches of The Netherlands.
Right on the edge of Brabant and shared with Zeeland is the Biesbosch. Translated it means Reed Forest and that’s what it is: a vast area of reeds, rivers and marsh. Twice a day the tide comes in. It is a magical area, rich in wildlife. There are rumoured to be beavers, but I can report after extensive paddling around tiny creeks we didn’t see a single beaver. The best way to explore is by boat. We hired two person canoes from a hut in the grounds of the StayOkay. The cultural teens wanted SUP’s but I know that the likelihood of me remaining dry in an extended SUP excursion is zero. When asked about the highlight of our holiday, we are all agreed that exploring the Biesbosch was it.
Stay in a cardboard house in the Biesbosch
We stayed in a cardboard house. Yes you read that correctly. A cardboard house. A sustainable, recyclable house. It was beautiful, didn’t feel like cardboard and crucially kept out the rain. The Wikkelhouse (for that is what is what it was called) was in the grounds of the Dordrecht StayOkay (the Dutch version of the Youth Hostel Association) and right on the banks of the Biesbosch. There are other Wikkelhouses dotted around. Mr CW came away wanting one for the end of the garden at Cultural Wednesday Towers.
Dunes of Loon
As we were driving to Den Bosch I noticed the Loonse en Drunense Duinen National Park on the map. Googled and discovered that it was 30 square kilometres of shifting sands and decided we had to see it. I declared that it would be our picnic spot. When you visit the Dunes of Loon (and you should just for the name) plan better than we did. I selected a random place on the map, we got out of the car, picnic in hand and started to walk. We soon got lost in the sandy woods and never made it to the shifting sands. Now I have researched it properly. Head for either Herberg De Drie Linden café in Giersbergen or De Rustende Jager restaurant in Biezenmortel. Both have parking and De Rustende Jager has bike hire.
Vincent van Gogh in Brabant
Vincent Van Gogh was born and raised in Brabant. It was here that he started to draw and paint. Looking at the countryside it is easy to imagine the fields populated with the potato pickers that he drew.
Vincent was born in Zundert in the parsonage next to the church where his father was the minister. The Protestant church is still there but the parsonage is long gone. Now there is a museum on the spot where Vincent was born, the Vincent Van Gogh Huis dedicated to telling the story of his youth.
After Zundert van Gogh’s father moved to become minister of the church at Etten Leur and it was here that Vincent decided to become a painter. The Dutch Reformed Church in Zundert is now a museum dedicated to telling the story of how Vincent became a painter.
Van Gogh lived in Nuenen for two years, it was here that he painted the famous Potato Eaters, reckoned to be his first masterpiece. About a quarter of his entire output was created in Neunen. You can visit the excellently named Vincentre which takes you back to Vincent’s time in the village. Essentially Nuenen can be viewed as one large outdoor Vincent discover with a walking tour around the town enabling you to stand where Vincent stood when he painted.
Van Gogh Brabant Cycling Tour
For my money the best way to explore The Netherlands is always by bike and Brabant is no exception. There is even a special Van Gogh route, well there are ten of them. No need to do them all, hire a bike, choose one and spend a happy morning or afternoon.
The Cultural Wednesday family have spent a lot of time in The Netherlands, we love the combination of art, outdoors and good food. Along the way we like to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, have stayed in Castles, had cultural weekends in The Hague, Leiden and Leeuwarden and explored the Frisian Islands.