Hidden Places – Sherpenheuvel-Zichem: A Holy Place of Pilgrimage in Belgium
Belgium is known for its monasteries and pilgrimage sites. Yet, the pilgrims routes are usually lined with train tracks, the holy sites are usually beer dispensaries of various shapes and sizes, and the monasteries that are visited are, nine times out of ten, are renowned for brewing the well secret kept, orgasmic flavors of the Trappist beers. Some enthusiasts would retort in all seriousness to by humorous description, that Belgium beer isn’t simply nation pride. It’s a full religion. Having tasted a fair share of it myself, I would say that I’m all on board with that declaration of sudsy faith. To reiterate and be as bombastic, bold and loud as I can be, Belgian beer is, at it’s finest, the best beer on this planet, beating out other Beer Empires: Germany and the Czech Republic.
But Belgium also contains non-alcoholic holy sites. Near the medieval town of Diest, in the Flemish Brabant province lies the little town of Scherpenheuvel-Zichen. Hm. “Lies” connotes substantial space occupancy. Hm. Dots the little town of Scherpenheuven-Zichen. Enough of that. The town’s there, I went there. I’m going to talk about it.
Scherpenheuven-Zichen’s town centre is situated on a small hill. Scherpenheuven in English translates to “sharp hill”. Like most quaint towns, a cobbled stone road wraps around the centre, lined with restaurants and more importantly an assortment of bakeries, serving an assortment of sugar sprinkled tasty stuff to fill my belly. If you grow tired from your travels, don’t expect the vending machines scattered around the centre to quench your thirst. Inserting money into the coin slot, the blocking apparatus within, will release into the receiving area a cylindrical object. Yet this object will not be ice cold or be produced by Pepsi or The Coca Cola Company. In fact, this object is adorned by a shining image of Jesus Christ, arms wide open, like he’s ready for a big, climatic, bear hug. This is a Jesus Christ candle vending machine. Why do several of these Holier Than Thou candle dispensaries exist? Because it’s a comical twist on the vending machine?
No, no, vending machines are never funny. Sometimes scary. Sometimes annoying. Sometimes helpful. But never funny. N.E.V.E.R. Funny. The reason for these machines (“finally, he is going to EXPLAIN what the holy pilgrimage site IS!”) is because the holy pilgrimage site of Scherpenheuven-Zichen, smack dap in the centre of the cobblestoned ring road in a church. The Basilica of Our Lady of Scherpenheuvel is the holiest Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Belgium. Originally people came to this non-descript blip on the map, as part of the Marian cult, focused upon a statute of the Virgin Mary that hung in an oak tree on the top of the hill that supposedly had healing powers. It’s fame spread throughout the Flemish world and beyond in the 16th century and a church was built on the site to accommodate the influx of pilgrims. Respect was shown to the holy tree, by people cutting pieces off of it and making statues of it. Great to see that “respect” was interpreted the same way back when.
The church is a immensely beautiful and ornate and always occupied by awe struck believers and non-believers. Though I wasn’t there, I’ve heard during the summer months the park surrounding the church is also a happening place, full of stalls selling Chrstian-y knick-knacks and local treats with funny names like ”pepernoten” and “noppen”. Possibly with as equally funny tastes. Yes, the church is the only listed attraction in the town, but it is well worth the venture if you’re in the area, plus the nearby town of Diest has also quite a nice town centre with some lovely little bars serving lovely, lovely, happiness inducing beer.