Thirty kilometres south-west of Antwerp, the municipality of Westerlo is made up of seven communities, including Westerlo itself and the 12th-century Abbey of Tongerlo.
Some 10,000-plus live in the municipality, less than half of that in the town of Westerlo.
This is traditional Flanders, of close-knit communities, monastic beers and football clubs who keep going for generation after generation, before putting together a run to the top division.
Such is Koninklijke Voetbal Club Westerlo, KVC for short, who turned the corner just before the last turn of the century, won the Belgian Cup in 2001 and made it to Europe in 2011. They returned to the Jupiler Pro League in 2014 after a 15-year stint up to 2012.
The club dates back to 1933 – organised football in little Westerlo, to 1917. With World War I still raging nearby, local students had started playing matches on Westerlo’s main square of the Grote Markt.
They moved their games to an area of green half-a-kilometre away, Bist, and called their club Sportkring De Bist Westerlo. Today this is where KVC have their ground Het Kuipje, still outside town, across the road that leads to the nearby border with the Netherlands.
In 1922, De Bist changed pitches again, slightly further away from town, towards Tongerlo on Arthur Sterckxstraat. The club then disbanded in 1927.
A local notary revived the Bist club – this became two separate clubs, Sportkring Westerlo and Westerlo Sport and played in derbies against nearby villages. The Westerlo clubs merged in 1942 to create today’s KVC, playing in the yellow and blue of the town’s coat of arms.
Starting with Antwerp provincial leagues, moving up the pyramid, KVC made history with a play-off win over KSV Waregem in 1997. Eighty years after local students played on Grote Markt, Westerlo were in the same league as Bruges, Anderlecht – and local rivals Antwerp, relegated in that first season of 1997-98.
Het Kuipje later hosted Westerlo’s run to the Belgian Cup final in 2001 and European games.
The smallest community with a top-tier club in Belgium, Westerlo has the second-to-smallest ground – but have long been the most dominant side in the municipality, KFC Tongerlo still playing the likes of Blauwvoet Oevel.
The railroad hasn’t yet come to Westerlo. If you’re arriving by public transport, your only lifeline is the hourly De Lijn bus No.510, which runs from Mechelen station (perron 11, journey time 70min) via Heist-Op-Den-Berg (perron 2, journey time 27min) to Westerlo Dorp. Tickets are €3, pay on board. The 510 also stops right by Westerlo stadium. The last bus back to Heist/Mechelen is after 10pm.
From the Eurostar station at Brussels-Midi, and from Brussels Airport 55km (34 miles) away, a train to Heist-Op-Den-Berg requires a change at Antwerp-Berchem or Leuven, overall journey time around 1hr, €9 from Brussels-Midi, €12 from the airport.
The bus from Mechelen/Heist drops you on the main road, De Merodedreef, 5min walk from Westerlo – just head for the church spire, the main square is behind. Westerlo can be walked around in 5-10min – it’s a 10min walk to the stadium.
Taxi Westel (+32 483 16 72 40) is a local firm based at Verlorenkost 5 near Westerlo tourist office. The cab journey to Heist is €30.
The main hotel in town is right on the main square. The Geerts would grace any town in Belgium, an 18-room four-star, family-run for four generations. Plus points include free parking, an upscale restaurant, the Orangerie, and, most of all, comfortable, well furnished lodgings.
If that’s out of your price range, then there’s a one-room B&B, the Gastenkamer Carpe Diem, just off the main road, halfway between the tourist office and the stadium. This makes it sound more prosaic than it actually is – as the only guest/s, you’ll be treated to breakfast on the mezzanine overlooking the nearby forest and stream, and the room has been tastefully refurbished. Two people stay for €65/night, one person €55, with breakfast €10 extra.
There’s another B&B, the two-room Jebola, further down the main road from the stadium about 400 metres away. It’s pricier than the Carpe Diem, with a South African theme, and mainly used by hikers and cyclists for the nearby forest.
Apart from seasonal campsites, the only other option is the Boswachtershuis youth hostel, near the Town Hall, on the other (stadium) side of the main road at Papedreef 1. Once the home of the forest ranger, it’s a large property, with 82 beds in 17 rooms, including one two-bed room. Open 24/24 after check-in.
Bars, cafés and restaurants ring the pleasant main square/street of Grote Markt, terraces creating a convivial atmosphere in summer.
Pick of the bunch is Pallieter, at the far end of the square from the church, where lively regulars congregate over beers of many varieties (including local Tongerlo blond, bruin and Prior) to a blues, rock and jazz soundtrack. It has a TV for football and a sun-catching terrace. Open from 4pm Mon, Thur and Fri, from 8am on market-day Wed and from 3pm Sat and Sun.
Nearby Den Anker is more upscale, contemporary café than bar hangout, and a more grown-up clientele, but its terrace helps create the ambiance around Grote Markt.
Opposite, Den Tramhalt is another popular meeting point for older locals and guests at the Hotel Geerts opposite, more brasserie than bar but able to serve no few types of Belgian beer.
On a nearby corner of the square, the long-established Trawantel (Boerenkrijglaan 2) is a regular, honest locals’ bar that keeps evening-only hours (all day market-day Wed, Sun afternoons, closed Mon).
On the corner of the main road and the walk into Westerlo, Gildenhuis is a neighbourhood café/bar with that runs until early evenings.