Leaving Hasard Cheratte behind and urban settings, we found ourselves in rural areas of Belgium. It is wonderful to be able to experience so many things practicing one single hobby. Moving from one location to the next, or even scouting for locations as most people most often do, allows you to get in touch with the tranquility of life outside the big cities most live in. Especially when you’re being outside of your own country, you are able to experience life in places you don’t normally find yourself while traveling. You visit Milan, you don’t visit the tiny villages of Lombardia, you go to Brussels, you don’t drive around the back roads of Wallonia.
So there I was, as always sitting in the passenger’s seat, engaged in conversations about exploring, about life, the universe etc etc. Meeting new people from other countries is always fascinating as you realize that even though you may have the same age, same interests, live in the same continent, you have grown up with some really different views (this is not bad by all means) on certain things, and this is paramount to growing up outside your own head. You can always receive information on your own through books, the Internet, magazines, social media, but only when you are sitting down face to face with another human being are you able to really digest their reality and filter that based on your own perceptions of truth or whatever.
V was a great conversationalist so riding along was not boring and we had plenty to share on Instagram and the urbex community. Yes, gossip is priority numero uno when you explore with other people. Oh the drama…. J
Eventually though, V parked the car as we had arrived at our destination. From across the road we had just left her car, I saw our next target. It was a beautiful old church. But there was more to it than just being a church. A building people would drive by constantly not wondering what lies behind its walls. This would be the place that would make me feel the most uncomfortable I had ever felt while exploring.
But now it’s time to close the curtains and pull up a chair
The location was codenamed “Agnus Dei”, meaning Lamb of God in Latin. Don’t ask me why.
But the place was actually called Couvent de Gensterbloem.
Couvent de Gensterbloem was an abandoned monastery and church in Hombourg, a village in Belgian Limburg. The buildings were used as a catholic school and old folks home.
In 1875 the Congregation of the Franciscan sisters, fleeing the Kulturkampf in Germany, moved to this site. The land was owned by the Count of Bourcieu Montereux. During that time the land and complex covered more than one hectare. In 1908, the owner left his property to the Franciscan sisters. They erected a chapel dedicated to St Antoine in March 1910. The other buildings were used as a Catholic school. After the First World War, the dormitories were transformed into comfortable rooms for elderly couples or single people. Gensterbloem housed 38 residents.
In September 2002, the sisters left the place and moved to a bigger and more modern building. The property was then sold. A few weeks later, a violent fire partly destroyed the premises. It was demolished in 2019.
In Greece where I’m from the main religion by a vast majority is Christian Orthodox. I won’t discuss religion here, but let’s just say I find the best thing religions have offered is their cultural impact. You can’t but be mindblown when you step into buildings like Duomo in Milan, Notre-Dame in Paris, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and other. Even some inconspicuous small chapels that you may encounter may hold impossible beauties inside. The architecture, the colors, the history. Things that you can appreciate regardless of where you stand in terms of religion and/or spirituality.
So Agnus Dei, stepping in I was captivated. It was small, but it was beautiful, with wonderful stained glass windows still intact, no signs of destruction by vandals, only the touch of time visible on the walls. Even the pews were still there, lined up and still, frozen in time waiting for someone to walk in and rest, and perhaps pray.
The church was holding me tight and I knew this was a special visit.
We took our time capturing the place through the lenses on our cameras and V showed the way to the back of the complex.
Things taking a rather dark turn
Walking outside the church around the back, we found ourselves in an open space surrounded by the old nursing home and vegetation that had grown without limits. We proceeded to the first open door and stepped inside.
From the first dark room we encountered with the green armchair facing a window, I instantly started feeling something I rarely experience. I can only put it down as anxiety. Not being by myself allowed me to push this feeling aside and try to enjoy the exploration with my new friend.
Moving from one part of the complex to the next we mostly encountered smallish rooms with beds and some still holding on to certain personal items left behind, like books, suitcases and more.
Other parts were completely destroyed from the fire mentioned before, one room’s floor was collapsed, and you could slowly but surely feel the place was on its last legs. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a completely ruined sight (and site) to know that it is what we often call a deathtrap. You may see rooms that look relatively in okay form, but you know deep down that the foundation, the core of the building is rotten.
This was the case with Agnus Dei. I could feel this was not a welcoming place. And yes, most abandoned places do give me, and others, a vibe of “you are free to enter and roam”.
In Agnus Dei I felt not wanted.
And then it was that room. It was one of the bigger rooms of the building, with one bed in the centre, a suitcase tucked underneath the bed, an old furniture by the bed, with a flower pot on top. Yes, the place looked staged as a couple of other rooms too, but two things really bothered me here.
One was a small dead bird right past the door of the room with its tiny heart sticking outside its body. Sorry for the graphic detail but it was a totally weird thing to see as the bird was not in a bad shape other than that. It just looked as if some force had pulled its heart out of its socket. The little bird looked quite young, perhaps didn’t even get to live more than a few minutes after it was hatched.
And then there was the noose over my head. Looking up I saw a perfectly tied hangman’s noose hanging. In abandoned places you do see weird shit all the time, and almost always these are staged interventions by either people wanting to create something to capture through the lens, or just people exploring for kicks who want to leave giggling at the thought some unsuspecting person visiting in the future will freak out when they look at what they had conjured up.
So yes, I did not for a minute thought the noose was there because someone wanted to kill themselves or anything of that sort…but then again….it did bother me a LOT.
Soon after that I did take the time to take a couple of selfies horsing around just to shake this uneasiness off. And I rushed outside. We had a smoke, talked about the building and enjoyed watching the cows in the neighboring field munch away.
And then we were gone.
Message of the day: If you fall you can get up but that don’t mean you will succeed
Leaving Agnus Dei behind, we had one more stop V wanted to share. It was the old university in Liege, Val Benoit. A huge place that was quite popular among explorers. But to cut a short story even shorter, we didn’t get in. When we arrived the entire complex was fenced up and there were workers on several points as the place was undergoing an extreme makeover of sorts. A few shots I took of the University while we walked the perimeter trying to unsuccessfully find a way in are below.
Sometimes you do fail, sometimes you fail in a grandiose fashion, and then you fail like a brave trooper, standing. It doesn’t matter. Failing while exploring is part of the gig. If you didn’t worry about failing you wouldn’t get so much satisfaction from succeeding. And then who knows, where you failed today, you may succeed tomorrow. Persistence is also a necessary tool when exploring.
The one thing you can’t beat is time. And time is what gives life to this hobby of ours. Without it there would be nothing to lose ourselves into.
- When I visited Belgium to explore for the first in June 2014 it was at the time the highlight of my brief exploring CV, outside Chernobyl of course that I had just visited a couple of weeks before. Everybody was talking about Belgium back then in the UK. So being there just for a couple of sites, was an amazing experience. And I got to meet one of the best explorers and photographers too along the way, V. Before leaving Belgium I knew that I’d soon return and so I did in the Autumn of the same year.
- Do visit Belgium when you can. It is a beautiful country with great history and so much more than just Brussels. Brussels is actually boring in my opinion compared to the rest of the country.
For a full gallery of photos from Agnus Dei check out the gallery page here.