Genk’s star attraction is C-Mine, a former mining site that has been converted into a multi-purpose business and leisure complex. Like Waterschei, where Manifesta takes place, Winterslag was one of three coal mines in Genk. The “C” now stands not for coal but for creativity, the theme that unites such diverse enterprises as a multi-screen cinema, the MAD-faculty (Media, Arts and Design school) and the studio and
showroom of famous ceramicist Piet Stockmans.
The newest addition to C-Mine is Expedition, an interactive tourist attraction installed underground in a former mine shaft. Visitors can experience the lives of mine workers using touch, sound, sight and even smell. The high point, literally, comes at the end, when you can climb the tallest headframe in Belgium. At a height of 60 metres, the platform at the top offers a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape.
The area around C-Mine preserves the original “garden city” built by the mining company for its workers, many of whom were newly arrived immigrants, between 1911 and 1930. Different housing styles were intended for managers, engineers and workers, but every house had a garden, and each neighbourhood had common buildings such as schools.The main commercial street, Vennestraat, retains its character as a multi-cultural shopping and dining destination.
Open-air museum Bokrijk, also in Genk, is a classic school trip destination, with historic buildings from all over Flanders grouped to recreate typical villages and farms. Different areas represent the Kempen, Haspengouw and East and West Flanders, giving visitors a taste of old-fashioned rural and town life. Part of the charm of Bokrijk is that it doesn’t change, even as the real Flanders embraces modernity and progress.
This year, Bokrijk introduced a major new attraction, effectively bringing the park into the 20th century. A new neighbourhood recreates a more recent past: the swingin’ sixties. Each visitor is given a passport with the identity of a typical Genk resident in the 1960s, which determines how they experience the attraction.
The assigned identity roughly corresponds to the visitor’s age and gender but varies in terms of social class, education and work. At each location in the 1960s town, your passport triggers a different interactive experience. (Entrance to “The Sixties”, unlike the rest of the park, requires a reservation.)
If you like your history and culture seasoned with a bit of shopping, then nearby Maasmechelen Village is the place to go. The largest outlet centre in Flanders, it sports more than 100 clothing stores, restaurants and speciality shops. Limburg fashion designer Stijn Helsen recently opened an outlet there. The best part, of course, is that everything has up to 60% off regular retail prices... and it’s open on Sunday.
Genk is also home to Kattevennen, one of the gateways to the Hoge Kempen National Park, the largest nature reserve in Flanders. The main attraction here is the Cosmodrome, a spectacular planetarium and observatory offering diverse programmes about space and the natural world. After each planetarium show, visitors can look through the three-metre telescope and observe the heavens.
Other activities in Kattevennen include a newly renovated minigolf course, horse riding, hiking and cycling. The sleek, modern visitor’s centre next to the Cosmodrome is a good place to start your visit.
With so many things to do, a long weekend is in order. The Carbon Hotel is conveniently located in the heart of the city right across from the train station. As its name suggests, this chic hotel pays homage to the black gold that drove the mines. Genk-based architects Peter Cornoedus & Partners used the theme of coal along with the five Chinese elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water in their concept. The colour palette is black with touches of gold. And the bed linens were designed by none other than Stijn Helsen.