Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium, Part I

Ransom Riggs

I recently spent eight days traveling around the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, though explaining why I went is a bit complicated. The short version is that I was there on business: to film the interiors of abandoned houses. The somewhat longer explanation is that I have a novel coming out in June, and my publisher asked me to make a book trailer for it. (Related explanation: a "book trailer" is a bit of viral marketing which publishers hope will reach a different audience than other kinds of book advertising, and they've exploded in popularity over the past two or three years.) I made one for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters a while back and had great fun with it, so when it came time to make a trailer for my own book, of course I wanted to be the one to direct it.

Still more explanation: the book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is peppered with 50 creepy vintage found photos, many of which its 16-year-old protagonist finds in a haunted-looking abandoned house on a remote island off Wales. I wanted to show the house, in the trailer, inside and out, and find some of the old photos in that decaying environment, as my character does. The house is fictional, of course, so to accomplish this I would have to go and find a house, or several houses, that looked sufficiently like the one in my head, and find my way inside of them.

There's a certain indefinable look that old houses in Europe have that's difficult to find in America, especially on the West Coast, where I live. More than that, finding a house that looked right but was also abandoned -- and still relatively untouched, in terms of graffiti / squatters / junkies (which ruled out Detroit, for instance) -- would be almost impossible. Incredibly, my publisher agreed to send me to Europe to search for just the right locations, and an explorer friend from the Netherlands who knew where a number of amazing old abandoned houses and chateaus were agreed to show me around. (Did I mention how nice Dutch people can be?) So I packed my camera, flew to Amsterdam, and embarked on a road trip through Belgium and Luxembourg with my explorer friend, hopping from village to village, abandonment to abandonment.

It was tense, exhausting work, but endlessly exciting and fascinating, too. Some of the places we got into were like time capsules -- untouched for decades, a gentle decay crumbling everything, like Sleeping Beauty's castle -- while others were little more than atmospheric ruins. Most places had an obvious way in: a missing door, a second floor window around the back that could be shimmied into via a nearby tree. Others weren't so easy, or worse yet were plastered with gates and VERBOTEN! signs that would've made being found inside indefensible. ("The door was open!" sounds a lot better than "Yeah, I broke that window." Even when it comes to trespassing, there are rules, and courtesies. Never break in. Don't take anything. Don't break anything. Be quiet, for God's sake. And don't act guilty while you're making your approach or your exit. It's the explorer code.)

So we headed for Belgium straightaway, because Belgium is the land of old rubber money and decaying chateaus. Belgium is also not a place where abandoned chateaus get knocked down or fixed up very quickly. It's also a place that's been without a functioning government for almost a year, which I think is no coincidence. (The Netherlands, on the other hand, is a place where nothing goes to waste, and as a result there aren't a lot of interesting abandonments to explore there.) The first house we came to was on the outskirts of a little village in the countryside, not far from Antwerp, down a long driveway, obscured by thickets of scrubby trees. The exterior, pictured at the top of this post, was grand, with ivy clinging to it, growing out of holes in the roof and the walls. I'd seen the exterior before, in pictures by an explorer friend of mine, but there was something almost overwhelming about being confronted with it in person. Pictures don't do it justice.

Most of the windows and doors were boarded, but there were a few entry points. Back home I had stared at photos of the house, wondering what was inside, imagining a kind of dark museum of deep-piled carpets and rotting furniture. But no -- the place was an absolute ruin. Staircases had collapsed. Furniture gone. The only light shone through holes in the roof. The floor felt soft underfoot, as if it might give way and send me tumbling into the basement.

One nice detail I found: a curtain of ivy roots growing down into what was once a bathroom. I thought of this song. And then I got the hell out of there.

We hiked back to the car, which had been parked at an unsuspicious distance from the abandonment, set the next GPS point and drove on, stopping along the road to eat sandwiches and drink coffee made over my friend's Sterno burner. (This was no luxury trip to Belgium. No abbey visits or beer tours. Plenty of scenery, but way off the tourist trail.) An hour or so later, we pulled up to the next site, unmistakably abandoned from the outside, right in the center of a little town.

We made our way into the overgrown backyard, where a door into the house stood open. Inside we found one of the strangest things I've ever seen inside an old house -- a cave. An actual, honest-to-God cave. Man-made, obviously, but still. Somebody's 60s-era bar.

Though the house was mostly empty, there were a few interesting objects lying around, like this. Who's up for a picnic?

The real treasure was out back, in an old workshop. The man who had owned the place had been a landscape decorator, and all of his old tools and equipment and plaster molds for statuary were back there. Amazing.

Vandals had discovered the place at some point, because many of the decorator's old statues were smashed, or lacked heads. Here, some thoughtful person put the wrong head on a body.

An armless old Greek, ashamed of his skeletal leg.

Smaller items were still in tact. Obviously, this man had some talent.

Everything was in a state of advanced decay, but the colors of the old man's paints were still vivid, even after what could've been fifty years. Look at the date on those newspapers -- 1955.

A small palette of paints, for detail work.

Old cans of varnish were stacked and leaking everywhere.

My favorite was this collapsing set of shelves. Sunlight shines through a hole in the ceiling. Dust plumes where I had just walked.

Along the shelves, bottles filled with God knows what, like a child's art project.

Next week: more time capsules, an epic fail, and a close call.

More Strange Geographies... The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia * Portugal's Bone Chapel * The Forgotten High School of Goldfield, Nevada * The Mojave Desert’s Airplane Graveyard * Quick Facts About The Netherlands