If Count Dracula lived in Belgium, he would reside at the Kasteel Van Niewland. In fact I’m pretty sure this is where the Addam’s family come for their European vacation and the Munster’s practically call it a second home. Built during the 19th century, this traditional Flemish manor house is now a spooky, eccentric and thoroughly charming hotel. As they state mysteriously on their website in amiable Yoda-English, “About the distant past and the first few residents there is little known”. Cue eerie music and Vincent Price laughter.
It probably doesn’t help that I have only ever visited the Kasteel in the dark. Much like a guest arriving at Count Dracula’s castle, it seemed to be a prerequisite that the sun had disappeared behind the horizon as if the darkness was in collusion to hide ghoulish secrets from diurnal eyes. I would visit on business and despite my best attempts to arrive during daylight hours, uncanny disruptions would always prevent this: a plane delayed, a tyre punctured, a sinister raven that followed me wherever I went.
Having been collected at Brussels airport and deposited at the Kasteel by the silent taxi driver (unspoken, presumably, because he was headless), I would walk into the small reception area and wait for the manager to materialise, and I use that word with good reason. This man has the supernatural ability to appear out of thin air like the jester from Rentaghost, instigating yelps of surprise from those in his otherworldly presence. Checking in at the Kasteel is tantamount to riding a ghost train; you know the frights are coming, you just don’t know when.
Doubling as the porter, this preternatural bearded manager with the tight waistcoat and piercing eyes would lead me up the creaking wooden staircase, past the old portraits that would observe me with disdain, and along the tiled, echoing corridor to my room for the night. Each room is named after a famous historical person – Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe – are not included in the line up, but they should be.
The first thing I would do is lock the door. Secondly, I would raid the mini-bar for a G&T to steady my nerves. The chocolate and peanuts were always out of date, by several years, so I was never able to get anything in the way of a bar snack. The absence of corporeal housekeeping was evident in other places too. Cobwebs were abundant, but this lends each room a certain degree of rustic charm. Zombies are certainly made to feel at home here.
And then there’s the wardrobe. A dark and imposing piece of furniture that dominates space and time like a vortex to another world; you can’t turn your back on it for too long for fear of the doors flying open and tentacles reaching out, dragging you kicking and screaming into the netherworld. I never plucked up the courage to open the closet, certain that I would find skeletons there, quite literally.
Nights at the Kasteel are deathly silent. If you have seen the Poltergeist films or The Ring, then you’ll know that the television is out of bounds here. Don’t even think about it. And if you make the mistake of going down to the bar of an evening you are likely be holding company with only the ticking grandfather clock and the bearded manager – who doubles as a barman too – and who does not speak a great deal of English. The extent of my Flemish includes only two phrases: “I don’t understand” and “Go jump off a cliff”, neither of which is very helpful in a conversation unless you are trying to end one. Besides, I got the impression that I wasn’t welcome there, being alive and such, I was in a minority.
After a pleasant night’s sleep dreaming about a werewolf chasing me through a shadowy forest, morning would come but I would awake in darkness with the strange sensation of being watched; it must have been the spiders. Gazing out of the window in the gloom of dawn, the lake that fronts the hotel would be covered in a low lying mist, hiding the ghastly corpses that rise from the gunk to prey on unsuspecting lovers during the night. Not a great spot for dogging, then.
The groaning ancient staircase seemed to move of its own accord as I descended for breakfast in the dining room, a welcoming affair at the Kasteel. A grand continental selection of cold meats, bread, jams and so forth is presented at a buffet table. You can order an omelette too which I’m guessing the manager – now doubling as the chef – cooks himself. The omelettes here are remarkable things; a single egg is fried to make a disc so thin that you can almost see through it. Not especially nourishing, but certainly interesting.
Just as the dim glow of a distant sun would breach the horizon, my headless taxi driver would arrive and whisk me away to a day of conferences, bad coffee and soggy sandwiches; such is the life of the travelling journalist. Glancing back at the hotel out of the rear window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the place in the early morning light, it would have vanished already, leaving only a desolate field in its place. In fact I cannot be certain that Kasteel Van Niewland exists during the daytime at all. But if you need somewhere in Belgium to stay during the night, you couldn’t pick a more charismatic place.
Kasteel Van Niewland, Nieuwland 6, 3200 Aarschot, Belgium. Tel: +32 (0) 16 56 58 46. Website: www.kasteelvannieuwland.be