Aalst is a cozy provincial town half way between Brussels (25km) and Ghent (30km), built on the shores of the Dender River. Historically, Aalst was first mentioned in AD 840 as a dependency of the Lobbes abbaye, and shortly later when sacked by the Danes.
Located in East Flanders, on the border between Flanders and Brabant, an area of land disputed throughout history between German princes and the King of France, Aalst flies both the German eagle and the French Crown in it’s banner. Between the two, the town has known it’s good days (county capital of ‘the country of Aalst and the two cities’) and it’s less good.
Aalst boasts the eldest belfry in the Netherlands. And a very beautiful one at that. Together with the City hall (13th cent) and the St Martin’s church, it dominates the town center and offers it a timeless beauty.
Aalst has a population of 78,000, which makes it the 11th town in Belgium and the 6th in Flanders. It’s people are Dutch-speaking (Flemish). The town is important as an educational, commercial and industrial center for the surrounding villages. History books will tell you it is important for textiles and flower production. In reality however both primary industry and textile industry have almost completely disappeared from the town.
Nowadays secondary industry accounts for almost 30% of the jobs : Tate & Tyle (maize industry), Jan de Nul (dredgers), Honda (cars), Pioneer (electro), Tuperware (plastics) … But is is by far the tertiary sector that contributes most to employment : about 68%. Aalst is kept alive by it’s small businesses. Yet, it is not an easy town for a small business to survive : bankruptcy induces are above Flander’s average, and so are unemployment numbers, with considerable numbers of people finding no appropriate job and commuting to Brussels.
Aalst, by the way, has one of the oldest and largest carnival-traditions in Belgium.