A Travellerspoint blog

Belgium is Boring... sorry, I mean Beautiful

"Like a F-ing Jewellery Box"

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Between Belgium and Germany the Dutch border swings south around the city of Maastricht to create an untidy salient of Dutch territory on the road into Belgium. By accident we found ourselves on a minor road to Maastricht instead of Liege. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem as this sliver of Dutch territory should have taken us less than half an hour to cross. But we soon found that all Dutch roads lead to Amsterdam. Or back to Maastricht. The Dutch seemed very disinclined to advertise the way to any city not in Holland. This lead us up a few garden paths and caused us no small amount of frustration. Inevitably we crossed the border into Belgium but were so far off course that we abandoned our plans to visit Brussels and headed to Antwerp.
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Perhaps it was because we never any expectations about Antwerp that the city proved such a revelation. The area we stayed in, near the central bus station (which literally was in the centre of the city), had that slightly run down feel of a belle epoch city that have seen better days, but it wasn’t grimy and seedy in the way that Brussels proved to be. Maybe it was just the late afternoon light that made the city seem light and airy. After a quick freshen up in our massive room at the Hotel Terminus, we headed up to the old town.
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Unlike other countries in Europe, Belgium keeps very restricted trading hours. Shops are open from 9.30am to 6.30pm Monday to Saturday. Everything is shut on Sunday and there is no late night trading. We arrived after 6pm so all the shops were shut so it seemed like a very long walk up the main shopping mall to the central square. The dominant feature of the old-town is the clock tower of the council house (stadthause). It is positively enormous. It was so tall we could barely take a decent photograph. Beyond the stadhouse however is the market square. Antwerp’s market square is roughly triangular in shape. At one end an the elaborate stadhouse, The other two sides are comprised of tightly packed, decorated guildhalls. In the centre is a massive fountain. It is a scene beyond picturesque and we took far more photos than we really needed to.
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After wearing out the batteries of our cameras we tried to find some typically Belgian cuisine. I know, it doesn’t really roll off the tongue does it? But the term muscles from Brussels doesn’t just refer to a meathead action hero. Mussels are Belgium’s premier dish. Unfortunately neither Shelly or I like mussels so we contented ourselves with Belgian stew, which is a lot like Hungarian goulash. We also began sampling Belgian beer. It’s a work in progress so we’ll let you know how we go.
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Another quick observation about Belgium. Bicyclists and scooters are the kings of the road. Bicycles and scooters under 100cc are allowed to drive on the road, the footpath or in specially marked bike lanes. Nobody wears helmets and it would seem they do not need to obey standard road rules. Now, being a scooter rider I’m all for car drivers having to be alert to and give way to bikes, but this was not what happened. Instead, the fact that scooter and bike riders could do whatever they liked meant they did just that. We noted this especially when we saw a couple of cyclists aimlessly meandering up the middle of the road, the wrong way up a one way street. They were quite happy to stop the traffic and make everyone wait for them, so we ran over the f*ckers.
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From Antwerp we drove down to Ghent. Poor old Ghent doesn’t get the same rap as Belgium’s poster city, Brugge, but that’s bound to change. Ghent today is undergoing a process of urban renewal. The run down cathedrals and squares are getting a long overdue tidy up, which is excellent news as Ghent has the potential to be a proverbial ace up the tourism sleeve, It has a series of beautiful town squares filled with gorgeous old buildings, a beautiful canal through the heart of the city, a castle, a big shopping district and far more cathedrals and town halls than either Brugge or Antwerp. I’d expect, in two years time when the renovations are complete, Ghent will be THE Belgian tourist destination.
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Ghent was only a flying visit however. We stayed long enough to appreciate where the city was going to (and had the BEST waffle) before we set off to our intended destination - Brugge. As Ralph Fiennes puts it in the movie “In Brugge”, ‘It’s like a f*cking jewellery box.’ And it is. I must say though that Brugge is NOT the most impressive ‘medieval’ city we’ve ever visited. That honour goes to Colmar and maybe Annecy in France. But it is, as Ralph says, f*cking beautiful. We could see the tower from our hotel room (honestly, it is so enormous I’m sure you could see if from the underground carpark!).
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In Brugge we picked up on our Belgian beer drinking challenge. We went to the Cambrinus Bar, which stocks 400 types of BELGIAN beer. Yes, that’s right - 400 types of Belgian beer, and each beer has its own special glass The bar menu is an inch thick and comes with helpful descriptions. Between us a pure blonde and a dirty blonde, one had long legs, the other a long reach with a smooth palate. One finished hard; the other rolled off the tongue but closed with a happy ending, a bit sweet to swallow with a slightly bitter after taste. The beers weren’t bad either.
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The next day we headed to Ypres (pronounced eep), the famous World War One battlefield. It was a long drive but definitely worth it. Ypres was completely levelled during the war but rebuilt in the 1920s. You wouldn’t know it though. It was a beautiful city of old buildings and churches. The battlefields are a couple of miles out of town and the memorials were deeply moving. The largest, Tyne Cot, had a recording which stated each soldiers’ name, age when they were killed and displayed their photograph. There are some 200,000 names. It’s horrible and poignant.
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Below is one of the most beautiful war poems I have ever heard and I’d like to share it now. It was written by Carl Sandburg in 1919.
Grass
Pile the bodies high at Austerliz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work -
I am the grass; I cover all
And pile the bodies high at Gettysburg
And pile the bodies high at Ypres and Verdun
Shovel them under and let me work
Two years, ten year and passengers will ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass
Let me work
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From Ypres we drove to Brussels. The administrative capital of the European Union may not be the most beautiful city in Europe. The outer city suburbs, especially around the railway line were distinctly seedy, but it does have an lovely old centre. It also features lots of monumental late nineteenth century buildings that were clearly attempting place Brussels on a par with Paris or Berlin. Size, as we all probably appreciate doesn’t necessarily mean quality so, while the palace of justice is large at 260,000 square metres, it still looks rather awful. We wandered around and took in the sights, including the highly over-rated mannekin piss statue.
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We finished up our Belgian tour at the Arc de Triumph, a monumental arch that more resembles the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin than it’s French namesake. The Arch was built for a turn of the century exhibition and contains two enormous halls - one contains a fabulous car museum, filled with some rare and interesting machines; the other, is the Belgian military museum. It had a good display of old uniforms from 1810 through to the 1920s, but the highlight was the aviation hall, which was filled with aircraft ranging from the dawn of flight to the jet age. Shelly was just thrilled!
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Posted by paulymx 00:31 Comments (0)

Achtung Baby!

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The flight from Perth to Frankfurt took eighteen hours, during which we never managed more than a fitful, uncomfortable doze, so we were arrived both shattered and a little shocked to discover that we'd completely miscalculated our time of arrival. It was actually 8.30pm, not 3.30pm as we‘d originally thought. Oops! Had we realised we would have booked accommodation in the city and saved ourselves the anxiety. But no… So we went to the Avis desk and picked up our hire car - the only thing we’d pre-booked on the holiday. Jumping behind the wheel of a hire car after an eighteen hour flight, with no sleep, in the middle of the night, driving on the wrong side of the road, to another city, without any idea where we were going to stay, or a map, was perhaps not the best idea. But we did it anyway. Only minutes out of the airport it seemed that we’d left Frankfurt behind and we were driving through deep, dark forest. It was a little scary.

Mainz was only 40 kilometres out of Frankfurt but we quickly got lost. No matter what road signs we followed we found ourselves going in circles. After two frustrating detours through a nearby village and an industrial satellite town we finally stumbled upon Mainz, more by accident than plan. Hmm, that GPS we’d turned down at Avis would have come in handy after all. It was almost midnight when we pulled into the first hotel we saw - the Hotel Ibis. Honestly, if they said the room cost a thousand Euro and we had to share with two Ukrainian hookers, we wouldn’t have cared. We checked in, we paid, we crashed. Day One was over.

In the Rhineland
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I had recommended Mainz as our first destination because it was close to Frankfurt and there was a Roman archaeological site I wanted to visit. In the first century AD the western bank of the Rhine was the Roman border with Germania and Mainz was the base for the Rhine river fleet. In the 1980’s excavations for a new hotel (err, it actually turned out to be the Ibis Hotel!) exposed the remains of five Roman ships. They have since been preserved and are on display in a museum directly across from the hotel. We didn't know this at the time we checked in however. I only realised the next morning when I looked out the window and could see the masts of two ships through the museum's glass roof. Sadly the museum is closed on Monday’s but I did manage to peer through the windows and, in act of breath taking defiance managed to sneak an illicit photo despite the ‘no photography’ sign. Ha! Take that Antike Schiffe Museum!
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So we walked around the altstadt (old city) and enjoyed Mainz's pleasant ambiance. Mainz is an attractive city to explore and has a very impressive 15th century cathedral. Mainz is the southern starting point for the Rhine Valley Road which planned to explore and about lunchtime we set off but promptly got lost. We had earlier blamed the misadventures of the previous night to tiredness and inexperience and assumed it would be easier navigating in daylight. But it wasn’t. After three days on the road I’ll quite confidently say that GERMAN ROAD SIGNS ARE TOTALLY FUCKED. Perhaps by way of illustration here are a couple of helpful hints to the German traffic planning authorities that might make a travellers experience that little bit easier.
1. Placing turn-off signs after the turn-off in question is not helpful unless you‘re really just trying to rub it in;
2. Nor is it helpful to place signs parallel to the road or anywhere they cannot be seen;
3. Although technically all the roads around Frankfurt can lead to Frankfurt, listing it as the only destination at a four way roundabout is a bit much;
4. Don’t place signs in such a way that they can only be seen coming from one direction;
5. Dropping all reference to a desired destination along the way causes confusion;
6. Placing turn-off signs on blind curves as you turn off the auto-bahn causes accidents.
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So we got a little distracted getting out of Mainz and it took us an hour to get back onto the right road. Nevertheless, once away it was a lovely trip. The Rhine river valley is quite dramatic, with steep hillsides sweeping upwards from the riverbank, covered in vineyards, interspersed regularly with little villages and ruined castles.
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It was a full days driving and we stopped for the night in Koln (Cologne). That evening we wandered around the city and visited the awe inspiring Dom Cathedral. The Dom is so enormous that it literally dominates the city. Until the Eiffel Tower was built in the 1870s, it was the tallest building in the world. It is badly scarred by war damage now but its blackened facade gives it a certain poignancy.
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Aachen
The next morning we were a little better prepared and didn’t get quite as lost as usual, even though the road signage remained problematic. We wanted to take the highway west to Aachen, but after completing an entire circuit of the city ring road we could only find marked exits for the north and east. We chose north by default but it only took us half an hour out of our way.
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Aachen is a pleasant university town situated on the German, Dutch and Belgian borders. Like Koln and Mainz it was originally a Roman town but its real claim to fame is that it was once the capital of Charlemagne’s western ‘Roman’ empire in the 9th century. Charlemagne (or Charles the Great) had been King of the Franks (ie, French, although technically he was German) in the 790’s. Pope Leo III in Rome however was having a few problems with another German tribe, the Lombards, to the point where they had arrested and imprisoned him (in some stories it was claimed they blinded him but he was miraculously restored his sight - sounds a bit fishy!). In his desperation he invited Charles to come to Rome and rescue him. Charles duly did so, killed lots of Lombards and freed the Pope, who, in gratitude crowned him Emperor of the Romans. It was all a bit of a farce really as the official 'Roman' emperor was reigning quite comfortably in Constantinople at the time. Anyway, Charles ruled over an empire that included France, Germany and Italy and governed it from the lovely town of Aachen. His empire fell to pieces soon after he died but he did leave a wonderful legacy in the stunning chapel of the cathedral. The main part of Aachen cathedral was built in the 15th century in an extravagant Gothic style but the central chapel is 9th century. Charles consciously reinforced his dubious imperial title by importing craftsmen from Byzantine southern Italy and imitating the style of Byzantine imperial monuments such as St Sophia in Istanbul and St Vitalie in Ravenna. The chapel is a a riot of mirrored marble panelling and mosaics.
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We stopped in Aachen long enough for me to bore Shelly to death with Byzantine history, enjoy some delightful pastries, and pick up a wireless modem for the laptop. Then it was back to the car so we could get lost on the way to Belgium - Time wasted trying to find the road to Brussels - two hours. In the end it was just easier for us to go to Antwerp, but that's for next time....

Posted by paulymx 15:21 Comments (2)

Once again dear friends....

Time to leave

rain

Hello friends and fellow travellers.

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It's been two years since we've done a major trip so we're a little bit overdue. Time to dust off the backpacks, load them with shit, kiss goodbye to work and friends, lock up the house and be gone! We've both got long service leave owing so we're doing a three months trip through Europe. The plan - if it can be called a plan - is to fly to Frankfurt, Germany, hire a car and drive around Germany, Belgium, Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Austria. The exact route is still a work in progress. We also intend visiting Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as well as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece before we fly home from Istanbul. It's been a little over twelve years since we did a big European trip so it will be interesting to see how things have changed.

So, here we go... if you're interested, stay tuned. I hope you enjoy the trip as much as we do.

Love

Paulie & Shelly
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Here are a couple of links to our other travels:

France in 2007 - http://paulymx.travellerspoint.com/

South America in 2006 - http://paulymx2.travellerspoint.com/

Posted by paulymx 07:36 Archived in Australia Tagged air_travel Comments (1)

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