"Like a F-ing Jewellery Box"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!