Friday, 28 February 2014

Wandering in Belgium

I say "wandering" in Belgium because there were quite a few moments of well, I think this it the right gut says I should go with this train, and hell - if it isn't, I'm in no hurry.

Such is the luxury of time. I began by leaving a very sunny Groningen on the train, sitting opposite two seven year olds taking over the world on their iPads. As we sped west, it became cloudier and darker. I reached Roosendaal, on the border with Belgium about one o'clock. The train that would take us across into Belgium was a great lumbering beast left over from about 1970 if the bright orange interior was anything to go by. The conductors' wear rather jaunty caps that kept reminding me of an episode of Poirot. These days, the only satisfaction one receives when crossing a border in Europe is when one's mobile phone pings with a text message that reads, "Welcome to such and such country, texts and calls will now be 10 cents more expensive...Enjoy your travels." At least my telephone company is polite.

We arrived in the bowels of Antwerp station half an hour later - it has about five levels, the local trains leaving from the top platforms. It was rather a mad dash, and the signs were slightly confusing. There is a beautiful fa├žade to the station on the upper level - part architectural delight, part pure art. Needless to say, I made it to Brugge (Bruges) - by the way,  henceforth I will be using the Dutch spelling rather than the English or French, because hey, it's Flanders (Vlaanders) and they speak Dutch. 

Having studied the map before leaving home, I knew where I needed to go to find my hostel (famous last words); on crossing the canal into the old town the streets became narrow and cobbled, so that I feared for my ankles. My hostel was near to the centre of the old town, easy to find, and in the midst of renovation. In fact, the whole North Belgium seemed to be under reconstruction...time of year I expect. The great thing about this time of year, ie: the Off Season, is that there are less crowds of annoying tourists. Nevertheless, Brugge seemed full of disgruntled Brits and moody, cigarette smoking French. (Honestly, I'm not just doing my usual stereotyping - there were actually these kinds of people there!) I don't know why people are so grumpy when they go on holiday - I mean, really - you are on holiday!?

Brugge by night
Brugge is best seen by night, when all the old buildings are lit up. It looks very picturesque, and what I imagine many Hollywood directors would go weak at the knees for when they need to shoot in a "typical" European city. The main market square looked very impressive all in lights. They say it's a "Romantic Destination" city, but I think that is a load of marketing bosh.  It is pretty, and I love the architecture and atmosphere of the place.

I sat in a pub the guidebooks rave about; the guidebook also warns you won't meet any locals because of all the tourists. Perhaps the writers went in the busy season, because it was happy mix of both locals and tourists. It was a cosy place, just around the corner from the cathedral, and I sat next to an older, local man, born and bred in Brugge, who was delighted to tell me all about his wonderful city. We had a nice chat in Dutch over the course of one beer, and I left the pub with a bit more history of the place in mind.

Madonna and Child in centre
The next day dawned bright and sunny, and while I strolled along the canal towards the Begijnhof I stuffed myself with pastries (I'm on holiday!), enjoying the sun on my shoulders. Admiring the supposedly famous geese at the Begijnhof, I basked in the quiet and peace of the early morning - nuns from the Order of St Benedict have lived there for yonks, which probably leads to some of this serenity. Next stop: to see 'The Madonna and Child' sculpture. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was coming to see this because of the interest inspired by the new film The Monuments Men (if you still haven't seen it, get yourself to a cinema tout suite!). It is the only work of Michelangelo's to have left Italy during his lifetime. Well, it was a lot smaller than the film made it seem, but incredibly beautiful. It resides in Onze Lieve Vrouwkerk (Our Sacred Lady Church), which is also undergoing reconstruction. So, basically, there was nothing much to see except the sculpture as the rest of the church was covered in drop-clothes.

Wandering towards the main market square, my next aim was to climb the belfry. Would you believe it cost me 8 Euros (EIGHT!?) to climb up and then back down again 366 steps, be nearly deafened by the ringing of the bells once I did reach the top, and if one wants a guide with any information, it is most certainly not included. I tried getting through as a student with a student card (6 Euros), but the lady looked at my card, then at me severely and said, "But you are over 25." This being an adult malarkey is a costly thing. The view over Brugge was spectacular, however.

View from Brugge Bell Tower
Hopping on a train I went next to Gent (Ghent) for the afternoon, intending to see the famous Gent Altarpiece (also in the film, The Monuments Men.) Gent is sometimes called "Belgium's hidden gem" - I don't know who calls it that, because it most certainly isn't. Maybe I was there at the wrong time of year, but it felt dirty, noisy, busy and just rather rubbish all round. Maybe coming from Brugge, which is unique, left me a little jaded. Anyway, I saw the Altarpiece, which was interesting; then I had a wander round the Cathedral, and even had a look at the crypts, which I'm ashamed to say I found more interesting than the Altarpiece. I know, I know...but they were full of treasures and stuff...

I enjoyed being in Flanders - good beer, friendly locals, beautiful architecture, chocolate, lace, did I mention Belgian brewed beer?, and they speak the same lingo (Dutch), albeit with a different accent. It's a cute accent (I don't think the Flemish would like me saying that...) but it really is. Hearing them speak Dutch with the Belgian accent makes me want to giggle a bit. Belgium actually has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German. The signs are immense, accommodating them all. I had fun speaking Dutch with some of the local people I met - I think they found my accent bizarre, and I was usually asked to repeat myself.

One thing that is nice now that I live "on the continent" is that little trips like this are so easy. In Belgium I was able to speak the same lingo, use the same money (Euro), stay in the same timezone, and I can just hop on a train and be there in about five hours. 

In some ways, Belgium reminded me a lot of Germany - the cities are dirty and noisy, covered in graffiti, but the amount of money that people fling about is crazy: VW and Mercedes and BMW dealers on most corners, perfume shops with 400 Euro bottles of scent, all the top designer brand shops on the streets. It's an odd thing, and I don't know nearly enough about economics or Europe in general to begin to explain it. It is a country with a fascinating and long history, and today is the home of the EU headquarters (Brussels) and NATO (also in Brussels). An enjoyable holiday, and a place I very much hope to visit again. My favourite place was Ieper (Ypres), which I will talk more about in my next post. Until then...