I farewelled the Netherlands and boarded my train to Belgium. I managed to sit next to a guy who was also travelling to Ghent after holidays – although he’d been away for four years! We whiled away the hours talking about mutual travels – fixated on the gorillas in Africa for a bit.
Found the airbnb accommodation without any trouble; although I must admit it was probably the limit of my walking with the pack. I let myself in only to meet my host Hans later. He was quickly off again – turns out he’s a live performance buff; his place had a nice collection of instruments, which I resisted tinkering with in his absence (or presence for that matter). It was late in the day so all the museums were closed in Ghent but I’d read that the city has a nice illumination of the buildings at night so I decided to catch the tram in to check it out.
As I stepped off the tram I was greeted by the imposing St Nicholas church. The town was a buzz with people, music and lights. I had come smack bang in the middle of the Gentse Festeen – an eight day festival of music, comedy, theatre, street performance and dance….and it all free. I found out later that the festival has been running annually for 170 years and the community protested in recent years at the suggestion an entry be charged. I landed at the Modern Radio stage which was hosting a mix of swing, rock n roll and jazz – perfect place to taste my first Belgian beers – Juliper Pils, not bad; Kriek Belle Vue, should have done my research for that one – tasted like cherries. Not wanting to push it with the strong Belgian beers I made my way home.
I had made Ghent my base as it was central to the places I wanted to visit in Belgium. Given I’d had a small introduction the night before I decided it best to fully acquaint myself with the town.
One of the places that had taken my attention the night before was the Castle of the Counts (Gravensteen). It was built in the Middle Ages (around 12th century). It wasn’t constructed as a defence fortress but rather a place to keep the commoners under control – hence it was filled with dungeons and torture chambers. The Count of Flanders resided there before its life evolved into a cotton spinning mill and other industries.
I was next drawn to the Cathedral, St Bavo’s, whose facade is undergoing restoration, to see the famous Ghent alterpiece (The adoration of the mystic lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck, 1432); a well known example of Flemish art. The alter piece was undergoing restoration also but it was behind a closed glass panel so you could see it up close as you heard about its story – including its theft at different times of its life. It has 12 intricately detailed panels all of which link to each other in some way.
The walk around the cathedral and its crypt was rather intense as someone was playing the organ from the main hall. Amazing how music can determine the ambience of a place.
Thought I’d keep with the serious theme and so visited the STAM, the city museum which is also housed on the Bijloke site in an old hospital. The Museum was great in illustrating the importance of the textile and tapestry industries for Ghent. It also highlighted the rising of Calvinism in the Flemish provinces – a challenge to the Spaniards objective of achieving Catholicism as the one true belief.
Another Belgian beer to finish off the day – this time a Trappistes Rochefort 8 – brewed by the Belgian monks! Nice!
What started me on this journey to Belgium were all the good things people said about the city of Brugge so with a beautiful morning greeting me I was off on the train to Brugge. As soon as I arrived I could see that all the nice things people have said are true. The Burg Square leads you to the Stadhuis, the Castellany of Bruges and the Chapel of the holy blood (Count Tierry of Alsace is said to have brought a vial back for Palestine – it’s displayed on the alter every Friday).
The visit to the Stadhuis was wonderful. The Great Hall was built in the second half of the 14th century and the walls are adorned with beautiful murals depicting life within Brugge. The Council still meets in the hall every month; I can imagine they would be easily distracted by the glorious paintings surrounding them.
The Castellany had lovely tapestries hanging from its walls and a beautiful 1528 fireplace built out of oakwood and marble.
My appetite for Flemish art had not yet been satiated so I made a visit to the Groeninge Museum to see the works of Flemish Primitives (masters of oil paint and optical realism of their subjects) and others from The Netherlands and Flanders. The works were wonderful. My favourite piece in the exhibition was actually the Last Judgement by Hieronymus Bosch; it was as fantastical as all his pieces are known to be. The additional exhibition by Fabienne Verdier put a twist on the display whereby she introduced her studies of each of the pieces (she had a definite calligraphic style from her former study in China). Wow, a lovely collection of art.
If you’re going to get lost, Brugge is the place to do it. Everywhere you look presents you with a new interesting building that draws you toward it to find out more. The little bridge leading to the Beguinage had that effect. The Beguinage had been a haven for beguines – religious women, widows or spinsters who pursued an independent life outside the recognised orders. It was a tranquil place commanding silence; it’s atmosphere was added to by the swans in the canal outside the walls of the Beguinage.
On making my way back to the Markt (city square) I came across Sint-Janhospitaal. The hospital displayed some lovely works from Hans Memling and medical instruments and aids. The upstairs attic gave you a first hand look at the roofing system used for these large open buildings.
It is at the Markt that you gain entry to the impressive Belfry, which stands 83 metres high and has 366 steps to be climbed to the top and climb I did. I reached the top for the sounding of the 4:30pm bells; it was lovely. The Belfry had served a number of purposes in the past but the most known were as a treasury for city archives and a post for spotting fires and other dangers. Apparently Belfries are only found in France and Belgium.
There was only one thing left to do – a waffle in Brugge. I found a place serving waffles with chocolate sauce and strawberries (the tourists special) and undertook my duty to rate it. Delicious, although I think the chocolate sauce had all but drowned out the flavour of the waffle.
With my feet telling me they’d had enough for the day I headed back to Ghent.
I’m not convinced that Brugge is nicer than Ghent. I actually found Ghent less touristy and to have all of the character of Brugge – although the medieval nature of the town may be stronger in Brugge. Regardless, it was certainly a trip worth making.
Wandering medieval towns by day and partying in them by night – what more could you want?
I had read about Antwerp being one of the fashion capitals of Europe so decided to visit it along with the capital of Europe, Brussels.
Brussels was the first stop and quite a different feel to the smaller cities I had been visiting. It felt much more stately. The Grand Place (square) was flanked by ornate gold gilded buildings, including the city hall (Stadhuis).
One of the must do things on my list was a visit to the Magritte museum so I meandered through the lovely streets towards it via the Manneken Pis. The Manneken Pis is a bronze sculpture of a little boy urinating. There are many stories as to its origin from it being the figure of a child found after he had gone missing for two days to a lord peeing from a suspended basket onto his captives. It has been stolen many times since its creation in the early 1600s so the latest copy is now kept in the Grand Place.
It was a bit rainy so I was glad to arrive at the Place Royale (square surrounded by art museums and other grand buildings) to take shelter for a while.
Rene Magritte was a surrealist artist (after dabbling in a bit of expressionism, fauvism and cubism). His works are fascinating, the images quite lifelike but the construction very abstract leaving you puzzled by their meaning. The more you look into the works the more you see. He was a collaborator with Dali and later in life joined the communist party, shunning the bourgeoisie – no doubt a strong influence in his work. It had been a wonderful exhibition to visit.
I had lunch in the lovely Parc de Brussels before moving onto Antwerp. A park very much for the locals, workers were either lunching or jogging around the park.
I arrived into the beautiful Antwerp train station and then made my way toward Rubenshuis. Wandering through the house of the great renaissance master, Peter Paul Rubens, it was evident that he had been financially successful during his lifetime. As I sat in his large studio I wished I could be so inspired and then smiled as I wandered through his lovely garden imagining it would have provided him a place to clear his mind as he contemplated his large pieces of art.
Turns out Rubens was a bit of a sugar daddy having married a sixteen year old as his second wife (after his first died) at the age of 53 – the second wife bore him four children and he outlived her too. The house was scattered with Rubens’ personal collection of art rather than his own, which is housed throughout the museums of the world.
Further into the heart of the historical centre and I found the Grot Markt (market square) and the surrounding Stadhuis and Cathedral of Our Lady. The gold gilding on these buildings certainly gave them a lavish look; I really liked the statues that adorned the spires.
Fashion, I had heard fashion, and it was one of my reasons for coming so off I went in search of some of the boutiques stocking local Belgian designers. Alas I wasn’t having any luck – everything seemed to be designed for the body of pre-pubescent teenagers or for women in my mum’s age bracket. Isn’t that always the way when you’re ready to spend! Disappointed but pleased I had at least tried I headed back to Ghent. A storm had rolled in, as had become customary on these hot, hot days so I chose a night in – no beers tonight!
I had not given up on the Belgian designers. All ‘must see’ bases now covered in Belgium I chose to spend the day back in Ghent enjoying the festival and doing a spot of shopping. It didn’t take long to conclude that the Belgians may have good fashion but they clearly don’t want to sell it! It was late morning Saturday and I was hard pressed to find a boutique open (of course all the chain stores were open and packed given it was summer sales time).
I did find a little silk number but unfortunately it was from a Swedish designer – well it was bought in Belgium! I did also visit Pandora for Scotia’s birthday present; got to stay in there as the favourite aunt.
I had 22 euros left to spend before my exit in the morning from European countries using the euro; the lack of open shops made that a little challenging so I did what I had to do, spent a good part of it on fries with mayonnaise (the Flemish – no not French – national dish) and Belgian beers. Greg had egged me on with respect to the monks’ brews so I went in search ….
Found a nice little sunny terrace. I still couldn’t get over how many people still smoke in the Netherlands and Belgium – makes me wonder if it’s the whole “we don’t want to interfere with people’s rights thing”. They had a long way to go.
As for the chocolate – they’re for mum and dad if they get that far!