The European Parliament, child rapists, fine chocolates, waffles, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Almost-Aussie-Kim Clijsters. Does anyone know anything else about Belgium? I admit to being quite ignorant about the rather forgotten country of Belgium. Okay, I also admit to knowing a bit about their devastating colonialism in the African Congo and that our old Holden Astra was actually built there, but in terms of world significance Belgium is often the forgotten companion of its better known neighbours France, Germany and the Netherlands. Maybe not Luxembourg.
After flying all this way across the world I felt the need to visit continental Europe. I wanted to gauge my reaction to historical European architecture and design after the near continuous exposure to Asia over the past four years. The Eurostar train service presented two options, France or Belgium. I felt that I couldn’t return to France without B, so I chose Belgium.
Possession of a Eurostar ticket permits the holder to travel onwards on any train within Belgium. I wasn’t certain if I wanted to go to the capital Brussels, historic Bruges or historic Ghent. After catching the Tube to Kings Cross and St Pancras station this morning I was still unsure. I passed through the airport security-like checks into the boarding area of St Pancras international station still ignorant about the country. So I joined the long queue at the WH Smith in the boarding area and purchased a DK Top 10 book of things to do in Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.
I discovered that most museums are closed on Mondays. Okay, that ruled out a chunk of the attractions, especially in Brussels. Okay, so historical sights are probably the go, meaning Ghent or Bruges and Ghent is closer. Ghent it was.
I was really disappointed with Eurostar. It’s supposed to be a premium, but even when I was in first class last time I was unimpressed. This time, in economy, it was plain uncomfortable.The seats are grouped into sets of four, pairs of seats facing each other across a narrow table. My knee was hitting the small rubbish bin under the table whilst leg space was reduced by a low shelf along the base of the wall. Every time the passenger across from me wanted to throw some rubbish I had to move my legs. After travelling on the Japanese rail network this train’s faults were really shown up.
What struck me about the scenery out of the window was how bright green it was. You can really tell how much wetter it is here than in Australia. After we emerged from the dark tunnel under the English channel we raced past rolling farms and many tiny villages, each with a tall church steeple at the centre.
It was a long walk from car one to enter Brussels’ Midi station. The station building is very large, but by looking at the display screens I was able to find the right platform to catch the train to Ghent. I just managed to jump on the train in time, thanks to a very friendly trilingual conductor.
More scenic countryside with old brick buildings, often with sagging tiled roofs. At least the train was more comfortable and I could stretch my legs out.
Ghent St Pieters station felt old, with the tunnels between the platforms more at home in a crypt. The buidling itself is ornate, though it has some modern shopping options inside. Once outside I had no clue what to do next. There was no useful information on transport options, including the trams which ran outside. So, armed with my guidebook’s I just walked in the direction of the city centre.
Ghent is a university town and there were a number of schools along the way. Many shops were closed, but I found an open toystore, where I purchased a gift for Alex. There are two major national languages of Belgium, French and Dutch. I know a little French, but Ghent is a Dutch speaking area and I don’t know that very gutteral language (though large chunks of it are very simillar to English). So I felt a little uncomfortable speaking, although it seems like everyone I met spoke good English.
Already, as I walked up the narrow road, tramline in the middle, I could feel the different atmosphere of Europe. I could also smell it, with some sewage system maintenance apparently going on around me. In fact, the whole city felt as if it was under reconstruction, with works everywhere.
Back until the 17th century this city was larger than London, the second largest in Europe after Paris and a major textiles manufacturing centre. Its people are famously stubborn and independent, though the entire city was shamed for rejecting it’s son, King Charles V. Today, the noose around the neck is a source of pride.
I hadn’t eaten since 5pm the previous night so I stopped by a patisserie and had some pastries and hot chocolate. Further on I passed various clothing stores that, had B been with me, would have stopped me again. Actually, I did pop into a couple to get some clothes for Alex.
Then I continued walking until I reached the town centre, whereupon I was forced to stop in disbelief at the magnificence of the view.
Ghent is dominated by the Belfry, topped by a dragon. Like the rest of the architecture in the city it is massive and ornate. Other buildings, the town hall, cathedrals, a castle and more form a grand skyline.
It had started to rain and after picking up some maps from the tourist office opposite St Bavo’s cathedral I went back down to the shops and purchased an umbrella from the Belgian equivalent of Priceline. Silly me forgot to bring his umbrella purchased in Singapore.
I decided to go for a random wander in search of non-tourist food. This was unsuccessful, but I did see plenty of interesting sights. The canals were beautiful, and had it not been raining I would have loved to go for a boat ride along them.
I eventually had a lunch of Flemish beef stew from a restaurant overlooking a square and opposite the massive Art Noveau Socialist Workers House.
Last on my walk was St Bavo’s Cathedral. As I walked towards it I could hear music from a nearby music school. The great cathedral has a grand, atmoshpheric interior, but is most famous for its van Eyck polyptych “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. This exquisite artwork is separately displayed and the small entrance fee gets you an audio guide. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to listen to the very detailed explanations about each panel, but I could appreciate the skill involved.
Time was running out to return to Brussels and catch the ticketed Eurostar express back to London, so I rode a tram back to the station.
Trains to Brussels are quite frequent, though I was a little confused by the fact that the indicator board refers to it as Zuid Brussels rather than the Eurostar stop of Brussels Midi. Doesn’t matter, because they are one and the same and both are announced.
I had to pass through British Border Authority checks at Brussels before boarding the delayed Eurostar. The cabin was much emptier this time and I had my set of seats to myself. Are delay was compounded by the loss of our slot through the Chunnel and in the end it was about 20 minutes. The customer service manager was very apologetic and walked through the train to sort out any onward journey scheduling issues. The Japanese mother and daughter opposite me wanted compensation, but it was explained that refunds are only issued if the train is an hour late. Guess they are used to the superb Japanese rail system.
Near the entrance of the Chunnel the weather became brilliantly sunny, but soon after we emerged from the blackness and into Britain low grey clouds covered the sky while lightning strikes hit the ground.
I didn’t care. My feet were sore again and all I wanted to do was return to the hotel and lie down. Again I brought some sandwiches up to the room for dinner. Then I slept.
Tomorrow the workshop begins and the sightseeing ends.