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Belgian Journey

06/14/2013

My exams are all over, and the sun made a welcome appearance in the past few weeks, so it was time to do a wee bit of travelling to escape the treadmill.  Some friends were visiting Amsterdam from Paris, so a journey was well in order.  Our trip included a trip to the Hague, which is a wonderful blend of historic and modern, tastefully done to make this city an absolute pleasure.  Our visit included a walk on the beach in the city, which has a boardwalk lined with excellent restaurants.

However, what I was really looking forward to was another visit to Belgium, with Bruges now on the list.  I must confess I have been resisting seeing the movie In Bruges, with Colin Farrell, but I do enjoy the city itself.  Our first stop though, was Antwerp, another city I really enjoy.  It has a wonderful historic and bohemian atmosphere, and does not attract the numbers of tourists which other cities such as Bruges do.  The station is a stunning building, which always makes arrival a pleasure, and a short walk down the high street will take you towards the historic centre.  Pubs and restaurants crowd around the tall steeple of the church, and there are many to choose from and food can be had at good value.  My favourite pub and restaurant is ‘t Elfde Gebod, which means “the eleventh commandment” in English.  It has an overtly religious theme, with religious statues lining its walls.  The food is most excellent, and there is a large selection of Belgian beer to choose from should you choose to indulge.

We arrived on a Monday, during which all the museums were closed, but the weather made for a glorious day exploring the city centre on foot.  Antwerp is the kind of city where this is both easy, and a pleasure.  The warren of streets, which date from the medieval period, are a pleasure to amble around in.  We even took our time to find the begijnhof, a historic housing centre for women who wished to live religious lives without joining an official religious order.  These exist in many cities in the Low Countries, yet the begijnhof in Antwerp is impressive and, like the city itself, not inundated with tourists.  Should visitors not find themselves in town on a Monday, and wish to visit some museums, then there are a number to choose from.  The Museum Plantin Moretus comes highly recommended, while the Museum Mayer van den Bergh is very impressive.  Tickets to the latter will get you entry into the Rubens House, which is a beautiful former home of the artist, and contains ten of his paintings.

Our evening was spent sitting alongside the Schelde, listening to water lap against the shore as ships moved up and down the river.  This river formed a link to the sea and made Antwerp one of the most important harbours in Europe.  During the Dutch war of independence from Spain in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, this harbour was blockaded, marking a decline for Antwerp while Dutch cities further north took the lions share of trade.  Antwerp, and the rest of Belgium remained under Spanish control, while the Dutch cities gained their independence.  Visitors will notice that Flanders is very Catholic, as evidenced by large churches and omnipresent religious statues.  I am convinced that is the reason for subtle differences between Dutch and Flemish people, who speak very similar languages, and are practically next door neighbours.  While the Dutch seem to fit Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic, Belgians are very easygoing and friendly, with a love of food and drink.

Indeed, Belgium is rightly famous for its chocolate, beer and French fries, a must for foodies.  In fact, the term French fries owes its existence to American soldiers discovering a taste for them during the First World War, in Belgium.  They might, therefore, having simply been more correct in renaming them Belgian fries instead of “freedom fries.”  You will see chocolate shops selling hand shaped chocolates to celebrate a local myth, that of Brabo, a Roman soldier who saved the town from a giant.  Afterward he cut of the giants had and threw it into the Schelde, which apparently gave rise to the city’s name.  This is said to result from the term Hand werpen, which means “hand throwing” in Flemish.  I cannot confirm whether or not this story is true, but it makes me feel uncomfortable for reasons I will outline.  During the Scramble for Africa, the Belgian Congo was the private property of Leopold II, the king of Belgium.  In the mad rush to extract rubber and other resources, the native Congolese were very badly treated.  During this process, those who did not extract rubber for free had their hands amputated by the Belgians.  A photo in The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham shows ample, and horrifying, evidence of this.  An Irishman, Sir Roger Casement, was instrumental in producing evidence of this as the time, and exposing these shocking atrocities to the wider world.  After that, the Congo was taken over by the Belgian state, while Sir Roger Casement was to die in the Easter Rising, fighting to liberate another exploited people from colonial rule.

After Antwerp we were set for another experience which made me feel quite uncomfortable, as interesting as it was.  Our early morning train to Bruges had us in town to catch the Tuesday tour by Quasimodo tours, which visits the Flanders Battlefields.  These take in such sites as the Tyne Cot cemetery, Hill 60, Ypres and many other visible reminders of the First World War.  While this war may seem like a very distant event to many, it is less so for tiny Belgium, where many of its battles took place.  Phillipe, our guide, told us how a third of the billion and a half shells fired during that war did not explode and remain underground.  About a hundred of these are dug up every year, including those which contain gas.  Tales of suffering and death abound during visits to this area, and visitors will be in no doubt as to the horror and pity of war after a visit.  Wandering around the cemeteries will show you the graves of very young men, from Canada, Australia, South Africa, Germany, Ireland and Britain.  Most were  the age of the university students with whom I study and  I cannot possibly imagine how lads that age could possibly be expected to kill each other.  I do recommend that people do visit the battlefields, to understand just how awful war is.  The website for Quasimodo Tours is http://www.quasimodo.be/

Should you wish to eat out in Bruges, I do not recommend eating on the town square, as scenic as it may be.  Our experience of eating there was an overpriced and all too forgettable meal, served by a waiter who did not impress us with his service.  We did have a marvellous meal on our second night, at a restaurant called Sol y Soma.   I did not feel that eating in a Spanish tapas restaurant detracted from a proper Belgian dining experience, as the two countries were ruled by one monarch for many years.  The meatballs in almond sauce were a pleasant surprise, and were accompanied by Straffe Hendrick, a tasty (and strong) local beer.   Their website is www.tapasbarsolysombra.be.

Bruges does contain some glorious medieval architecture, dating from its time as a prosperous weaving centre.  However the silting up of the river which connected the town to the sea ushered in an end to this prosperity.  This no doubt resulted in the preservation of Bruges into a virtual time capsule, and visitors will feel that a walk in the city is like stepping back in time.  One does not realise how different the world must have been in medieval times, a quieter and more sedate world in which the church played a central role.  Bruges really makes you remember this, while wandering around streets where cars are a relative rarity.  Church belfries rise above the terraced houses, and canals weave their way amidst winding city streets.  A word of warning though, Bruges is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and during high season often contains more tourists than locals.

The town does contain some amazing museums, of which we only had time to visit two.  These include the Choco-Story, a history of chocolate from the Aztecs to the present day.  The other was the Halve Maan Brewery, which is Bruges’ last family brewery.  They produce some excellent beer, which includes Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrick.  The tours of the brewery last around forty five minutes, and include a taste of the local beer.  The view from the roof provided an ample panorama of the city, and I am glad this was part of the tour.  You can also climb the belfry, but since the day was overcast we did not feel it justified the €8 price.  Should you wish to see some of the fabulous art producing in times gone by, you should also visit the Groeningemuseum, a must see for art history buffs.

Our visit was relatively quiet by comparison, and on our last evening we explored quiet city streets in a quiet corner of Bruges.  It felt wonderfully quiet and relaxing, a perfect tonic after the stress of exams.  A few people ambled around the streets in the darkening twilight, and we wandered around before heading back and had a delicious Belgian beer before turning in.  I would strongly recommend visiting Belgium should you be planning a European trip.  It feels like stepping into another age, and that is a wonderful experience for history enthusiasts.

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