Friday, March 25th 2011
Our destination on this trip is the Belgian city of Bruges, or Brugge. We will stay at an hotel there for three nights and, we hope, visit a couple of other towns as well.
As you probably know, modern Belgium mainly consists of Flanders in the north and Wallonia in the south. As a result of political tensions, these are now autonomous regions, each with its own official language, Flemish in Flanders and French in Wallonia. There are also a few municipalities in the Liège area where German is spoken.
Brussels, both the national capital and the home of the European Parliament, represents a linguistic anomaly: although it is geographically within Flanders in what is theoretically a bi-lingual area, the city itself and the surrounding area are mainly French-speaking.
The journey to and from Bruges is in two stages: first, St Pancras to Brussels by Eurostar, and secondly, Brussels to Bruges by local Belgian railway services. The Eurostar ticket covers further travel beyond Brussels to other destinations, as long as the second journey is taken within 24 hours of arriving at Brussels.
Our last trip to Belgium was in August 2008 when we went to Waterloo on a courier run. See A trip to Waterloo.
We got up bright and early with that energy that comes from the excitement of travel and the anxiety not to miss the train. Final packing done, we went to the bus stop.
It is a fine clear morning despite the chill, with an orange sunrise over the first buildings of City Road. There is already plenty of traffic on the main roads. The 214 bus is almost empty and we haul our luggage onto the empty rack.
At St Pancras, the Eurostar gates are already busy and I am glad I have the printed tickets ready. We shuffle through the gates and queue for the baggage inspection. Here we go through the demeaning process of removing all metal objects from our person, including belts with metal buckles and seeing our valuables slither away in a tray. At least they don’t make you take your shoes off here as they do in some places.
We dress again while queueing at passport control. The French Police des Frontières officer submits my passport to the machine, glances briefly at me and returns it.
After the expectation created by the check-in process, there is now nothing to do but wait. Our 7:34 train is still captioned. "Please wait in lounge", so I queue at Nero for coffee and rejoin Tigger and the luggage. At about 7:15, our platform is finally announced and we join the stream of people making for platform 5. There is no rush and everyone moves along calmly.
We have reservations in carriage 16, near the front of the train. Our seats are in the middle of the carriage, facing the rear. A woman’s voice emanates from the loudspeakers, first in English with the slightest of accents, then in perfect French and finally in Flemish, all with admirable fluency. The train pulls out into a bright sunny morning rendered slightly dusky by the tinted glass of the windows.
We passed through the Channel Tunnel while I was queueing at the buffet which, as usual, had already run out of nearly everything eatable. This is a continual failing on the part of Eurostar: how can you be out of food before 8am?
On arrival in Brussels, we disembarked and looked for the platform for Bruges. Tigger queued at the information kiosk while I looked at departures boards. Tigger won: our train would leave from platform 16 at 11:05. In fact, there was a last-minute platform change but we were soon on our way. I had my first conversation in French with a ticket inspector on the platform. He was "un petit rigolo", but at least I found out about trains and he was good enough to warn us of the platform change.
The train journey to Bruges takes about an hour. The station is on the outskirts and the hotel near the centre, so we took a cab. The cabbie turned out to be a Bosnian "new Belgian" and gave us some account of the town and of local politics. Prime Minister Yves Leterme resigned a year ago but continues in office, running a caretaker government more or less in a state of paralysis.
The Flanders Hotel is posher than our usual hotel. We would not be staying here but for the reservation being part of an out-of-season package. We registered and went to our room which is small but quite pleasant.
We had a little rest, then set out on an exploratory tour of the town. Bruges is very picturesque and succeeding generations have taken pride in it and sought to maintain and enhance its beauty.
Because Flemish is spoken here, I would be at a loss here, not knowing anything of the language, except for an interesting and significant fact, namely that English is so widely spoken as to be almost considered a local language. So far, every native person we have met has spoken English fluently. Note too that the accent is, for the most part British and not American.
The reasons for this unusual linguistic phenomenon (which nevertheless reminds us of the similar widespread use of English in the Netherlands) include tourism and the presence in Brussels of the European Parliament and its associated institutions for all of whom English is the lingua franca.
Convenient and useful as this widespread competence in English is seen to be, concerns are being expressed about the degree to which the language, with its associated culture, is impinging on the Flemish language and culture. Official advice to those coming to live here is that they should learn Flemish but such "new Belgians" often complain that when they do try to speak the language, people answer them in English!
We had lunch in a small restaurant and this evening dined in a cafe whose main attraction was its low prices. While we ate, the manageress and three male customers engaged in amiable conversation, smoking all the while. This was a shock after smoke-free Britain. Moreover, as far as I know, they were breaking the law, because although smoking is still allowed in some places, it is banned where food is served.
After dinner we went for another ramble around the local part of town. In the dark with the lights, we were able to see another aspect of the city which we tried to capture with some night photos.
Our hotel provides a kettle and the makings of tea and coffee (a facility rarely found on the Continent in our experience). We have of course brought our own favourite teas with us and have rounded off an agreeable day with a brew-up.
Thus ends our first day. Travelling by Eurostar is easy, comfortable and convenient (as long as there are no tunnel fires or other problems!) and changing trains at Brussels was easy. Bruges impresses us as a pretty town, well cared for. Many buildings date from the 17th and 18th centuries and have been preserved rather than modified and modernized. The typical stepped Dutch gable is seen everywhere but eventually comes to strike one as a cliché. I began yearning for some variety.
Saturday, March 26th 2011
Today is bright but overcast and chilly. I have reverted to my winter coat.
Breakfast at the hotel is a buffet with a good selection of foods, cooked or cold. We stocked up well, not knowing how long it would be until lunch!
We visited tourist information during our ramble yesterday and they were very knowledgeable and helpful. In view of our preferences, they suggested two towns to visit and today we are off the first of these, Antwerp. The hotel is rather a long way from the station but we decided to walk, using the map I had printed from the Web before we left London. Tomorrow I think we will try the bus.
For train travel at the weekend there is a special weekend rate, so it’s worth asking for this or clicking "Weekend" on the ticket machine. Our train arrived promptly at 10:04 and we went aboard. We found a pair of seats at the end of a carriage, near the door. The journey from Bruges to Antwerp takes about an hour and a half. I fell asleep for part of it which made it seem shorter.
Our first surprise in Antwerp was the station. It is huge and there are platforms on several levels. The station itself is elaborate and highly decorative. It’s more like a cathedral or prestigious government building than the common conception of a railway station.
The architecture of the station is quite magnificent and many people stopped to take photographs or be photographed with it as a background.
We spent some time studying the details of the station which was quite overwhelming.
In the square outside the station there were also curious and interesting sights to behold, such as
this ornate base holding a tall lamp, or
a piece of modern art in the form of a wooden man with a window in his chest.
The town centre where the more important buildings and monuments are to be found is away from the station but at the distance of an easy walk. There were many things to see along the way.
As in Bruges, there were religious shrines and symbols.
We reached the Grote Markt (market square) where the Stadhuis (Town Hall) stands.
We had been feeding our eyes (and our cameras) but now we felt it was time to feed the body.
We had lunch in a small restaurant called De Stadshuys because it was in the square opposite the actual Stadhuis and from here we saw what looked like a 19th century horse bus drawn by two beautiful chestnut horses. It turned out that the bus is a modern replica, not an antique, but even so, it seemed worth going for a ride.
It was cold on the open top deck of the horse bus but there were blankets and these helped. We hoped we might get some good photos from the high vantage point.
The ride lasts 40 minutes and although the speed is about walking pace, it’s a good way to see parts of the town. As in Bruges, many roads in Antwerp are cobbled. While such a surface is long lasting it also gives a bumpy ride and in a horse bus this is additional to the rocking and jerky movement of the vehicle, all of which combines to make it difficult to take photos without blurring.
After the horse bus deposited us in front of the Stadshuis again, we continued walking, working our way back towards the station.
Near the station is the Antwerp Zoo. This was founded in 1843 (which may explain why the name is displayed in French). I have no idea how good the zoo is as we did not go in.
We found that we had just missed a train to Bruges and had an hour to wait for the next one. This gave us the opportunity to engage in further exploration of the station.
Despite the elegance of the design, the structure is quite complex because the station operates on three levels.
The station clock shows the date of construction as 1905.
While Antwerp shares similarities with Bruges (the inevitable stepped gables were much in evidence) it has its own character. It feels like a bigger, busier town. Some parts of it were dirty and and in need of repair. For people who like the thrum of the city and plenty of night life, it is probably a better choice than Bruges. On a short visit we could not do it justice and it would take much more time to form an adequate view of the town.
By the time our train arrived, there was quite a crowd waiting. Belgians are not shy at pushing forward so there was something of a bun fight to get aboard and find seats.
My impression of Belgian trains is generally positive. The carriages seem wider than those of British trains because the seats are roomier whilst the central aisle probably gains a few centimetres too. One disadvantage is that the platforms at some stations are lower than at others, requiring more of a climb to get aboard. This would make life a little difficult for the elderly and the disabled.
The chilly morning had given way to a cold afternoon and an even colder evening. Arriving back at Bruges, we did not fancy a long walk in the dark from the station back to our hotel. Enquiries revealed that buses 6 and 16 would take us near our hotel. A 6 duly arrived and the driver confirmed the route then, having asked the name of our hotel, not only to told us when we reached our stop but also gave us directions on from there. This fits the general pattern of good humour and helpfulness that has characterized our interactions with the locals since we have been here.
Sunday, March 27th 2011
This is the weekend when the clocks go forward. The hotel thoughtfully put a printed "important message" in our room to remind us. It means that we have an hour’s less sleep. I do wish they would stop messing about with the clocks in this way.
Today we are taking the same train as yesterday but going only half as far – to the city of Ghent, the second of the cities recommended to us by the tourist information office. At the station we again bought a weekend tariff ticket and then had a train within minutes.
The day is overcast, though the sun is trying to break through, and it is again cold.
On arriving at Ghent station we were met by a pair of collared doves who had a nest in the platform canopy.
Ghent station is smaller and far less elaborate than Antwerp’s but the concourse is prettily and colourfully painted.
The exterior of the station is an unusual turreted design, like a castle, with a tall, off-set clock tower.
The station is not in the more interesting part of town. On arrival, we had to work out which transport would take us to the centre. With a little help from a local, we took a tram, having bought day tickets at a ticket machine. We got out at the Vogelmarkt ("Bird market") and started exploring.
At this point Ghent seemed far less picturesque or interesting than Bruges. We saw numbers of large impressive buildings, some old and of traditional pattern, but I found the style hard to characterize. Tigger felt it is more French but I am not so sure about that. It is true that I notice more vestiges of the French language here than in the other two towns but that could simply be a matter of chancing on them here and missing them elsewhere.
As it was Sunday, very little was open and there was a Sunday hush over the whole town. We eventually found a pleasant cafe for a rest and a hot drink. Afterwards we continued walking and eventually came upon the more interesting and picturesque part. For lunch, we found an inexpensive veggie place selling ready prepared foods and a choice of hot soups.
In this street, a cable carrying electricity and lights had become a depository for old shoes.
While Ghent has its share of traditional stepped gables, many other styles are also in evidence.
This building, reminiscent of Wedgewood designs is dated 1706. White relief on a red background creates an elegant as well as colourful finish.
The Gravensteen Castle (“Castle of the Count”) was first built in the 12th century and still cuts and imposing figure with its well preserved battlements and turrets.
As in Bruges, there are plenty of churches in Ghent and plenty of religious iconography, as befits a country where the majority religion is Catholicism, I suppose. A favourite, to contrast the softly feminine Virgin holding the Christ Child, is the violently macho Archangel St Michael.
He is often shown, as here, waving his sword and trampling on a dragon who supposedly represents Satan.
This monument celebrates Hubert and Jan (or Johannis) Van Eyck, Flemish painters who were born in what is now Belgium. I don’t know why the pair look so snooty unless that’s supposed to be painterly gravitas gone slightly awry.
A slightly different sort of monument, this one is the Great Cannon, situated in a small square named after it, GrootKanon Plein. I have to admit that I do not know what purpose it served but I bet St Michael would like to get his violent little fingers on it.
Feeling a little buildinged- and monumented-out, we decided to go for a tram ride. We had, after all, bought day tickets and might as well use them. This is actually a good way to tour the city.
We caught the tram at the castle and went with it to the terminus called Flanders Expo. There we stayed aboard (actually, I dozed off – so much for seeing the city!) while it ran back the other way to Wondelgem. Here we were turfed off but as this place just a suburb, the middle of nowhere, so to speak, we remained with the tram until we were allowed to board again.
By the time we reached the centre again, we were beginning to feel that we had seen and done enough, so we started back towards the station. Refreshments were in order so we made for the station buffet.
As we approached the buffet, from the pretty windows and carvings, we gained a hint of what was to come.
With its tall pillars and painted-dial clock, the buffet was like something from a past, more elegant, era. There were wall paintings, too, and a colourful tiled ceiling. Despite having been redecorated (perhaps many times) it retains its ancient charm.
Having had coffee, we decided to stay on for an early supper in these pleasant surroundings. The menu was entirely in Flemish and we sought the assistance of the waiter.
The waiter, it turned out, was the only person we encountered in a service position who had no English at all. He had to fetch two more colleagues who between them managed, with a bit of a struggle, to elucidate the menu for us.
Having finished our meal we saw that a train would depart for Bruges in about 10 minutes and so we hurried to the platform. We were pleased to find it was a double-decked train of the sort that is also common in the Netherlands. Naturally, we chose seats on the upper deck, where you have a better view out.
I think such double-decked trains would help alleviate the chronic congestion problems on the British railways but for that to be possible, bridges and tunnels would need to be raised or tracks lowered and I imagine that the cost would be prohibitive.
Back in Bruges, we went to catch the number 16 bus to the hotel. A single journey would cost 2 euros each so Tigger tried the day tickets that we had bought in Ghent. They worked! We got back to the hotel without further expense.
Bruges remains the prettiest of the three towns we have visited. The other two have their individual characters and points of interest and are worth a visit, but I think Bruges is over all the most attractive. On the other hand, it is smaller than the others and people keen on nightlife and other activities might prefer other livelier towns.
Monday, March 28th 2011
The morning of our return to London is bright and sunny, though with a slight chill on the air. We got up and went for breakfast as usual and then returned to the room for the last time to close our bags and make sure we had packed everything.
The plan is to take the train to Brussels straightaway, deposit our bags in a locker, and explore the city until it is time to check in at Eurostar. Perhaps I will get a belated chance to speak French.
When we reached the bus stop near the hotel, we found it was closed. This meant we had to set off and find another one, dragging our bags along behind us. This is a chore at the best of times but the Belgian cobbles make it even harder work, not to mention noisier.
We found a bus stop and enquired of each driver whether the bus went to the station. We were third time lucky. After our experience with the day tickets yesterday, we asked whether we could buy a day ticket here in Bruges and use it in Brussels. Apparently not, the reason being that the Brussels buses are run by a different company.
The train we caught was 10 minutes late and therefore missed its slot, with the result that it had to follow a slow train to Ghent, after which it was able to resume normal running speed. We were glad that we had chosen to go early or we would have been worrying that we were going to miss our connection.
At Brussels we tried without success to make the luggage lockers work but they grumpily refused to operate. In the end, we gave up and took our bags to the left luggage. We would have had to pay more because they charge per item but we managed to stuff Tigger’s bag into my larger one and save money!
We then set out to explore Brussels. By chance we found ourselves in what turned out to be a Moroccan or Middle Eastern district and had mint tea in a Moroccan cafe.
I had had a lengthy conversation in French on the train but now I could hear French spoken all around me. We were looking for the cafe where we had had lunch on our Waterloo courier run (La Plume – De Pluim) but didn’t manage to find it. (See A trip to Waterloo.) Instead, we had lunch in a brasserie called "Le Faucon", which was very French, and where I felt I was in comfortable familiar surroundings.
After lunch we had time to go for another walk. Up the road from the restaurant is the Porte de Hal (Hallepoort), set in a pleasant garden or park.
The Hal Gate dates from the Middle Ages when Brussels was a fortified town. It was one of seven gates in the inner wall of the city fortifications built in the 14th century. These fortifications, measuring 8 km in length were dismantled in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Hal Gate alone survived because at that time it was used as a prison.
In the 19th century, the Gate became one of the first museums of Belgium and its exterior was modified with the addition of sloping roofs and a neo-Gothic façade. Today it remains as a cherished reminder of Belgium’s past.
The gate is set in a fine park where today people were enjoying the warm weather and the sunshine. Unfortunately for us, though, we had to start back to the station to reclaim our bags and check in for our Eurostar departure.
We had been advised to visit the main centre of Brussels but because we had relatively little time to spare, we didn’t pursue that idea. In the event our visit to the Moroccan area and the Porte de Hal was interesting enough in the time we had. Even so, we left feeling a little cheated because Brussels seemed worth a longer visit. Perhaps we will manage to spend a longer time here on another occasion. I would certainly like to get to know it a little better.
Our trip to Belgium was a success and we enjoyed it greatly. Tigger organized it all, together with our days out, and made it all fun as she always does.
Apart from passing through Brussels, we spent the whole time in Flanders, the Flemish part of Belgium. Flanders impressed me as a modern, efficient and clean country (very Dutch in that respect) that also keeps a careful eye on the historic and beautiful vestiges of its fascinating past. The people were very kind, helpful and good humoured, and in this respect they added to the pleasure of our stay. They are rightly proud of what they have.
I find it sad that this beautiful and attractive country should be so divided politically and culturally, with the threat of break-up continually being mooted, but whatever the future holds, I am hopeful that the Belgians will face it resolutely and conquer any vicissitudes.