Belgium - Is it Boring? - Europe in the Time of Covid - Part 8

Author: Sue Rogers
Date: 4th September 2020

Train to Brussels


I am marvelling at modern technology, being able to sweep from Carcassonne to Brussels in an easy day, with just one change of train at Lyon. But we are summarily ejected from the train at Lille. They can't find a driver to take us onto Brussels. Though they can find one to drive it out of the station. An hour later another chemin de fer turns up and I'm eventually deposited in Brussels Midi. Which is also confusingly known as Brussels Zuid (South). There are signs labelling it as both. The station I actually want is Brussels Centraal. ( You would think that this should be Midi but no). It’s right adjacent to the Grand Place and my hotel which is located on a pretty little square just off this iconic landmark.

Brussels

It's a lovely area. The Grand Place is much more impressive than I recall (it’s been heavily renovated over the years) with the central lofty Brabantine gothic belfry tower of the City Hall filling the sky. This ’fifteenth century masterpiece’ is surrounded by gilded and all magnificent curly carved gables astonishingly topped with gold sculptures, frescoes and other motifs on the baroque facades, representing the trade guilds of the Middle-Age: mercers, Serment des Archers, Brewers, Bakers, Grease makers, Cabinet Makers, Stone Cutters, Earthenware Makers, Painters, Boatmen and Coopers are nestled amongst numerous Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns . A glorious hotch potch. It's really bustling at the weekend, much quieter on Monday, as most of the tourists are locals. they squat in groups on the cobblestones. You weren't allowed to do that last time I came. Just along a side street the Mannekin Pis statue of a boy peering is so diminutive you could easily walk by and not notice the number one tourist sight in Brussels.

I like walking round Brussels. It’s had a bad rep, for being worthy and boring, as has Belgium as a whole, but the warren of curving streets around the central square are vibrant and welcoming. Minutes away from the Grand Place it is definitely more peaceful, especially when the weekend is over. Here are the cathedral, huge and sturdy, the Royal Palace, facing onto a pleasant but small green park and an area lined with huge cuboid and colonnade museums and galleries, the area liberally sprinkled with Art Nouveau embellishments. Sadly, they’re closed on Monday, when I saunter this way and I’m going to miss out on seeing the works of my favourite artist, Magritte. Bruegel and Van Eyck are also variously touted.

A City to Get Fat In

The caveat is that Brussels is definitely a city to get fat in. The side streets are crammed with waffle stalls, (oozing cream and ice cream) chocolate boutiques and Belgian frites stands. The chocolate and waffles offers are frequently combined, making for tempting, but even sicklier and more calorific dining.

I'm settling for a set menu in a smart restaurant in an elegantly glass domed and frescoed Galleria. Raw herring followed by steak. Slightly healthier if I don't mention the superbly cooked chips. It's delicious.

My Hotel in Brussels

The Brussels Novotel is in an over renovated step gabled building superbly located for the views, night life, Grand Place and the station. It’s just shame that the rooms, though spacious have no character whatever, verging on the slightly tacky, with the laminated cupboard fronts. And the staff give the impression that I’m getting in their way by being a guest. They forget to hand me my bag of toiletries (this is how it’s done in Covid times) and my free bottle of water.

Trains in Belgium

Day trip to Bruges today. Trains in Belgium are not a great experience. The stations are gloomy and don't seem to have any lifts. There are no seats on the platforms either, unless you count the ledge at the bottom of a couple of the pillars. It's just about possible to perch on those crushed alongside all the other waiting passengers. Some of the coaches are totally covered in graffiti. IMHO these pieces of art are well executed and a decided improvement on the original design. However, they've obliterated all of the carriage markings, so its impossible to know what part of the conveyance I'm entering. The shiny silver carriages are especially intimidating. They remind me of Strelnikov's train on Dr Zhivago. Inside, the upholstery is ancient and needs a good vacuum cleaner applied.

There’s a sign indicating the next stop, but it’s incorrect - it's one station behind. And don't even think about looking for electric sockets. Even between stations for some time as we traverse the metropolitan sprawl of Brussels the tracks are lined with paint sprayed concrete.

Bruges


I was choosing between Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp for outings. Bruges is the most highly rated in all the guides and is only a very distant memory, so I'm going there first. The hotel receptionist has also told me that there are rising numbers of Covid cases in Antwerp, so I've put that to the bottom of the list. Maybe another time.

UNESCO recognised Bruges, is said to be one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and one of several competitors for the title ‘Venice of the North’. As billed, it is beyond charming and also thronging with tourists, mainly locals and all wearing masks. They’ve brought in new laws this weekend. Face coverings are now mandatory all the time, even outside in shopping streets.

The buildings are all perfect stepped square or curly gables, each one unique, the churches and halls have soaring towers that somehow manage to stay aloft. The most famous, unmissable landmark is the 13th-century city hall belfry, housing a municipal carillon comprising 47 bells. I have lunch under the tower of the church of our lady – the second highest brick tower in the world. The streets of gothic brick houses (actually mostly neo gothic having been restored in the early twentieth century - Bruges took to tourism early) are laced together with picturesque canals, waterside cafes and weeping willows. I’m even directed to the most photographed spot on the main thoroughfare: waterway. boats, greenery and the belfry slanting across the corner. This really is a Disneyland visit, a theme park city, somehow not real or inhabited, with its lines of chocolate shops and chic perfectly positioned restaurants serving up tourist menus at exorbitant prices.

Ghent

I'm apprehensive now about Ghent. Apart from the half hour walk from the station to the centre, Ghent is utterly delightful, however. Montreal rather than Quebec, Charleston rather than Savannah, Ghent rather than Bruges. Like Bruges, Ghent has canals, boat tours and elaborate towers, but this time with more soul - edgier. A melange of architecture, art nouveau melded to the medieval merchants’ houses, interspersed every so often with a modern twist – stylish glass apartments or the wood panelled giant that is the new library.
A boat tour is a far more attractive proposition than it was in touristy Bruges. It saves me walking and delivers me to the Gravensteen Castle, another stunning and solid grey edifice, straight out of a medieval history book, with its canal moat and huge keep. Just wow.

Luxembourg next.

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