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 is the name given to the capital city, a metropolitan area and a region of Belgium. The city is better known as the crossroads of Europe. It's hardly central, but Brussels is a hub for rail, road and air traffic. And Brussels is the de facto capital of the European Union, as it hosts a number of principal EU institutions, but not the judiciary (Luxembourg). As a result, the word Brussels has become synonymous with the EU as a whole, and at times, with annoying bureaucracy.
Brussels has also given its name to the controversial vegetable known as the Brussels sprout. Wheeled out every Christmas, like Marmite, you either love them or loathe them. They originated around the Mediterranean region, first appeared in northern Europe during the fifth century, and were cultivated in the 13th century around Brussels.
I've ended up in a lovely area. The Grand Place (see uptop) 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 magnificent curly carved gables, astonishingly topped with gold sculptures, frescoes and other motifs on the Italianate baroque facades. These represent 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 peeing 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 colonnaded museums and galleries. The buildings are 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.
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.
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 a 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.
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.
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.
Settlement at Bruges dates back to prehistoric times. The city rose readily to importance as a trading port for wool (from Spain and England), spices and other exotica from Europe, Africa and Asia via Mediterranean shipping. Its prominence waxed and waned as its access to the sea became problematic. channels were cut and then silted up. Charles II lived here in exile in the seventeenth century. However, Antwerp gradually took over the role of leading city in the low countries. Bruges (or Brugge as it is known) then gained a new lease of life in the nineteenth century, one of the first tourist destinations. Today, its port is Zeebrugge.
The buildings are all perfect stepped square or curly gables. Each one is 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.
Alongside the river, the picturesque Princely Beguinage, guarded by a redbrick gate, was founded in 1245 for Catholic lay women (the beguines) who wanted ascetic seclusion. Today, it is a Monastery with a church and little houses set around a central green with old trees.
The streets of gothic brick houses (actually mostly neo gothic having been restored in the early twentieth century when the tourists first came) are laced together with picturesque canals, waterside cafes and weeping willows. I’m even directed, by locals, 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. It's 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.
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.
Must sees are the St Bavo's Cathedral (and numerous other ancient churches), the ornate Cloth Hall, the collection of structures around the Town Hall, the Royal Dutch Theatre, the grim, grey Butchers Hall, the Old Fish Market, the Bond Moyson building (socialist influence, dawn of a new era)in the Friday Market Square, the Tower on the former house of the Corporation of Tanners and various other palaces and university buildings.
I first heard of Ghent when I read Robert Browning's great onomatopoeic poem How They Brought the Good News from Ghent To Aix. Sadly, the whole historical incident described was just a figment of Browning's imagination. The real facts (well according to Wikipedia) are that Ghent came to importance as a port and university city, at the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie. The river meadows provided ideal pasture for sheep and wool. So, Ghent became the leading city for cloth during the Middle Ages.
By the 13th century, Ghent was the biggest city in Europe north of the Alps after Paris. The wool industry, expanded to form the first first European industrialized zone. It was so highly developed that wool had to be imported from Scotland and England. This was the basis for Flanders' good relationship with the countries of Great Britain. (Ghent was the birthplace of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.) Trade fluctuated due to ongoing European wars, especially the Hundred Years war between France and England. It's now the third largest city in Belgium, after Brussels and Antwerp.
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. This is another stunning and solid grey edifice, straight out of a medieval history book, with its canal moat and huge keep. Just wow.
Read more about Belgium here. Luxembourg next.
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