The Low Countries lies at a confluence in northern Europe, between Germany to the east, France to the south, UK to the northwest and buffeted by the great North Sea. From this area, many nomadic peoples have used as staging ground in their migration to the British isles. The great movements of the Anglo-Saxons occurred from these parts.
This unique position facilitated the people of this region to become great traders, building on the commerce that plied the English Channel and far beyond (the Dutch built a gigantic trading empire in Indonesia).
This essay isn’t really a story.
It is more a summary of the cities we touched when we lived in Amsterdam. You know, Belgium being just a ‘stone’s throw’ from the Netherlands. And within 2 hours we would be in the thick of the country. Historically the northern and western sections were part of the Netherlands. But religious differences in the late middle ages led to a split and a union with the Catholic Walloons. Today this is a small country that punches above its weight. So where shall we begin?
We start off with Gent and Brugge, two of the many Flemish cities that arose in the Middle Ages as Europe climbed out of centuries of dislocation after the fall of the Roman Empire.
A city named like a bridge
Initially built on the wealth of textiles (Brugge was more famous for its tapestries), the merchant princes commissioned wonderful residences. As we walked through the cobbled streets of the old town center, we could bear witness to the wealth that flowed in the region. And it should have been wealthy! Because all over Europe’s palaces and castles one is likely to find Flemish tapestries draped on the wall. They were so prized by Europe’s nobility that it was hung up for display rather than for walking on. Incredibly, there were no significant “imitations” in other parts of Europe to supplant the Flemish.
And Laces. You can still find many small shops that retail beautiful lace work. Ranging from brooches to shawls, these hand-made mini pieces of art are a wonder to hold and a treasure to keep. This, along with tapestries were the unique products of Brugge. Of course today one can also find “Belgian” chocolates here as an item for tourist souvenirs. But above all, we say : buy some handmade lace work. And if budget affords, a piece of tapestry. We bought cushion covers with tapestry on one side.
Like quite many coastal and riverine towns in Europe, Brugge is ‘riddled’ with canals. At €15pp back in the day, the cruise took us all around the town. This is a great way to get around at the start of exploring such towns as it gave us an idea of where to walk – when we got back on land. The hour-long boat ride was really enjoyable as we stopped to admire the numerous ornate buildings from half millennia ago.
Also spelt as Ghent, the great industrial city of the middle ages welcomes us as we explored what was its original port. Today, it is a collection of quaint houses since the port had since silted up and no longer serviceable. These houses along the former port are now luxury homes in the middle of a relatively expensive city in Europe. Known as the “Graslei”, the pictures shows some of the narrow Flemish styled houses along the banks of the river. Can you spot the city’s narrowest house?
This was a very prosperous city in the middle ages, with some literature suggesting it was one of the wealthiest in Europe. Along with its neighbor Brugge, the city was the center of the wool trade and the famed tapestries.
Getting around Gent is a breeze, with its network of tramways. The old center is well preserved and still boasts of cobbled streets. Known as the ‘Koren’ area (not a spelling error), it is the site of the old post office, the belfry and the St Bavo church. So one place takes them all in! Traffic is restricted in these parts and you can walk at ease. A plus is that they are all compact and within very short distance from each other.
And speaking about walking this was the way we got the castle of the counts of Flanders – the Gravensteen. “Steen” means stone and the name literally translates to the count’s stone – an apt description of the moat and bridge castle. It has not been used for about 600 years – being abandoned for more luxurious grounds. This fortress have served many purposes, including a stint as a prison.
The most memorable thing to do is to stroll the old town center at night. Have to admit that our photographic skills and equipment weren’t up to the task but we tried! The lighted Gravensteen and Koren area looked really beautiful. A true difference between night and day.
Now because we were on a quest to the city (buying a rock anyone?), we only briefly stopped at the city hall and Cathedral. And that was only because we need to draw cash… apparently credit would be accepted but not to the extent today.
From this point of view, if there is only stop in Belgium it has got to be Antwerp. While there are monumental buildings in the city, the most “important” thing about this city is that it is the home to a “girl’s best friend”. That’s right, Antwerp is the city of diamonds. More diamonds get traded here than anywhere else, as merchants move parcels and parcels of the polished stones to be set in all manner of jewellery. You cannot imagine how friendly the shop owner was… because he led us to a backdoor and up a building where folks were not only setting stones onto metal but also classifying the stones. A very privileged private tour. No recording devices, only what remains in our grey matters.
Wow. We have a gag order with them not to tell more…
The capital of Europe?
We close off Belgium with its capital, and also a leading city within the European Union network of administrative centers. You see, the EU does not have a capital since it is not a country. And the various organizations of this union are housed in different parts of Europe, mainly in the Benelux and France.
This one was from way back. 1996 to be exact. We were actually on our way to Scandinavia but the tour we took drove through Belgium and onward to Germany for the ferry to Denmark. Before we got into Brussels, we stopped by the famous Atomium, home to the Atomic energy watchdog. It is a mandatory photo stop, even though there is nothing that we can see there. Afterall it was the office of the global watchdog. Did we see the dog? Nope, but we keep searching…
Well onto the center of Brussels with that large square with baroque style buildings surrounding it.
Oh they call it the Grand Place. Wonder why? What’s so grand about it? The ornate buildings that surround this rectangular ‘square’?
Anyhow, we were there when a beer festival was held. Naturally it we got into the action by ordering beer and sausages… and got sidetracked from all the touristic activities of taking photos. Though we did see the little ‘pee pee’ boy if you know who we are referring to. We would have missed it except for the tourists leading the way.
Belgium is a tiny country yet still its capital is the center of the European Union. In addition, NATO’s European headquarters is in Brussels! Quite a feat for such a small nation in the heart of Europe.
Food in Belgium can be a gastronomy of Dutch/German and French and can be said to be the one thing we did not capture on film. It is said that the Belgians might have managed to absorbed the strengths of each cuisine into a melange of their own. You can have sausages, confit du canard… After a great dinner washed down with Belgian beer (for which there are soooo many), and perhaps try the world renown waffles?
During our various times in Belgium we had been focused on Flanders, and it contains such wide contrasts. It has medieval towns and cities to modern day metropolises, the earthly lacework to the chic of diamonds. The food is great, beer’s plentiful. What’s there not to like about Flanders? And some day, we will cross over to the French side that is Wallonia too.
These cities we’ve touched were more than amply connected by public transport, and nowhere more important than the train network. And it is cheap and fast too. It took us just half an hour to get from Gent to Brugge (28km), while the journey to Antwerp (52km) took an hour. We often used Gent as our base when bringing friends and family to Belgium and you might want to consider that too.
Belgium was touched by us repeatedly over 1996 till 2005
Bonus section: Have you heard of a town called Lier? Well apparently it is known for its beers…darn missed that. We were there because Mel had a business trip. There is a UNESCO heritage site of Beguinage where women led religious lives (note: not as nuns). But we missed that since we only had a day. But it was enough to see a few sites of this wonderful little town: