Tag Archives: Belgium

Brusells ‘La Grande Place’ – Medieval Ghent and Bruges

“Put away your plans, maps and preconceived notions and follow the clouds above, if the sky is too blue then track the sun or the stars.  Borders or time constraint exist only for the timid – just go.”               Le Fabulist

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If one travels extensively it is not unusual to meet like-minded men and women, who share the same passion for exploring new vistas and then much like storybook nomads move on seeking the next great unknown. A touch of pride is always present in listing where and when, but most of all to come up with the most exotic, remote or truly interesting destination considered beyond the trodden path.  Seeking the opportunity to see and experience that which I don’t view as normal daily fare is the sine qua non of my personal ‘joy de vivre’.  In conversations between travel aficionados one is often challenged to come up with a personal favourite and I often surprise by naming  Bruges and Ghent in particular and Bruxelles en passant.  It appears to be uniquely my own bias as no one I have encountered in Canada has ever come close to naming Belgium as a travel destination, not even as a go-through or stop-over.   Yet, for  such a smallish country in area and modest population it boasts of a long and interesting history as well as numerous sites worthy of anyone’s close-up look.  It’s a bilingual country, French and Flemish but you’ll also hear German and as in  most of Europe almost everyone can speak a least a rudimentary English.  

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I always by-passed Bruxelles but this time I decided to at least spend an entire day checking it out; I liked what I saw promising myself a longer look next opportunity.  It’s a cosmopolitan city with an intriguing mix of people, international business and presently the de facto capital of the European Union.  Since the end of the Second World War Brussels has become the polyglot home of major European Union (EU) institutions, international organisations, politicians, diplomats and civil servants.  Importantly it is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) a vital military counter-balance to Soviet threats through the Cold War and now to the renewed super-nationalist ambitions of Vlademir Putin, a would-be Tsar of all the Russian people.  

The imposing structure standing at the border is a symbolic reminder of the traditional French/Belgium amicable relations. 

(Note: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge — once for medium, twice to zoom in.) 

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As soon as you cross over into Belgium here’s an absolute must-do, indulge in Belgian fries (aka French fries but better, oh sacrilege) with a couple of Merguez (spicy sausages) served in a paper cornet and a huge dollop of rich mayonnaise, wash it down with one of the splendid local beers, a guaranteed delightful snack anytime.   I found myself stopping all too often on the byways of Belgium at one of the numerous roadside snack trailers.  In truth, it became a test of will to keep on driving after the third stop in just a couple of hours.  

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In Bruxelles (Brussels if you prefer) the city features many pedestrian avenues and ample squares to shop for flowers, browse, stroll, or sit at an outdoor café and enjoy a refreshing brew.   In August a hugely popular, intricately designed carpet of flowers draws people from far and wide; the first was created in 1971 on La Grand Place by the landscape architect E. Stautemans.  Although he’s created floral masterpieces in many other great venues, he claims,“Nowhere is the carpet more beautiful and distinguished than in the unique, ancient surroundings of the Grand-Place in Brussels”.  Can anyone doubt his words? 

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The beauty of the carpets are mostly due to the lovely begonia. Chosen for its qualities of robustness, resistance to bad weather and strong sunshine the  versatile flower guarantees the long life and freshness of the carpet. It also gives it a kaleidoscope of colours – from vivid splashes to delicate pastel shades, to the parti-colored and white flowers which reflect the light so well.

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La Grande Place is the central square of  Brussels and a favored tourist destination. It is surrounded by guildhalls, the city’s Town Hall and the Breadhouse built in traditional Flemish architecture. 

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Many European cities lay claim to offering the grandest squares or piazzas but other than St. Mark’s in Venice in my view none quite equal La Grande Place.  Ara, a dear friend has proposed London’s Trafalgar Square based on history and architecture as worthy of inclusion too, perhaps, but I form my opinion based of my proclivity for taking photos.  As at India’s fabulous Taj Mahal a few years earlier I could find no angle here that didn’t produce a fine result and personally that is the main criteria on which I make my choice.    

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Hopefully my admiration concerning ‘La Grande Place‘ was adequately displayed in the previous photos; but the time came to drive off to Ghent a beautifully preserved medieval centre and presently a modern thriving city. Ghent is the capital city of Flemish Belgium, a prosperous town with a quarter million inhabitant.  For my part it was a fortuitous discovery a few years ago originally meant simply as a stop for a quick look-see on my way to Amsterdam.  I was so intrigued that I stayed two days and have since returned twice and surely more in the future.  I was delighted to be greeted by a handsome four-legged Belgian guarding the medieval gateway.    

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Ghent’s wealth in the early medieval period was based on international trade, the import and export of wheat, and the manufacture of luxury woollen cloth.  The city’s trade benefitted from being traversed by a river linking it directly to Bruges and the North Sea hence to the world.   There is so much to see that it is an injustice to share so few photos but self-discipline is required as not to overload and risk boring you.  

The classic tower and the battlement of Gravensteen Castle and the splendid architecture along the old Graslei harbour. Much of the city’s medieval architecture is remarkably well preserved and when required restored to its former state by skillful artisans. 

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I head into St. Bavo’s, the city’s venerable cathedral founded in the 7th century, to see for myself how extravagant were the city’s wealthy burghers in parading their riches; the Catholic Church often was the grateful recipient of great art donations.

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Highlights of the interior decoration include the Baroque high altar (1702–1782), in white, black and red flamed marble, the rococo pulpit (1741–1745), made in oak, gilded wood and white and black marble.  There is a wealth of precious art and artifacts to discover and admire in the vault, along the walls and adorning the several alcoves and side chapels.  

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Visiting the great cathedrals of Europe is one of my great joys yet I’ve seldom come across one that has so much art on display anywhere your eyes wander – notice the intricate patterns of the marble floor and elaborate doors to side chapels.

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Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s famous Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece of 1432, ranks among the most significant works of art in Europe.  Works of historical importance in art such as The Adoration of the Magi along with a much coveted (by invading armies) trend-setting triptich created by Jan and Hubert. 

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The cathedral is home to the work of another artist of note Peter Paul Rubens: Saint Bavo enters the Convent at Ghent. 

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A splendid grouping of admirers in this massive sculpture paying homage to the Jan and Hubert Eyck majestically sitting in the middle.

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The city centre is truly a joy to walk about, admiring the architecture; I felt especially grateful to the local citizens for lovingly preserving their magnificent cultural heritage.  

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The Gravensteen  Castle is strikingly illuminated at night; in fact the entire centre of the historic town is off-limits to cars and thus a great walking venue.  

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Another of the great angles to take photos – here we have St. Nicholas Church and opulent storefronts of wealthy merchants.  

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As all good things must come to an end I regretfully bid adieu to Ghent and drove west to Bruges, a short drive  towards the North Sea.  I lost nothing only gaining more appreciation for Belgium as Bruges vies with its larger neighbour for medieval splendour while oozing a particular brand of charm and hospitality.  Best described as a picturesque medieval town with most of its medieval architecture intact its historic city centre is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.  

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Quite by happenstance not long ago I happened to stumble on a fine British film titled, ‘In Bruges’.  A benighted ganster played by Colin Farell, who is awaiting for a murderous assignment to come his way expresses his heartfelt sentiment and initially I was dumbstruck when vehemently he repeated over and over, “Bruges is a shit hole!”  On the other hand his partner in crime was delighted and attempted (in vain) to show him the errors of his ways.  In keeping with the scenario many of Bruges delights were on cinematic display.  I highly recommend the film as it was excellent on many levels, praise I don’t make lightly, with fine acting all around and a solid  plot. The Belfry is the setting for a tense and surprising dénouement.  As I’m sure we all feel, I was delighted to exclaim to my viewing companion, “Hey, I’ve been there.”

Start off by visiting the ‘Markt’, a pleasant and busy square; then head for the Belfry, the lofty 13th century medieval bell tower.  It houses a splendid carillon 48 bells.  The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.

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After admiring the vista, to recover from the tower’s steps head to one of the many restaurant patios located in the Markt, grab some food, personally I love the delicious Belgian waffles, have a drink and catch your breath.  The square is wonderfully alive and oftentimes a military band performs upbeat marching music from the large gazebo strategically located right in the centre.

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Luckily I found a comfortable and in retrospect for the price bargain accommodations in the best part of town for a visitor.   My small hotel was right in the centre of the foreground with a friendly restaurant below where to enjoy my breakfast on the patio.

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Belgium is famous for its canals and Bruges is nicknamed ‘Little Venice’ – a great way to get oriented is to start with a boat ride around the canals that ring the centre of town. This pleasant jaunt gives access to places you wouldn’t see either on foot or bike. At one time, it was considered the  ‘chief commercial city’ of the world and to this day it retains a significant economic importance thanks the Leie River, its port and direct access to the North Sea hence the world. 

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Many of its medieval buildings are notable, including the Church of Our Lady whose spire reaches 122 m (401 ft), making its tower one of the world’s highest brick structure. The sculpture Madonna and Child which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo’s only sculpture to have left Italy within his lifetime.   On my first visit to Bruges, when I first entered the church I walked the right hand aisle and in a marbled alcove, I spotted the striking statue of a Madonna and Child.  Strangely, I immediately thought of Michelangelo having previously admired his splendid Pieta inside St. Peters, in Rome.  A  small plaque confirmed to my delight (I felt really clever) indeed it was created by the sublime Renaissance artist.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure I was not observed, tip-toed up to the base and very respectfully passed my hand over the lowest part of the statue to touch what Michelangelo had magically worked centuries ago.  The photos are not of the best quality as at that time I did not have a digital camera so this is the result of taking close-ups from print photos.   In the interest of being honest the anecdote related was during my first visit decades ago when not even a plain glass partition was deemed necessary, ah the good old days.  

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The memory is all the more poignant as presently the very same statue is now secured behind a bullet-proof glass and the viewer must stand at least 5 metres (15 f.) distance away.  The result I learned stemmed from the wanton attack in 1972 on the Pieta (soon after my own moment of happiness) by a mad man who took a hammer to the beautiful face.  I suppose in retrospect I might have been more circumspect and admired the statue from a distance, yet I’d be less than candid if I say to not holding this as a cherished memory.  

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Oh, I almost forgot and that really would have been a big miss – since the middle-ages Bruges has been famous for fine lacework with a specialized local technique and patterns that are immediately recognized by knowledgeable enthusiasts.  Delicate lace curtains festoon windows  particularly in the olden parts of the town, a tradition that is very much alive to this day. 

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On my first trip years ago I had the good sense to purchase a large lace table cloth for my mother; on my last trip I came to realize what a bargain I had in comparison to today’s prices.  

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There you have my sincere compliments paid to Belgium and its people; this small, effervescent country is justifiably proud of a long and brave history.  Think of it as a deep basket of interesting sites, culture and art (many recognized by UNESCO), wonderfully preserved medieval towns, mouth-watering chocolates, good food, exceptional beer, friendly folks and a quality sure to please the budget conscious traveler, easy on the pocket book.  No doubt I’ll return yet again,  to act on a desire to explore and enjoy a whole lot more that I know is awaiting in the  Plains of Flanders.  

A note to my ‘très gentil’ followers and, so we are clear, I don’t mean to appear self-important but that’s how you my friends are referred to in the parlance of the blogger.  At any rate,  I’ve been chided by some of my Canadian friends for neglecting this  immense and often times grandiose country.  Living in British Columbia most certainly provides a plethora of beautiful scenery and spectacular vistas.   Therefore in the near future I’ll offer a selection of memorable views taken over the years in and around Vancouver and roaming the ways and byways of this richly varied province.  Until then, à bientôt!  

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Bastogne and Waterloo

Some years ago I was heading for Amsterdam, that was the supposed plan but in my travels nothing is ever set in concrete – my journey started at scenic Aix-les-Bains, in the French Alps.  I’d been late getting started, exchanging long goodbyes with Danielle, my ‘cousine’, who while packing a gourmet lunch kept reminding me of this anecdote or that family event.  She’d been my childhood playmate and admittedly there was always something that would crop up, “Hey, Jeannôt do you remember … ???” It was pleasant reminiscing and yet I’m not much on farewells (they tend to depress me) so that I was trying to make my get-away without being overtly brusque.  Finally, some two hours late I was free to go and happily looking forward to the drive through unfamiliar territory.  The night before I’d looked over a good Michelin map (the very best in my opinion) of Western Europe and although a little over 1000 kliks I wasn’t daunted as in the past I’ve done that and even more in one day’s driving.  As well, I had decided, more or less, on a route that would take me through the rugged Ardennes Forest, a first for me, hence to Luxembourg.  Amsterdam was obviously now  out of the question.

Driving in Europe is a joy; the landscape at the very least scenic, often spectacular and its hard to avoid yet another historic site, a famous castle, a pivotal battlefield and such was the case when I pulled over to one of the convenient rest areas frequent along European roads (take note Canada!). Munching on a tasty ‘terrine de canard‘ sandwich, the roadmap spread out on the picnic table somewhere in the Ardennes Forest my eyes widened as I noticed Bastogne located not far ahead along my way.

(NOTE: To improve your viewing experience click on the photos below to enlarge – once for medium, twice to zoom in.)

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Any history buff, especially of WWII, will recognize Bastogne as the scene of a surprise attack when Hitler ordered one final and desperate advance with a powerful mechanized force to slice through the advancing Allied army, cut it in two and recapture the strategic port city of  Antwerp in Belgium.  The 1944 winter siege of Bastogne produced the celebrated response, “Nuts!” from General McCaullife when handed an offer to surrender.  Looking over the written answer the German commandant not understanding the colloquialism asked for a clarification: the emissary who delivered the note deemed it more apt to translate ‘nuts’ as “Go to hell!”  That aside proves yet again there’s always somebody who think they are more eloquent whereas in my opinion ‘nuts’ was crackling terse and to the point. Without further ado off I went to Bastogne and discovered much more than expected; an interesting museum, impressive monument to American casualties and a neat small town very much aware of its past importance.  

Below, the author of the celebrated quote, General McCaullife; incidentally he was in command only because the Commanding Office, General Middleton for that area happened to be elsewhere at a conference.  Such happenstance often leads to unexpected results, in this case fortuitous for the Allies.  

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Baptized by Winston Churchill as the Battle of the Bulge, it turned out to be the most costly in lives of any single battle fought by American troops during the entire war.  The fierce fighting took place during the week of Christmas, starting on the 20th and ending on the 27th with the collapse of the German offensive when their Panzer units ran out of fuel.  The outcome was disastrous to the Wehrmacht who not only lost men in their thousands, killed, wounded or taken prisoner, but a massive loss of vital equipment.  The victory certainly contributed to shorten the war as henceforth the Allied troops encountered a much weaker opposition than otherwise would have been the case.  So much for Hitler’s military genius, he’d have been better off heeding the advice of his professional army planning staff.  The man in charge of crafting the battle plans Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt never believed in its chances of success and stayed well clear behind the lines.  Clever? Or a chicken shit? 

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The impressive and I must say inspired star-shaped design of the huge monument is yet today yearly visited by thousands of American veterans who often bring family members along.   The pride evidenced is well-justified as it was a crucial victory achieved at a bloody cost of limb and life. 

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I spent a considerable time wandering around taking it all in and imagining how it was back then, the snow blowing, explosions, screams, soldiers on either side scared to hell but relentlessly attacking or desperately defending. 

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I’m confident one could make a case for studying the effect on a soldier’s state of mind depending on the uniform he wears.  No doubt if I didn’t know which side was on the right side of history I would have opted without a second thought for the cool almost theatrical German uniforms.  Come to think of it Hitler understood the value of propaganda, of massive show pieces such as the Nuremberg rallies, pump and circumstances, multitudes of flags, precision marching and smart uniforms.   If one is curious check out ‘Triumph of the Will’  (on YouTube) the impressive recording of the 1934 rally filmed by Leni Riefenstahl.  To this day she’s considered by many critics as the finest ever woman film director; notwithstanding the subject matter, high praise indeed. 

The museum was well designed with an interesting display of scenes replicating battle photos taken on the spot during the devastating event.  Lending depth-of-field, the background scenes were painted in, whereas the immediate foreground was recreated with authentic equipment, guns, military gear and life-like mannequins closely resembling the photos.  Well-lit the overall effect was realistic and informative.

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In contrast American Gi Joe garb was less than awe-inspiring.  Below a five star general, Dwight Eisenhower who payed a visit after the battle was won.  The displays were rather imaginatively set-up. 

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In the meantime the terrified populace huddled in their basements and prayed for an end to the mayhem.  War is hell!  I can’t think of three words that are more appropriate to describe any situation other than ‘I love you’. Now lolling about in the shade of one of the tanks that saved their present home, I wonder how much these young people knew about the town’s historic past.

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French fries are certainly well known but they don’t compare to Belgian ‘patates frites et merguez’.  If I say so, believe me, I’ve sampled them in every corner of France but in Belgium, straight from the frier, drenched in mayonnaise along with spicy merguez sausages it’s a treat.  As I was trying to avoid dribbling all over my  map to see where to next, another name jumped out – Waterloo! Certainly I couldn’t resist having a look at that battlefield, a pivotal result that surely changed European history for ever.  Imagine had Napoleon won? Well,  let me try. Today most of Western Europe would have been unified for two centuries instead of now slowly integrating into the European Union and the rest of the world would have been altered beyond imagination.  For one there surely not have been two world wars, at least not with the same participants on either side.  However, the Little Emperor lost and that was that, still it’s interesting to speculate, right?

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So off I went to see what there was to see and again so much more than I had expected.  The field of battle was much larger than I had imagined but on thinking back at what I’d learned in history class, the opposing armies were massive, even by modern standards.   I have throughout Western Europe stood on ancient battle fields, from Hannibal’s encounter with Roman legions, through several major wars, and yet I am always struck by how peaceful the countryside becomes after farmers reclaim their land and lovingly bring it back to its rightful purpose of growing life-giving food.  

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A fine museum displayed on a clever electronic board the day’s momentous ebbs and flows of battle and the resulting carnage.  I took the time and made the arduous climb up the man-made hill (there’s an oxymoron as every square inch of the huge mound was built by women carrying the earth on hods strapped to their backs,) to where the imposing lion roars a challenge towards France as a reminder of who won.  As I took each of the 229 steps up I  imagined the backbreaking labour but when were women not abused physically and economically?  The hill and monument were ordered by the King of the Netherlands to honour his son for bravery and sustaining a wound.  Sheesh, it wasn’t even fatal, imagine if he’s actually died on the field of battle? A hill twice as big and an entire pride of lions? 

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P1090508The battle as I was taught in a Canadian high school text-book was a brilliant victory by Wellington.  Years later I learned that in actual fact he was conceding defeat and surrounded by his personal guard was preparing to leave the field when the German Army under Gen. Blucher showed up at the crucial moment and swung the tide of battle against Napoleon, who was waiting for his own reserve army under Marshall Grouchy.  French history books make much of the fact Grouchy was a Royalist and who betrayed his people by refusing to join the battle.  Napoleon is famously quoted as repeating over and over, “Ou est Grouchy?”  I’ve a suspicion there must have been a few choice epithets included.  As I’ve been fortunate enough to read history books in both languages as adjudged from the perspective of winner and loser, I can safely say that almost always ‘revisionism’ rules the day.  Historians tend to have their own national bias, they are almost always subsidized and research grants accepted from by interested parties, inevitably, even in good faith, they wind up shading the unappetizing truth when such appears.  The probable best chance to get near the actual truth is to read accounts from a third and neutral party and still it would only be an approximate guess at how it really was on the ground at the time, there and then.

The modest monument to the German army is hidden in a copse, miles away and if you didn’t know what and where to look, it would be invisible.  See what I mean? 

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So there you have it.  I apologize for the poor quality of some, well if I’m going to be candid, most of the pics, but they were all taken with my digital camera from printed pics taken with my long serving Nikon.  Next time, I’ll provide much better visuals of Bruges and Ghent, I promise.  
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