Much smaller than its neighbour France, the Kingdom of Belgium has four lovely cities – the capital Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp. And a visit to the Flanders battlefields round Ypres and Passchendaele is a must, writes ROGE R ALL NUTT – where New Z
Compared to France the country is quite flat, it rains a lot and surprisingly it lacks the riot of flower colours so evident in France. Brussels, a dual French and Flemish speaking city is the headquarters of both the European Union and NATO, the bureaucrats of the former are well known ( and usually scorned) for the many decisions and directives on just about everything in everyday life affecting Europeans. It is mainly famous for two attractions the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis statue. The Grand Place is one of the great squares of Europe and is usually packed with sightseers. It is surrounded by the beautiful old buildings of the craft guilds, which also include covered arcades which is good, as Brussels gets rain on average 220 days a year. When I was there in July the place was being prepared for a “carpet of flowers” in the centre of the huge square. Just off the square is Manneken Pis – a quite small statue of a small boy peeing. Up the hill from the Grand Place is the Royal Palace, in an area of refinement and with good views over the city, as well as the Modern and Ancient Art Museums. Given the frequency of rain, it is fortunate Brussels has many museums. One of the most popular, in a country famous for its beer, is the Brewery Museum, conveniently located in the Grand Place. St Nicholas Church is also a splendid building. We were based in nearby Ghent, which together with Bruges, is one of the famous canal towns of Belgium. We had a small first floor private studio overlooking a canal and it was a pleasure watching the passing parade, especially the hundreds of people cycling on the flat paths. It was in a very multicultural area with an amazing array of foods and I found everyone to be friendly. Ghent, once the largest medieval city in Europe after Paris, is a delightful city, which still showcases its medieval jewels clustered around the city centre. Tourist boats ply the canals and are a great way to get a perspective of the old city. The buildings along the Korenmarkt, overlooking a canal, glisten in the sunlight while the 14th century belfry towers over the old Cloth Hall. From the top of the belfry you get great views over this city. Other imposing buildings are the huge Post Office and St Nicholas Cathedral. Inside St Baal’s Church is Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s famous painting Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Ghent has its own castle, the huge Gravensteen, with moats and turrets.
The Town Hall contains many historic items, including plaques depicting the interlinkages by marriage of many European royal families. It was inside the Town Hall that the Treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814 – the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812 between the United States and the United Kingdom. Ghent has a comprehensive tramway / light rail system and one intriguing oddity is to see trams heading to Moskou; the name dates back to the time of Bonaparte. Closer to the North Sea, Bruges is also a delightful canal town. The shops lining Zuidzanstraat and Steenstraat are excellent boutiques and it is amazing how many shops sell Belgian chocolate, much of it handmade by the different establishments – some even offer free samples! The large open Market Square faces another tall belfry, while nearby, reached through tiny alleys, is another square the Burg with the City Hall. Apart from the canal tours, many horsedrawn carriages are on offer, as well as walking tours. The largest church, the Church of Our Lady with its sculpture by Michelangelo Madonna and Child, is currently undergoing major renovation. It was a dreadful day, driving rain and wind, when we went to Antwerp so my view is somewhat clouded. Again the central core of the city contains many fine buildings, gathered around the Grote Market from which narrow, cobbled streets radiate. It is good for wandering but easy to get lost. The Cathedral of Our Lady is a huge Catholic church noted for its high tower, lovely façade and works by Peter Paul Rubens, whose house in Antwerp is now a museum. One doesn’t usually head for the train station unless catching a train, but the huge, stone- clad Central Station in Bruges is an attraction in itself. With a vast dome above the waiting room hall, the station is now widely regarded as the finest example of railway architecture in Belgium. In 2009 the US magazine Newsweek judged Antwerpen Central the world’s fourth greatest train station. The world- famous Diamond District of Antwerp is located near to the station. The pouring rain led me to one interesting experience. I knew about the famous red light districts in Amsterdam and Hamburg, but while returning to my parked car ( and getting lost) I stumbled across Antwerp’s version around Vingerlingstraat just north of the Grose Market area. Around 200 girls are said to work there, but they weren’t doing much business on that rainy day – I was even propositioned a couple of times. The area was once regarded as dangerous, but with a constant police presence, is rather tame. Some of the women were most attractive! No visit to Belgium is complete without a visit to Flanders, especially Ypres and Passchendaele. New Zealand lost thousands of troops in battles during World War I and the country is still highly thought of in the region. We arrived at Ypres a day before the Tour de France was due to start a stage ( flagged off by the King of Belgium) and preparations were being finalised including a “motif” of bike riders on a roundabout leading into the town. The entry to Ypres is through the famous Menin Gate where the names of 55,000 allied soldiers killed in the quagmire and trenches are inscribed. The Last Post is sounded here at 8.00pm every evening. It is an incredibly moving ceremony. Around the large Market Square and the Town Hall ( the Flanders Field Museum is inside) are two lovely churches. The major one is St Michaels’ which is this year holding a fascinating exhibition of art works ( paintings, collections of stones and military clothing) reflecting the horribleness of the war. Nearby the small St George’s Church, built by the British, contains many kneelers stitched with the crests of the regiments who fought near Ypres. At Passchendaele, about 10 km away, we visited the evocative Passchendaele Museum which had a very comprehensive exhibition on the war with special sections for both New Zealand and Australian regiments – the loss of life and injury at over 65 per cent was quite horrifying. The museum includes a new experience “the dugout” when you get the feel of claustrophobia and fear living underground and in the trenches with bombardment going on around you. Fittingly red poppies were growing everywhere as we drove around. There are over 150 war cemeteries dotted around the area, many with both New Zealand and Australian bodies. These cemeteries are beautifully maintained and among all the headstones ( many unnamed) the flowers and lawn provide colour. One of the largest is Tyne Cot Allied Forces Cemetery near Passchendaele. At Diksmuide the “trench of death” is another evocation of what the trenches must have been like – the heavy rain had turned the realistic trenches into muddy pathways, which was appropriate. The 84- metre Iser Tower is interesting, but is focused on Flemish involvement. Not far away at Vladslo, a German War Cemetery provided a contrast, no headstones and 20 names on each flat plinth. No colour at all. Inside the cemetery is a sculpture Grieving Parents by Kathe Kollwitz, whose only son died close by. Other lesser- known towns include Liege and Namur and south of Namur the forested area of the Ardennes is very a great place for hiking among valleys, streams and picturesque small villages.
Looking through Menin Gate at Ypres. Far right: Tyne Cot Allied Forces Cemetery, near Passchendaele.
Light rail / tram en route to Moscou, Ghent.