Bou­tique Bel­gium

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

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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.

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