Belgium, September 2012
This year my annual leave has been reduced, yet little would you know of that with all my flying about! It will be further reduced next year, thanks to the Croke Park Agreement. With that in mind I was doing a routine check on the computer of the leave I had taken, when I noticed they had counted 3 of my free days, including 2 Sundays as Annual Leave. Thus, I discovered I had 3 more days of leave to take than I had imagined. What to do with them?
I’ve always intended to see Bruges, so why not now? Whilst I was at it I thought I may as well see the cities of Ghent, Antwerp and indeed Brussels. I took a look at the Aer Lingus website and found a reasonable fare direct to Belgium’s capital. Earlier in the year I had liked the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel which I’d stayed in during my visit to Beijing., especially the thick comfy bed. I noticed the Four Points in Brussels was rather cheaper than city centre hotels, so I booked there for 4 nights.
I wasn’t expecting too much from Brussels and my first impressions weren’t too good. The train from the airport to the city centre looked like something Hercules Poirot would have been at home in. It had the appearance of being a film set piece from the 1930s, with very dark green furnishings and a friendly-chappy ticket inspector who greeted his passengers with an upbeat Goedemiddag! Goedemiddag! He reminded me of a cartoon character from Tintin. A station guard blew a whistle to start the train, a real blast from the past. On a more serious note I had nearly fallen with my suitcase into the big gap between the platform and the steps up into the train. I had taken a lift from Arrivals to the train station, but could not find a lift down to the platform. Likewise in Gare Centrale, the city centre station, I had to drag my suitcase up escalators and indeed many steps. I wondered what wheelchair users would do - take a taxi I guess. Just outside Gare Centrale was evidence of a person having relieved themselves copiously on the pavement. One would think it were a field of cows. Much rubbish blew about too. It was not a great introduction to Brussels.
I couldn’t see a taxi, so I decided to walk the 2 kilometres or so uphill to Ixelles, where my hotel was located. I ran the gauntlet of shouting gangster types from an ethnic minority as I progressed. Things quieted down as I approached my hotel, and indeed a very nice French speaking gentleman offered help when he saw me glance at my map. Once in my hotel I got a lovely welcome from the reception staff and things went uphill from then on.
Next day was Car-Free Sunday and, apart from the double wheeled vehicles, I had the roads all to myself as I explored the city. Families poured into the centre in their droves of bicycles, others skate-boarded or roller-bladed whilst some came in on horseback. In from of the Royal Palace was a festival of farm produced Belgian food, with stands selling all sorts of edibles. Farm animals in small enclosures were petted by children. Merry-go-rounds swirled in action as jazz bands and classical artists played and families spread out their picnic rugs. It was a jolly nice atmosphere and not a single drunk to be seen anywhere throughout the city. I wandered down to the Grand Place, alight with Mexican music and dancing, with a Scottish Bagpipe band in competition. Such a magnificent sight was this most magnificent of European city squares. Manneken Pis, the peeing statue in the back lanes, sported a yellow and black ogre’s costume for the day. I do not know how anybody located their own bike at the end of the day, so many deep they were, in so many places. The sun blazed in the blue skies above, and I opted to stay outdoors and enjoy this terrific joyful atmosphere. I wandered back uphill to the European quarter to get a real-life perspective on the Berlaymont building, and the EU Parliament building, so oft seen on the TV news. I must have looked approachable as I was asked directions by several people. God only knows how, I must have a fierce frown with the pain of the broken blisters on my heels.
On Monday I took a tour to Antwerp, Belgium’s second city and centre of diamonds. The old city centre was so uncrowned compared to the capital., and was resplendent with beautiful old buildings including the crow-stepped gables typical of Flemish cities. I enjoyed seeing some fine Rubens paintings in the cathedral, and if more time had allowed I would have loved to have seen his house. It was lunch time and I was a bit peckish, so I enjoyed some freshly fried frites from a chip-shop on a quiet calm square. For a while I could have imagined I was in Jerusalem, so many were the Orthodox Jewish gentlemen who wandered through the streets. I hadn’t realised that Antwerp is a great centre of Judaism. It is also a city of diamonds, and I visited a diamond factory and outlet where one of our group, a Chinese lady, bought a little piece of bling.
On Tuesday I joined a tour to the beautiful cities of Ghent and Bruges. Both cities are graced by canals with boat tours and charming buildings. Ghent has the advantage of having far fewer tourists. Its buildings are larger and more sombre. Bruges is packed with visitors and has more intimate streets lined with petite buildings of pastel colours. It was everything I expected it to be and reminded me somewhat of another Hansa city, Estonia’s capital, Tallinn. Some folk on the tour noted that the air felt more crisp here, and our lovely soft-spoken guide pointed out our proximity to the bracing North Sea coast. I had seen Ghent under grey skies but was fortunate that the sun came out for me in Bruges, where I enjoyed a most lovely boat trip through the canals. Whilst in the main square I rook the opportunity to visit the Basilica of the Holy Blood where I paid homage to a vial of red liquid which is supposed to be the blood of Christ washed from His body and taken back to Belgium by the Crusaders. As I hadn’t seen any gardens in front of the houses in Brussels, nor elsewhere (although a wander through Google’s Streetview does reveal some) I was relieved to see many beautifully kept gardens surrounding the suburban bungalows of Bruges. It looked like neighbour was in competition with neighbour as each set each other very high standards in the art of topiary.
On Wednesday I returned to Brussels Airport on a more modern train from Gare Centrale, yet even it had steps down from the passenger compartment with a big gap to the platform. As I joined the check-in desk I noticed Irish MEP Brian Crowley in front of me. Being a wheelchair user I felt like asking him how he feels about the wheelchair-unfriendly train service, but I decided to leave him in peace.