There are several reasons for visiting Belgium. Mine fall into two categories: Food (see – frites, moules, waffles) and Nice Old Things. This time, however, a third motivation presented itself: Following my Boyfriend Around Cities While he Makes Notes on 19th Century Statues for Some ‘Interesting’ Historical Project. Plus waffles.
For attractions which elude me, my boyfriend (a history student at Newcastle) has devoted a significant chunk of his brain to studying Belgian history, and decided to travel to the country to carry out ‘research’ for his dissertation. Seeing an opportunity to annoy him in the same terrain as well as through passive-aggressive online jottings, I tagged along (plus, I really wanted some waffles.)
Due to the train strikes and the general costs of moving to another country, I took the cheap option of a ten-hour night bus from Lyon to Brussels. This was a refreshing, restful, and well-equipped ride, or at least would have been had I just returned from a remote desert island full of poisonous ants. Nevertheless, I made it to the Gare du Sud old school style – without Google Maps, due to lack of charging ports – and was successfully reunited with post-Eurostar Jake.
The list of historical sites was somewhat relentless, but allowed us to see much that the city had to offer. On the first day, we visited the Grand Place, in all its gaudy golden glory; the Palais Royale, where we had a very earnest conversation about our plans to obtain EU citizenship; the spacious Parc Du Cinquantenaire, and finally a quick glance in the Broodhuis – the Gothic revival building that housed the city’s bread market.
Lunch was at the kind of over-priced hipster café that Jake loves and I resent, and we also shared a waffle at a café near the Grand Place. The afternoon was spent at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts, where I went to a lovely / wacky Magritte exhibition, and Jake to something for his dissertation. Due to my lack of sleep from the overnight bus, I became slightly delirious and starting seeing floating hats and coffins around the city centre.
Our AirBnB was a beautiful art deco house, tall and narrow with stained-glass windows in a jewelled palette of colours. There were also two cats (my favourite bit) and a huge selection of Belgian beers (Jake’s favourite).
The next day we took an earlyish train to Courtrai,about 80 minutes from the capital. Courtai was one of the richest cities in Flanders back in the 14th century due to its central role in the wool trade, and was also the site of the (apparently very important) Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302. Although the city is somewhat unassuming on arrival, its historic centre is pretty and well-preserved around a cluster of streets; and the stout bridge gates have stood heavily over the river for centuries.
We visited the Courtrai History museum, which was interesting to Jake, and slightly pointless to me. I may have had it on the wrong setting, but the audio guide seemed to consist of a lot of shouting in Flemish. Then I became very cold (Belgium was almost freezing at all points of this trip) and we set off towards Ghent.
The beauty of Ghent’s historic centre is built largely on its centuries of wealth, due to the textiles industries developed in the city. Its canal, slips like silk through the medieval centre, sable stone buildings frozen in time. If only it were a few degrees warmer…
Gravensteen castle thrusts with imperial magnificence over the narrow streets, and the Gothic cathedrals – St. Bavo and St. Nicolas – spike the cool grey landscape.
Jake took photos of buildings that I will be filing under ‘Some Cold Statues’, and we wandered around enjoying the streets. Although we tried to see the spooked-lamb version of Christ (the Ghent alterpiece in St. Bavo’s cathedral), the queue was so long that Jake would have missed his Eurostar had we attempted it; instead, we popped inside the castle (too expensive for a tour, unfortunately) and visited the Fine Arts museum. This boasted a great collection of Belgian works from across the Early Modern period as well as some more contemporary movements. Dinner was frites, which I had been (literally) dreaming of since booking my bus tickets.
Back to Brussels for the evening, where we ate pizza and chocolate in a very stylish apartment. Sunday was the day of our departure, and we set off on our eco-friendly bus + train travels, back to France and England.